Saturday, June 30, 2012

My old music cassettes brought to life

Most people have probably thrown away their old cassettes. In these days of digital music and cars that only have CD or mp3 players, it's easy to see why. But I kept mine and they have recently gained a high profile. When The Word magazine's David Hepworth asked readers for photos of their old cassettes, I sent one via email. The picture below shows how they appeared across two pages in the March 2012 edition.
Most of these tapes date from between 1975 and 1985 and reflect my fairly eclectic tastes during that period, from rock to funk via folk and psychedelia. I have never boxed them up. Wherever I have lived, in London, in Shropshire, in New Zealand, they have always been racked up on shelves. Right now, they even have their own wooden cabinets, which were considerately installed in my work room by the previous owners.
If you'd like to read the article on Cassette Culture, you can see it online by clicking on this link:
http://developmenthell.ceros.com/the-word-digital-edition/march2012/page/58

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Wizard A True Star - on Facebook

You can visit the 'A Wizard A True Star' Facebook page using this link:
http://www.facebook.com/groups/288957367354/
 
For me, this is the greatest record ever made.  I bought the album in 1974 - it was the record that awakened my sense of musical wonder. Although it is now almost 40 years old, it still sounds, as the rock writer Barney Hoskings puts it: "more bravely futuristic than any ostensibly cutting-edge electro-pop being made in the 21st Century." 

A Wizard A True Star  was a single album that had more musical ideas on it than many artists could muster in a whole career. It ranges across a variety of styles, reflecting a precocious talent channelling everything from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to classic soul and Jimi Hendrix. At a few minutes short of an hour in length, the album pushed the limits of just how much music could fit on a vinyl record. 

This advert from Rolling Stone in 1973 gives some idea of how Todd Rundgren wasn't content to be the sensitive singer-songwriter his fans and his record company might have wanted him to be. I had come to know Todd via the single I Saw The Light, which was a radio play hit in the UK. I decided I wanted to investigate further. At the record shop, I couldn’t afford the album from which it came, Something / Anything, because it was a double, but I was attracted to the cover of his recent release A Wizard A True Star. So I bought that instead. It’s fair to say the record blew my mind. I had grown up listening to the Beatles and then Glam Rock and bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. There wasn’t much light and shade in my record collection. AWATS changed all that.

 From the opening fuzz tones of ‘International Feel’, it was clear I was going to have a unique sonic experience, with short bursts of song ideas merged together in what Todd has described as “a stream of consciousness”. That first side has 12 tracks on it; it's like watching a fast action cartoon. The mood and style of side two is in marked contrast; Todd takes a more measured approach, with the middle of the side devoted to his soul medley. Each track is a given the chance to soar. The songs still seque into each other, but do so beautifully, particularly towards the end, as the fuzz guitar of ‘Hungry for Love’, tails off to the solo piano of ‘I Don’t Want To Tie You Down’ which in turn echoes away into the guitar frenzy of ‘Is It My Name’. And then we conclude with the majestic, anthemic ‘Just One Victory’. 

Because he had crammed so much on the record, Todd urged the listener to crank up their stereo to get the full effect. In fact he suggested people tape the record and then crank it up, to avoid having the stylus jump off the vinyl. 
First issues of the vinyl LP were dye-cut, giving the record sleeve an odd shape, and psychedelic images on both sides of the gatefold cover. The original album package included a ‘band aid’ poem written by Todd’s friend Patti Smith, as well as a postcard encouraging purchasers to send their name to be included on a poster, which was given away with Todd's next album.
 
Rundgren has always made it clear this was not a solo performance, like much of Something/Anything. Indeed, the list of musicians on AWATS includes some who would later become top session players, including the Brecker Brothers, Rick Derringer and David Sanborn. The contribution of drummer John Siomos (who later played on Frampton Comes Alive) is also important, providing the solid groove for much of the album’s more soulful moments.

Todd went on to make many classic records, but none was as influential and cohesive as this one. I must have been through four or five copies of it on vinyl. I used to play it literally all the time. Todd was never one to repeat himself though. He only became more willful in his desire to keep his fans guessing, and ultimately lost a lot of his original audience along the way. A Wizard, A True Star  is, for fans who have stayed the course, the high point of a prolific musical journey.

When Todd announced in 2009 that he was going to tour and play the album in its entirety, I decided to set up a Facebook page as a tribute. I wasn't able to go to any of the shows, as he only played a few in the US and one in London in 2010, so this was my way of getting involved and spreading the word about an album that remains a very special part of my own musical journey.  On the FB page, I have collected together as many of the contemporary photographs as possible, together with video of the 2009 concerts. I have also included video of Todd appearing on the Daryl's House show with Daryl Hall and a performance of I Think You Know  from 2011 when he toured the album Todd.  Check it out: http://www.facebook.com/groups/288957367354/

Monday, June 18, 2012

Joni Mitchell in the 70s (3) - Hejira

As an artist whose favoured means of expression is painting, Joni Mitchell empathises with the view that the true artist should make no attempt to please their audience, only to please themselves. As she stated on the Miles of Aisles album: “nobody said to Van Gogh, paint A Starry Night  again”.

Having really stretched her creativity on the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with tremendous results, Joni was stung by the criticism it attracted (see the previous Joni thread). The album has depth, sophistication, gorgeous harmonies and wonderful, gifted musicians. What’s not to like?  It’s hard to believe people could have been so angry and disappointed by it. But it wasn't Court and Spark or Blue and people don’t like change, especially when their favourite artist becomes less accessible. 
Mitchell’s new direction was already set, though. A year after ‘Hissing’, she released Hejira, a quite different record musically, but with more of the familiar confessional style in its lyrics. The words form the bedrock of the album and are amongst the best she ever wrote. In his review for Melody Maker in 1976, Michael Watts noted that Hejira is “the first Joni Mitchell record for which the song sheet is indispensable. Her use of language...is pretty marvellous. As a popular lyricist in the romantic tradition, she has no equal outside the Broadway musical.”

A hejira is a journey of discovery - the bleak terrain of Joni’s hejira is reflected in the soul searching of the lyrics and the simple yet haunting musical accompaniment. Joni began using her now distinctive guitar voicing on this album and it also marks the beginning of a prominent role for the electric bass on her records. The inclusion of Jaco Pastorius in her musical backdrop was an inspired move. I think it represents one of the all-time great musical collaborations; a unique sound and interplay that brought out the best in both Joni and Jaco.

Mitchell said of Hejira: "the whole album was really inspired... I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it... The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” This album is the one where Joni asserts, or reasserts, in the face of such criticism, her need to evolve. In the DVD ‘A Woman of Heart and Mind’ she tells how in 1971 she had rejected Graham Nash’s marriage proposal because she felt she couldn’t subsume her desire for personal growth to become just a part of someone else; that she owed it to previous generations to go out and live life to the full. On Hejira, the song Amelia is as much about Joni as it is about Amelia Earhart. Joni said: "I was addressing it from one solo pilot to another... sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do."
 Joni's performance of 'Coyote' at The Band's farewell concert
 was one of the highlights of The Last Waltz

Joni the existentialist seeks out meaning in her emotional turmoil, while also reflecting an awareness of mortality. On the title track, Joni sings…”we all come and go unknown / each so deep and superficial / between the forceps and the stone.” While on the final track, Refuge of the Roads, the image is of “a photograph of the earth / taken from the moon / and you couldn't see a city / on that marbled bowling ball / or a forest or a highway / or me here least of all.”
The original Norman Seeff photo used on the montage for the Hejira album cover
Reviewers at the time, while appreciating the lyricism, didn’t exactly warm to the music. Creem magazine’s Ken Tucker wrote: “It took me almost two weeks of steady listening to decide that this is a good album. I knew from the first that Hejira contained her most audacious lyrics—the preciseness of her imagery is extraordinary and unobtrusive, the latter no small part of her achievement. But I sure didn't hear any catchy melodies."

Again, reviewers could not resist attacking Joni for her movement away from the popular song. Watts spoils an otherwise excellent review of Hejira by suggesting that “On Summer Lawns only Shades Of Scarlet Conquering could be said to be tuneful and accessible and even that was a difficult song.”  I mean, that’s a frankly ridiculous comment, but it is a good illustration of the limitations of music criticism at the time. Rolling Stone’s review said that while “it recoups much of the ground lost with last year's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, both musically and lyrically… in the end Hejira is a bit too cerebral for its own good.”

All this probably made Joni even more determined to strike out on her own. One of my favourite lines from the Hejira album is “and we laughed at how our perfection would always be denied.”  The lyric has many meanings, I’m sure, but it could easily be applied to the album itself - and to the purity of Joni Mitchell's artistic expression in the late 70s. 
A beautiful rendition of 'Amelia' performed at Wembley Arena in 1983. 
I was there and I have never been to a better sounding arena show.

See also:

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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jimi Hendrix - Sunday Night at the Saville, 1967

‘Sunday Night at the Saville’ was a popular date on the rock calendar in 1967. Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager, had leased the Saville Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End, to put on plays and pop concerts. It was at these Sunday Night shows that Jimi Hendrix first came to the attention of a wider audience. His first single, Hey Joe  was in the charts and the band were playing at various club venues in the south of England. The Saville Theatre's classical three-tiered design and 1500 seat capacity offered a unique showcase for rock acts in such a central location. The Jimi Hendrix Experience played at the Saville a number of times in 1967.

A while back, a friend of mine casually mentioned he had seen The Who and Jimi Hendrix on the same bill in 1967.  As a huge fan of both bands, I could barely contain my jealousy. Then he showed me the programme for 'Sunday at the Saville' on January 29th 1967, the debut appearance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It's a fascinating document of the time.
The cover was designed by the Dutch artists Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger and their collective known as ‘The Fool’ – famous for painting the Beatles Apple store on Baker Street and for the inner record sleeve  design of Sgt. Pepper.
Inside, the psychedelic design reads, “Brian Epstein Presents This Sunday At The Saville…” The opening act was The Koobas, then the Jimi Hendrix Experience followed by an intermission and then The Who.

A few months later, at Monterey, Pete Townshend would win a famous argument about not wanting to follow Jimi on stage because his act was so explosive. But at this stage in January ’67, four months before the release of Are You Experienced, Hendrix was still developing his act. The flamboyant stage costumes were not apparent at this point but Jimi was already showboating and playing the guitar with his teeth.

The Saville Theatre program says of the Experience: “A couple of months ago the name of Jimmy Hendrix was unknown, and now his first release ‘Hey Joe’ has made the Jimi Hendrix Experience a household word. Hendrix, with bass guitarist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell have rejected the traditional coloured group smoothness and plumped for an incredible gyrating dynamism that is both exciting and extraordinary. With fine lyrics, talented and professional musicians, a fresh original approach, and with you the audience, one lives the Jimi Hendrix Experience.”  The language certainly belongs to another age (oddly referring to the JHE as a 'coloured group').  The "incredible gyrating dynamism" is fairly appropriate though.

The Beatles themselves attended various 'Sunday Night at the Saville' concerts, including this first performance by the JHE. Two days later, Jimi and the band returned to the Saville to record a promo video for Hey Joe. They played another Sunday night show at the Saville on 4th February and did two shows there on the 7th May.

Then on 4th June 1967, The Experience played their last show at the Saville - supported by The Move and Procol Harum - before Jimi’s triumphant return to the US for the Monterey Pop Festival. At that Saville show, Jimi began the set with a performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles album had only just been released that week, which shows what a huge influence the Beatles were on other musicians at the time. 1967 was an amazing year for music - a unique moment, never to be repeated, with such a concentration of talent and ground-breaking records being released almost every week. Hard to imagine now, but for all four Beatles to show up to see you play, you just know that Hendrix was the guy everyone on 'the scene' wanted to see at that point. 
Jimi Hendrix with The Who backstage at 'Sunday Night At The Saville' in January 1967. Jimi is holding Pete Townshend's Rickenbacker guitar. 
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - promo for 'Hey Joe'
filmed at the Saville Theatre, London, January 31st 1967

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

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


Context is everything and Joni’s achievement in crafting such a magnificent record as ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ was tainted by the negative reaction of the critics at the time, a reaction which now looks foolish.

The author Leonore Fleischer concluded her 1976 biography ‘Joni Mitchell – Her life, her loves, her music’, at the moment when Joni had just released ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’. It is interesting to note how the tone of the book changed at this point, as if the biographer was perplexed by the shift in her musical style.

Fleischer notes that with her previous album Court and Spark, “Joni had come a long way from the Newport Folk Festival days, and she had brought her audience with her every step of the way.” 

Fleischer did a good job of dissecting the song lyrics, but her asides displayed her doubts as to the quality of the music. For example, she comments that Joni must have expected the puzzled reaction of fans, “for her dedication of this album is so long and so rambling as to be almost an apologia.” You can feel the sense of betrayal.

Fleischer notes that with her previous album Court and Spark, “Joni had come a long way from the Newport Folk Festival days, and she had brought her audience with her every step of the way.” 

Sadly, many of those loyal followers were to desert her after hearing The Hissing of Summer Lawns  – an album of beautifully crafted songs played by gifted musicians – but not what her audience was expecting. Although the album went gold upon release, it was the last major selling album of Joni's career. As she steered her art away from folk in the direction of jazz and world music, she drove away those who loved her for the simple, unadorned confessionals of the Blue album, and the breezy pop of Court and Spark. 

Joni herself described the reaction to ‘Hissing’ as the worst critical mauling she ever received. By no means all listeners were dismissive, but many critics and fans rejected her at this point, refusing to accept she wanted to explore new forms of musical expression.

Even now, after all these years of listening to it, I am still astonished by the sound of the record. On vinyl, you have not just the presence that all well mastered and pressed albums have; most notably, you have a mix that weaves the voices and guitars in a way that is truly exceptional. Certainly, this is not the work of some dilettante jazz wannabe, as was the common accusation at the time. This is sophisticated music, and played with such empathy by the band.

The quality of the music on display is unmistakeable from the opening guitar strains of ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’. Joni employed the band that had accompanied her around Europe in 1975, Tom Scott and the LA Express, augmented on various tracks by two other lead guitar players, Larry Carlton and Skunk Baxter, in addition to Robben Ford who provides the searing solo on In France… and the dobro on ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’. On backing vocals, she roped in messrs Crosby, Nash and Taylor.

It’s instantly different from what we’ve been accustomed to with Joni. Jazzy chords and a greater emphasis on rhythm and interplay. And if that wasn’t enough to contend with, she threw a spanner in the works with the second track. What’s this? Burundi drums and moog synthesiser? Lyrics that evoke jazz clubs and edgy urban scenes? This was another world entirely. Seen in the context of what was to come in terms of world music, it may not sound that radical. But ‘The Jungle Line’ appeared way before anyone had coined that term; way before Graceland and certainly pre-dating Adam Ant! It was a firm statement of intent and one Joni consolidated on 'Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter', the natural follow-up to Hissing, though obviously preceded by Hejira.


A more natural follow-on track to the opener would have been 'Edith & The Kingpin', a beautifully realised production, weaving vocals into the smooth backing track in a way that still mesmerises me 40 years later (I’m listening to my vintage vinyl copy as I write this).

The pace picks up again with Joni’s distinctive guitar leading off 'Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow'. Again, the lyrics are a departure from the observational/confessional type her listeners loved her for, and whatever they mean, they are irresistibly cool and evocative.

Shades of Scarlett Conquering is a little closer to the sound and the feel of Court and Spark, with piano and strings as the main accompaniment, but it’s a fitting close to the first side of the vinyl record. 


'In France They Kiss On Main Street' 
from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" by Joni Mitchell, 1975

The title track begins a sequence of songs on side two that deal with the complexities of supposed domestic bliss. The woman in the song has been given good reason to quit, but “she stays with a love of some kind, it’s the lady’s choice”.

The mood of sultry nights, of rich and exotic lifestyles less-than-perfect continues through the Boho Dance and Harry’s House, which drifts languorously into the Mandel and Hendricks tune ‘Centrepiece’ with a wonderful piano cameo by Joe Sample. Jazz, baby!

As Harry’s House fades out, the plaintive guitar intro of Sweet Bird drifts in slowly and Joni is once again alone, facing the compromises and the disappointments of the modern world:

Golden In Time / Cities under the sand / Power, ideals and beauty / Fading, in everyone’s hands…

Which brings us to the final song, Shadows and Light. Joni and her voice. An invocation, a prayer, you can almost imagine you are in church. It’s a fitting end to a spiritually uplifting and absorbing album. One the most brilliant records I’ve ever heard.

But at the time, some people just couldn’t see it. The final paragraph of Leonore Fleischer’s book reads thus: “It would be astonishing indeed if The Hissing Of Summer Lawns reached the same pinnacle of success that For The Roses and Court and Spark did. It is so much less accessible. The songs are not singable by anyone but Joni; less melodic, less personally engaging. The album marks the emergence of a total new style for Joni, no longer on her Magic Princess trip. Still poetical, it has taken Joni away from her customary and very popular subject matter – the fragile nature of the heart and the complex byways it takes in its search for another heart – and into avenues of expression that many of her listeners may be too perplexed to follow.”

And so it proved. The British music press was appreciative of the album, hailing it as a new high water mark for the decade. But American reviewers were unimpressed, and history shows their narrow-minded criticism to be quite ridiculous, now that 'Hissing' can be seen clearly as one of many creative peaks Joni reached in the 1970s.

For Joni, it was obviously a labour of love and a liberating experience to have her new compositions interpreted by musicians she trusted, having been on the road with them during the summer of 1974. And as history shows, over the next four years she fully justified her ambition, holding her own among some of the best musicians in the world.

There will be some who will say that from this period, they prefer Hejira. Fair enough, but that follow-up album to Hissing was fairly sparse musically and is chiefly admirable for its lyrical quality. I would contend that Hissing is far richer in its musicality, in the variety of the songs and the moods they evoke. As Joni herself said on the cover, “This is a total work”.

 see also:
Joni Mitchell in the 70s - Court and Spark