Monday, May 22, 2017

Crossing the Bridge of Sighs - Robin Trower live



The rock trio format produced many great bands in the 1960s and 70s, from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, through Taste, 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 (pre-album) 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. Thankfully, the original tapes survived (see links below). I have the original, recorded off the radio, and Trower is incredible. It’s an old-fashioned ‘wireless’ recording 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
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnGbbd_nU-Q&list=PL-R4Z6A4NVglr89GKkAf-Smwb-SStIlMZ

Fine Day, Lady Love, Daydream
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAlQN66vOQo&list=PL-R4Z6A4NVglr89GKkAf-Smwb-SStIlMZ

Too Rolling Stoned, I Can't Wait Much Longer
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPg6b8im6sw&list=PL22xMk52Uk_QUi0CbEMmbUPTJzHJSSboT

Alethea, Little Bit of Sympathy, Rock Me Baby
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtVtICWvcXE&list=PLA4AD3535D7E692A6

Reading Festival, 23rd August 1975
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoVe9CvCHM

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Steely Dan interviewed in 1975, 1976 and 1977


Here are three interviews with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from the mid 70s, when they were producing some of their most excellent music. They talk songwriting technique and what they look for in the musicians for each session. And true to form, they never take themselves too seriously.

Starting in April 1975, at the time of the album Katy Lied, the first interview appeared in the NME and was based on a meeting in California with the writer Richard Cromelin.  Having moved to the west coast from New York, the two are clearly still adjusting to the change in lifestyle.
"It's about 10 or 15 years behind," says Fagen of suburban San Fernando Valley. "We're going to have to relocate. Our heart is still on Second Avenue, and that's what we like to write about. Our lyrics are basically experience combined with a little fantasy."

Becker explained how he and Fagen like to make each song original: "We'll set up a framework, no matter how bizarre it may be. I'll come up with an idea and he'll come up with a scenario and we'll decide what we think the song is about, and which part of the exposition of what is happening is in each verse and get a title together. And no matter how strange the idea may be, we just go along and hope that we can finish the song."

They met at Bard College, where Fagen was "the dean of the pick-up band syndrome". Turns out there were several bands at the college and Fagen was the leader of all of them. Mostly, this appears to have been because the other musicians were not at his level. "We were writing tunes where some of the chords were not triads, and you couldn't use your capo that much. It was hard to get what we wanted in those days, so it didn't come out in utter magnificence," Becker said of the duo's early collaborations.

They tell the story about how the various band members were recruited, especially Denny Dias, who at this point, in 1975, was the only remaining member from the original band. Apparently Fagen and Becker hooked up with Dias's band and "we used to chastise and abuse them," Fagen recalls. "They all quit. So there was Denny and we'd ruined his band. He had no place else to go."

They also explain how, after some initial success with Reelin' In The Years from the first album, 'Can't Buy A Thrill', the threat of obscurity loomed dangerously near. The next single, Show Biz Kids, from the second album 'Countdown To Ecstasy' was, in Fagen's words "a brutal failure". They followed it with an edited version of My Old School, which saw even less action.
The resounding commercial success of the third album 'Pretzel Logic' and the single Rikki Don't Lose That Number, was consolidated in 1974 by a world tour. But Fagen still felt that "We've more or less abandoned hope of being one of the big, important rock and roll groups. Our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times. and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part. And at other times it's too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody."

Becker and Fagen also talk about the sound problems during the recording of Katy Lied that forced them to remix the album and delayed its release. They also address the question of the departure of former member Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter. Skunk, they claim, was only missing from the last album because he was on the road with the Doobie Brothers.
But it's clear they were not content to rely on the same musicians for each album, and wanted to push their session players to stretch themselves. Becker talks about how Rick Derringer was initially freaked out by what was expected of him on the track Chain Lightning. "Then he realised he needed to do something a little different from what he normally does."

click on the image to read the article
June 1976
The NME's Steve Clarke encountered Becker (then still only 26) and Fagen (28) a month after the release of 'The Royal Scam', announcing that the band was ready to tour again, including dates for Britain in 1977 (when in fact they didn't come to the UK again until 1993!). Becker even talks about who will be in the touring band. Denny Dias is the only one who has the stamina to stay the course with The Dan, he says. "He's willing to indulge us a little more than our old compatriots," said Becker.

Both deny being difficult to work with and lead the interviewer a merry dance when he asks what some of the songs are about. Becker denies Kid Charlemagne is about a dealer, more "a man of science. Someone who makes consciousness expanding substances of the most dramatic sensational type no longer in vogue."

(Indeed, it's about Augustus Owsley Stanley, the famous king of the LSD manufacturers). 

At one point, Donald Fagen states that the lyrics on their recent albums have a bit more maturity. When Clarke suggests Steely Dan songs are intentionally obscure, Becker counters that "it seems to us that people are intentionally dumb." Fagen adds that, "You can only do so much with a song, and because we are probably more literary, we use more literary techniques."

Paul Griffin plays the piano solo on Sign In Stranger and also receives a writer's credit on The Fez. This came about because, according to Fagen, "He wrote the main theme". Becker disputes this, saying "I wouldn't call it the main theme. He wrote a melody that is featured. At least he says he wrote it."  They gave him a credit "in case later on some sort of scandal developed".

'Don't Take Me Alive' is very much a song of these troubled times, writes Clarke about a song that still resonates with the times today. Fagen says of the song: "In Los Angeles and through the world in general, terrorism is a way of life for a lot of people."

They feel little affinity with anything else that is going on in rock in '76, though both express a fondness for Single Bed by Fox. They also enjoy The Eagles, Phoebe Snow and Van Morrison. They say comparisons between Steely Dan and 10CC are ridiculous: "Last time here we were being compared to the Doobie Brothers."

Talking of which, former Dan back-up singer Mike McDonald, now livening up the Doobies, told Clarke that Becker and Fagen wished they were Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. "That's essentially true," says Walter. 
 
 Click on the images to read the articles.

December 1977
Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe writes about the second coming of Steely Dan, following the release of the stylistically different but nonetheless peerless masterwork 'Aja'.





Thursday, May 11, 2017

My most-viewed Youtube clips: 2. Tommy Bolin live 1976 - 'Delightful'

I put this together using whatever photos I could find of Tommy and the band, which included drummer Narada Michael Walden, fresh from his time with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Michael had just released his first solo album, The Garden of Love Light, which features Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana. Tommy's band took the track 'Delightful' and played a beautiful version of it here, catching the groove just right. There's a later show on the CD this was taken from (First Time Live) which is much quicker, and loses the groove as a result.

So here we have just about the best example of Tommy Bolin's short-lived band. And it's obviously captivated folks, to judge from the comments on the YT page. Coming up for 55,000 views at the time of writing. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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.

EXPRESSIONS TO AVOID 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.


While we're on the subject of behaviour in the studio, here's a glimpse of what it was like to be in the studio back in the day (early 1980s) with legendary producer Quincy Jones. My reaction in the comments section (from 2009 apparently) is: have they been at the nose candy or what?

"I Love Quincy" documentary from 1982, featuring Patti Austin 
recording the song "It's Gonna Be Special"

Monday, May 8, 2017

My most-viewed Youtube clips: 1. Elton John rocks up 'Sixty Years On', 1971

For his live shows in 1970 and afterwards, Elton reworked this heavily orchestrated song for the three piece band, with remarkable effect.

As he said of the breakthrough shows at the Troubadour in LA: "We came on; I was in flying boots and hotpants and did 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 created this clip having discovered it buried in a much longer documentary and thought it was worth creating as a stand-alone, since the performance is so rare. Over 50,000 views at the time of writing this.

For more on this period of Elton's career, visit: http://bangnzdrum.blogspot.co.nz/2013/07/from-pinner-to-la-elton-johns-big.html

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Genesis Touring The Lamb in 1975 - Gabriel quits

What does a rock singer who has dressed up as a sunflower and a creature with unfeasibly large testicles do for his next trick? If you’re Peter Gabriel, you “walk right out of the machinery” and don’t look back.

The story of Gabriel’s shock departure from Genesis played out during the 1975 Lamb Lies Down On Broadway  tour. Tensions had built up in the band owing to the fact that their singer was undeniably the star of the show and, as a result, got all the credit. Gabriel, with his funny stories and costumes, the English whimsy of his between song flights of fantasy, had gained Genesis recognition in the music press, allowing them to play to bigger audiences.
But that recognition for Gabriel created resentment among the band, who felt their contribution was being overlooked. Keyboard player Tony Banks explained it this way: “After a while the make-up and props became a blessing and a curse. There can be some bad feeling when the lead singer hogs all the attention. It can be quite hard to take for the rest of the group.”

The problem for Genesis was that they were musically ambitious and competitive but they were a publicist's nightmare; t
he most demonstrably un-rockstar like group you could imagine. Guitarist Steve Hackett was still sitting down on stage at this point. The NME's Max Bell joined the group on the European tour. He wrote that, in person Gabriel was shy and stumbled over his words. But on stage: “he strides the boards like Sir Henry Irving, an acting colossus with the audience in the palm of his hand. Ironically, he unwinds only in performance, bolting straight out of that shell.”   

In continental Europe, their box-office success was up there with The Stones and Led Zeppelin. But record sales-wise Genesis were still in the second division.  By this stage in their career, onto their sixth album, a double, replete with expensive cover art by Hipgnosis and a fantasy narrative penned by Gabriel, they might have expected to break out of their cult status and become a mega Prog act like Pink Floyd and Yes. But they remained under appreciated at home and only truly massive in certain parts of Europe. The more this went on, the more their frustration spilled over.  Hackett told Max Bell, “We’ve played to half a million people on this European tour and we’re still bloody making it”.

‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ is the story of a New York street punk named Rael and his fantastic journey of discovery. Gabriel described it as “A series of events that could happen to somebody who doesn’t even know his sub-conscious exists”. Tony Banks had apparently come up with an alternative concept that was closer to the style of their previous albums. The decision to go with Gabriel’s idea was the beginning of the end in many ways. Gabriel said, “I felt Genesis were becoming stuck in a formula and needed to come right down to earth. When the band had accepted the idea of a single story album, we went through the routine of voting on each proposal. This was bullshit on my part, as I had already decided there was only one story I was going to develop.”

Genesis at the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, January 1975
In spite of their not having achieved the same degree of success as their prog peers, Genesis had great belief in themselves. They didn’t consider it a risk to play a complete double album of unfamiliar material in their live show. Their confidence was justified because, especially on the west coast of America and in Europe, Genesis already had a loyal following. If you listen to the live version of ‘The Lamb’ recorded at the Shrine Auditorium in LA, there is a strong sense that Genesis were among friends. But it was Gabriel the fans had come to see. 

The story of The Lamb, such as it is, is not that easy to follow. During the live shows, Gabriel would provide the audience with short descriptions of how the story would unfold.  Musically, the Lamb is probably the band’s most diverse work, and Phil Collins is on record as saying it was the most fun to play, because of its complexity.  The record also contains, especially on the first two sides, some great songs. Like most double albums there are indulgent passages but overall, if you can buy into the concept, the record is absorbing and well produced.

Melody Maker said of The Lamb: “For some fans it was a disappointment; more calculating in its surrealism and lacking the stealth and subtlety of earlier works. The music took on greater effect in their live appearances, but the show became more and more difficult to bring off to full effect. Nevertheless they performed the work brilliantly in Paris in March and not quite so well in London a few weeks later.”
The NME's Max Bell on the road with Genesis, March 1975
Max Bell’s NME article from March 1975 offers some insight to the troubled minds of the members of Genesis at this time. In their interview, Gabriel defended Genesis against what he perceived as a prejudice by rock journalists, particularly the NME. He agreed with Bell’s suggestion that the more popular a band becomes, the more likely the press are to pull them down: “I’m surprised to hear anyone from the NME say that because it’s definitely true. The NME is the only place where we didn’t get good reviews last time. It’s obvious to me there is a lot more to music criticism than criticising music. The elevation of rock journalists to superstars proves that.”

Haven’t Genesis always laid themselves open to allegations of pretension, asked Bell. “We’re easy to put down," replied Gabriel. “You can say the characters are far-fetched, the music is over-ornate and that we’re riding on my costume success. There, I’ve done it for you.”

But Bell gave the band credit for delivering a powerful show: “Anyone who still holds the precious opinion that Genesis ain’t a rock band has their head well buried.”  He observed, though, that “the rest of the group have grown increasingly pissed off at Peter getting the lion’s share of the publicity. But while they grumble in private, they’re too reserved to force the issue.” Steve Hackett told Bell: “It annoys me when people think Peter did everything. On the last album he wrote less of the music than us.”
Gabriel as the Slipperman. Phil Collins provides vocal support
This unhappy situation in the band was compounded by the technical problems they encountered putting on The Lamb show. It was an elaborate production with three large projection screens and several costume changes for Gabriel, some of which prevented him from singing clearly. Banks says “Frankly speaking, it was a bit of a disaster. The album wasn’t a big seller and the tour was dogged by equipment problems. We were trying to put on an amazing show on a tiny budget and there were many, many nights when things went wrong.”  Budgets were clearly very tight because although Genesis toured The Lamb in the US, Europe and the UK, not one of the shows was filmed. The only footage that exists is a few very short clips filmed from the audience (see below).

Max Bell concluded his NME piece by suggesting that Genesis will not compromise their art. “For a brief moment Gabriel-as-Rael and Rael-as-Gabriel coalesce into one person speaking with a common voice: “I’ll tell you something. We’re not going to be a band to sit still. We’ll self-destruct before we stop running.”
We now know that much of the behind the scenes unrest stemmed from Gabriel’s desire to pursue projects outside the band. He had been approached by William Friedkin, director of 'The Exorcist' and 'The French Connection', after Friedkin had read the sleeve notes to the Genesis Live  album. The two agreed to try working on some scripts. The band saw this as a lack of commitment from Gabriel and were adamant that if he wanted to go and work with Freidkin, that he should leave the band. Gabriel, for his part, as the only member of the band who was married at that time, also wanted to spend more time with his family. Friedkin didn't want to be the cause of a break-up, so backed away from the idea.
The Melody Maker front page, August 16th 1975

But the damage had been done and the rift in the band never healed. In August 1975, rumours circulated that Gabriel had quit Genesis. The MM ran a front page headline and a few days later it was confirmed. In the following week’s MM Phil Collins said, “We were not stunned by Pete’s departure, because we had known about it for quite a while. We are going to carry on and we’ve been rehearsing for three weeks for the new album. It was Peter’s decision and I can only emphasise that we are carrying on as if nothing happened.”

Years later Collins would admit their initial reaction was to rubbish Gabriel’s contribution to the band. They were stung into action by his leaving and were clearly determined to show the world that Genesis was more than just their singer. 

From Gabriel’s point of view, it must have been chastening to see how, almost immediately, his former bandmates produced a commercially successful album, A Trick of the Tail, and by focusing on the music, showed that there was indeed more to Genesis than funny costumes and weird stories.

For his part, Gabriel took time out before carefully re-emerging with the first of four albums called Peter Gabriel. The music was distinctly different from Genesis; edgier and, especially on albums 3 and 4, more experimental. His only nod to his old band was the lyric for Solsbury Hill (see below) his first solo single in 1977.  And gone were the flamboyant costumes. Playing his first shows in the US with the new band in April 1977, Gabriel wore a grey track suit.

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
Til I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."
The live footage that exists of the The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway shows in 1975 
is largely taken from a show in Bern, Switzerland. This clip is of 'Counting Out Time'