Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bob Dylan live in 1976 - A spirited 'Idiot Wind'

UPDATE: Well unfortunately, the kind soul who made the clip available has either taken it down or had it taken down for him. Shame, because it was a great, great performance by Bob.

It is the centrepiece of side one on Bob's 1975 album 'Blood On The Tracks'; a tale of a man misunderstood, interwoven with bitterness and personal attacks on a former lover. With typical obtuseness, Dylan denies the lyrics are in any way autobiographical, but it is very hard to believe that, given the proximity to his first break up with Sara, and the sheer bile he invests in the lyrics.

This clip shows Dylan on stage in 1976. I have no idea who the backing musicians are, but they provide a spirited platform for Dylan's delivery of the song, that captures the anger of the recorded version very well. It's great to see him relishing the chance to deliver the song and really investing the lyrics with the requisite bite.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ferry and Eno - 40 years on....

Far removed from the leopardskin and bacofoil beginnings of Roxy Music in 1972, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno are now advertising luxury brands. It seems their rivalry stretches down the years in mysterious ways.
Viewed from a passing taxi in the Central district of Hong Kong this week, there, on giant billboards are the two Roxy rivals vying for our attention as they have done ever since Roxy's breakthrough. Across the road from the hotel itself, Ferry is one of the featured 'fans' in a billboard ad for the Mandarin Oriental, while a matter of yards further along, Eno is seen beseeching us to consume Dunhill's wares.
In 1972, Roxy were a publicist's dream, with their exotic costumes, slicked-back hair and distinctive musical hybrid. They played up to that other-worldliness to the extent I can vividly recall a Radio 1 'Newsbeat' report that the band's synth wizard Eno was actually from Mars. Although by his own admission he was only semi-literate in a musical sense, Eno's flamboyant costumes were the focal point for the band. Look at any photo of them in their early days and Eno is at the forefront. The picture here of them on stage in 1972 shows how the audience's attention was drawn towards Eno.
Bryan Ferry is a fan of the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
It worked to their advantage when they were trying to establish themselves, but ultimately, it threatened to steal the spotlight away from Ferry, the band's undeniable leader since he wrote and sang all the songs. In retrospect, given their phenomenal output, Eno's departure from Roxy was inevitable. It is arguable which of them has had the more lasting influence, and frankly it doesn't matter, they have both produced great work over a long and, certainly in Eno's case, varied career. Roxy Music couldn't hope to contain two such big musical egos, and over the years we have been fortunate to hear what each of them, unfettered by the other, has been able to produce. In spite of his musical limitations, Eno must have added something to the Roxy sound, because those first two albums on which he appears have a distinctive vibe. And he proved his worth in his subsequent solo career, right from the off with his first album Here Come The Warm Jets and the hit single Seven Deadly Fins. His early ambient records, the Berlin albums with David Bowie, the collaborations with Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Daniel Lanois and others are all major landmarks in recorded music. Ferry has the edge in terms of being a traditonal songwriter and live performer, as well as being the pioneer of a distinctive style with Roxy that was quite unique. He still tours and although I haven't seen him live since 2005, at that time he delivered a surprisingly rocking show, driven on by the ever-dependable Paul Thompson on drums (announced by Ferry in time-honoured fashion as 'the Great Paul Thompson') with a twin guitar line-up of Chris Spedding and Mick Green, Lucy Wilkins on violin playing the Eddie Jobson solo from Out Of The Blue note for note. It was a fantastic gig, but the most remarkable thing about it was that Mick Green, the veteran guitarist from The Pirates, having just played a blistering solo,
And a few yards along the road, Brian Eno endorses Dunhill
collapsed, just fell over, like a tall tree, guitar still strapped to him. At first we thought it must be a joke, but after a few moments road crew appeared and a couple of doctors from the audience ran down to the front. Green had suffered a heart attack, from which he recovered (he's since died). Green was dragged off-stage and Ferry gave the scene a quick glance but the show carried on without missing a beat. No mention was made of it. On with the show, eh?
So cast your mind back to that wonderful period in 1972 when Glam was the new sensation and Roxy appeared on Top Of The Pops. One of the most exciting TV music moments ever.

Virginia Plain - Top Of The Pops, 1972

Re-Make Re-Model - Royal College of Art, 1972

Ladytron - Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972

Do The Strand - OGWT, 1972

Editions of You - Montreux, 1973

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Robin Trower - crossing the Bridge of Sighs

The rock trio format produced many great bands in the 1960s and 70s, from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience through Rory Gallagher’s bands, the early Thin Lizzy with Eric Bell and - one of my personal favourites - the Robin Trower Band.
Trower was a member of Procol Harum during their 60s heyday, but by 1970/71 he was forging a new sound and direction. His first post-Procol band, Jude evolved into the three-piece Robin Trower band and their first album Twice Removed from Yesterday established the blueprint they refined through the 1970s.
Early days of the RT band, with Reg Isidore (right)
Trower's guitar playing drew instant attention because of the similarities in tone and sheer power with Jimi Hendrix. The early comparisons with Jimi were valid to some extent. The Robin Trower sound did borrow from the master, but Trower was soon able to demonstrate that he had his own personal style that was as distinctive as Jimi’s. He was genuinely trying to forge a new direction for the rock trio and, as Charles Shaar Murray’s review of their second album Bridge of Sighs indicates, Trower was able to win people over with the sheer force of his playing.
CSM's review states: "
Trower and his sidemen seem to give the evoking of an atmosphere very high priority, which means that unless you’re prepared to sit down and listen hard, you’re going to miss the point completely. By pursuing a direction totally unlike that of any other three-piece guitar-led band, Trower may well be cutting himself off from a large number of potential listeners who are only interested in guitar pyrotechnics of the kind he is quite capable of playing if he so desires. However, what he is doing here is ultimately far more valuable."
The NME review of  'Bridge of Sighs' from 1973

"It's just a bit of a yawn," said Robin at the time, with regard to the Hendrix comparisons: "I guess it gives people something to talk about. People like to put you in a pigeonhole if they're uncertain. Maybe it makes it easier for people to accept what I'm doing, the Hendrix thing gives them something to hold on to."
Of course, the Trower sound had another key ingredient – the smooth soulful voice of bass player Jimmy Dewar who, along with drummer Reg Isidore provided the dynamic backing on the first two RT band albums. Dewar was undoubtedly one of the great British vocalists and his contribution was crucial in making their albums and live shows so memorable. This video clip shows what a silky smooth voice can really add in a rock context. It's an early version of Day Of The Eagle (from Bridge of Sighs) with different lyrics.

Isidore was muscular and frenetic - a key part of the band in the early days. But he was maybe a little too loose for Trower’s liking. Robin said at the time of the third album For Earth Below, when Bill Lordan joined, “'Reggie just started to drift a bit. I run a very tight ship”. And so in came the tall blond American Lordon, who had previously played with Sly Stone and, it was claimed (somewhat implausibly) with Jimi in the Band of Gypsies. Trower said they all knew when they got together that he was the right choice: “It was classic! He knew he was right for us before we did. He'd been into us from the time the first album came out and he's been trying to get hold of me ever since, cause he knew he was The Drummer. He phoned me up and said, 'I'm the guy you want. Don't listen to anybody else.' And he was right. He was absolutely perfect.”

My vantage point for Robin Trower at the Reading Festival in August 1975
The RTB were one of the best live bands I ever saw. And that run of albums, from Twice Removed… through Bridge of Sighs, For Earth Below and Long Misty Days were constants on my record deck at the time. I saw them live a few times, notably at the Reading Festival in 1975, when they provided the high point of the Sunday afternoon. I have this memory of the crowd getting in such a frenzy – it was a sunny afternoon at the end of what had been a typically sodden weekend (it poured down during the headline set by Yes on the Saturday night) and a kind of delirium came over the crowd during Trower’s set. At the climax of one of the songs, a great wave of cheering could be heard as a (good-natured) rubbish fight broke out across a no-man’s land puddle of mud in the middle of the crowd. I just remember this cloud of paper and empty bottles suspended in the air, the crowd seemingly spurred on by the excitement of the music.

The BBC recorded them for an In Concert show in early 1975 but then ruined the recording by releasing it on CD in the mid 1990s with fake crowd noise. I have the original, recorded off the radio, and Trower is incredible. It’s an old-fashioned ‘wireless’ recording, from the radio onto a Phillips portable cassette recorder,
complete with Pete Drummond’s between song announcements. I've never heard a better version of Daydream. It’s a must for any fans of the classic era Trower band. The band are at the top of their game, Trower's tone and fluid soloing have rarely been captured so consistently in one show. Apart from the version of Daydream, highlights for me are the new song Gonna Be More Suspicious which really jumps out of the speakers on the BBC version. Lady Love crackles with intensity. Too Rolling Stoned was an instant classic. Here's my recording of Daydream, and I have pasted links to a re-broadcast of the entire show at the foot of this post:

 I saw the RTB again at the Hammersmith Odeon on the tour promoting Long Misty Days. Trower provided a jaw-dropping volume on the title track with its wall-of-guitar intro. Although he has continued to make records to this day, his reputation rests on that golden period in the mid 70s and the trio format with Jimmy Dewar on vocals. Dewar sadly died in 2002. Robin Trower can be seen on the gig circuit, still playing the classic material. In 2005, when I saw him playing at the Mean Fiddler in London, the volume knob was still way up at 11. He began the set with a terrific rendition of Too Rolling Stoned. What amazes me about this clip is that my camera was able to process the sound so well. It really was very loud.   

BBC In Concert Program, January 1975
Day of The Eagle, Bridge of Sighs, Gonna Be More Suspicious

Fine Day, Lady Love, Daydream

Too Rolling Stoned, I Can't Wait Much Longer

Alethea, Little Bit of Sympathy, Rock Me Baby

Reading Festival, 23rd August 1975

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Pinner to LA - Elton's big breakthrough, 1970

As a depiction of how you can go from being a pop fan to being a pop idol in the blink of an eye, the story of how Elton John and Bernie Taupin went from sitting in the crowd at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival watching Bob Dylan, to being ushered into Dylan’s presence at an LA club a few months later, is hard to beat.

In 1970, Elton was living at his mother’s house in Pinner, a suburb west of London. with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. He was frustrated at their lack of success and had considered giving it all up and becoming a session player. His recent album Elton John, had failed to capture the British public’s imagination, but it had gained a measure of recognition in America, where Elton was considered a new talent to match the singer songwriters of LA’s Laurel Canyon.

Russ Regan, an LA-based A&R man, picked up on the airplay the Elton John album was getting and wanted to bring Elton, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray out to LA, where Troubadour club owner Doug Weston agreed to give them a six night residency. Having never been to America, but having worshipped its music from afar, Elton and Bernie went from the obscurity of a suburban living room in Pinner to the very centre of the music business in one move.
Elton and Bernie Taupin in 1970
Their opening night at the Troubadour, with Quincy Jones, Mike Love and Henry Mancini in the crowd, was the pivotal moment that changed Elton and Bernie’s lives forever.

The audience had come to hear the new British balladeer. Before the show Neil Diamond took the stage and introduced Elton: “Folks, I’ve never done this before, so please be kind to me. I’m like the rest of you; I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album. So I’m going to take my seat with you now and enjoy the show.”

Elton himself recalled: “It was very hot and smoky and a great vibe. We came on; I was in flying boots and hotpants and did (a heavy version of) Sixty Years On. They weren’t expecting it. They thought it was going to be a low-key thing, because the music on the Elton John album was very orchestral. But with a three-piece band, we went out and did the songs completely differently and just blew everyone away. We knew halfway through the show that we were on fire.”
I have discovered some rare footage from 1971 of the trio playing Sixty Years On, which shows perfectly how they took this song and beefed it up. Elton pounding the piano, Nigel using mallets with gusto on the drum kit while Dee uses his bass like a lead guitar.

On the second night at the Troubadour, Elton had looked up to see another hero, Leon Russell staring straight at him: “I nearly shat myself”. Then, one night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Elton and Bernie were led to a booth for an audience with Dylan himself. Elton told Mojo magazine: “Bernie and I were just like, Fuck!” Dylan said he loved the song My Father’s Gun, from Tumbleweed Connection. “We were like (frozen and pertified) Uh-Huh. Dylan has an aura about him. It’s not frightening. It’s just - foo, blimey”.
Melody Maker Sept 5th 1970 notes Elton's success in LA
Having seen the Troubadour show, Robert Hilburn, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.” But much like the Stax artists who toured Britain in the 60s as major stars, only to return to the US as nobodies, back in Europe Elton's career moved slowly forward with more gigs and TV appearances. Record sales remained sluggish, but that all changed in February 1971, when his label DJM released Your Song from Elton John as a single. A whole different phenomenon was about to begin – the era of Elton as a hitmaker in the UK. With a run of hit singles in 1971 and 72 - Honky Cat, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel etc, Elton found himself increasingly a part of the developing Glam Rock scene, along with T. Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music. This played well with his natural flamboyance on stage, and the costumes became more outrageous.
Front page of Melody Maker 1973
His reputation in the US grew on the strength of his albums, particularly the ersatz Americana of Tumbleweed Connection and the Laurel Canyon songwriter vibe of Madman Across The Water.  In the UK, his albums from 1972’s Don’t’ Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player onwards sold well, but his earlier albums such as Tumbleweed and Madman, both full of great songs, did not get the attention they deserved at the time, nor probably even today from record buyers in the UK.
The elaborate lyric books that came with Elton's early 70s LPs

For more insight into how good those early shows were, the album 17-11-70 captures a live radio broadcast in New York that year. Also worth checking out, for the sheer power of their performance, is the Cleveland Music Hall show on 26th November 1970, available at the Concert Vault website - It's easy to see why he created such a buzz in America. He demanded your attention and rightly so - these are powerful performances.
Elton with his mother and stepfather at home in Pinner, 1971
Pinner happens to be my hometown too, though Elton is significantly older than me and our paths have never crossed. When he was making the journey to LA for his big breakthrough, I was about to enter my second year of high school. To conclude this piece, here's another example of how Elton's life changed so dramatically in 1970. Every year, Pinner has its May Fair, running up the two main streets in the centre of town. In his diary for May 1969, Elton wrote, “went to Pinner Fair with Mick and Pat. I won a coconut and two goldfish!" He called them John and Yoko. Wind forward five years and Elton played a key role in reuniting the real John and Yoko during the period of their collaboration on the song Whatever Gets You Through The Night.  “Fuck, my life has been incredible,” he says now.

An early performance of 'Amoreena' from the US tour in 1970

Elton talks about songwriting with Bernie and the breakthrough gigs at The Troubadour:

Elton rehearsing with Nigel and Dee, 1970

Full performance of Sixty Years On in 1971

Elton in the throes of writing 'Tiny Dancer', 1971

Performance of 'Levon' for BBC TV, 1971

Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters, 1972

Friday, July 5, 2013

'Don Juan...' revisited

David Hepworth tweeted today that he was putting on Joni Mitchell's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" to work to "and will try to imagine how thrilled I'd be if it was her new one".

So as part of an effort to begin blogging again, I am pointing you to the piece I did last year on this album (part of a series I did on Joni's mid 70s recordings). Here's a taster:

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."

and here's the whole thing:

Saturday, March 2, 2013

1974 - Sparks are the next big thing

For the average teenage record buyer in 1974, turning on the radio to hear Ron Mael's electric keyboard ushering in the falsetto tones of brother Russell singing "Zoo time is she and you time, the lions are your favourite kind and you want her tonight....."  - was a moment of pure delight. With 'This town ain't big enough for both of us', Sparks provided one of those wonderful eureka moments, when a record gets you off your feet and down to the record shop because you have to own that record right now.
It was new and exciting in a pop world that had become devalued by so many second-rate groups jumping on the glam rock gravy train. "This Town...' harked back to the excitement we felt when we first saw and heard David Bowie and Roxy Music in 1972. It was exotic and dramatic and not only that, it rocked.

They may have been new on the UK scene but Sparks had already made two albums in the US. But it was the third album 'Kimono My House' where the whole thing came together, built around Ron's intriguing lyrics. Moving from their native LA, they came to the UK and signed to Island Records. Their quirkiness was probably better suited to the UK pop charts anyway. The first single made an immediate impact and the following week they were on Top of the Pops. Their first appearance on TOTP showed they had a visual quirkiness to match the oddball lyrics and quasi-operatic delivery. Ron Mael with his Hitler moustache and mild smirk; curly-haired flamboyant Russell taunting his brother for a reaction. These guys knew how to put on a show.
The NME's Ian MacDonald was full of praise for this pop phenomenon in his review of the album Kimono My House in May 1974. "Ron Mael has set the whole lop-sided wobbly man of technique and 'tradition' spinning again. Melody lines spiral up and down (care of the extraordinary voice of brother Russell) through intervals and over chords that seem to echo from somewhere in the classics....there's more energy on Kimono My House than anything I've heard know when.".