Monday, 18 January 2021

LIFE reports on 'The New Far-out Beatles' - July 1967

I have recently acquired a stack of LIFE magazines from the 1960s. They are a fascinating window on the world as seen by reporters and photo journalists of the time. 

The stories range from graphic coverage of the Vietnam war to sumptuous colour spreads of Sophia Loren and husband Carlo Ponti at their palatial home in Italy. There are special reports on The Warren Commission's findings on the assassination of President Kennedy and a study of the reasons for Marilyn Monroe's suicide. 

Amongst the stories about life in Britain in the 1960s is a piece from July 1967 about The Beatles' new psychedelic look and sound. The cover announces 'The New Far-out Beatles' and the introduction says, "They're grown men now and creating extraordinary musical sounds."

Click to enlarge
The writer, Thomas Thompson, notes that the group has moved such a long way from the music that made them popular, they risk alienating their fans: "They are stepping far ahead of their audience,' but the possibility of losing support "does not bother them in the least."

One evening, at EMI studios on Abbey Road in London's St. John's Wood, Paul and John are explaining a new song to producer George Martin. They have written it that day and want to get it down on tape. The melody is to be called 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'.

"They go through it half a dozen times while Martin nods, quickly familiarising himself with the composition and making notes. I begin to understand the remarkable process of the Beatle music. It begins absolutely from scratch. The Beatles, who can neither write nor read music, are composing even as they record."

The writer profiles the four Beatles with descriptions that fit the popular characterisations. George, while not actually called The Quiet One, is described as the least social of the four, with a particular interest in Eastern spiritualism. Ringo is seen as the "least complex" member and the one with the least musical input.

"Of the four, 26 year old John's life is probably the most complicated. An awesome world of literature, art, philosophy and thought has opened up to him. He reads copiously - everything from Bertrand Russell to Paul Tillich to Allen Ginsberg, and he writes poetry that only he can understand." 

John was fond of creating poems inspired by the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. My brother and I received a Beatles Fan Club flexi-disc for Christmas in 1968. It contains examples of Lennon's nonsense verse. I can still recite them today.

"Paul, 24, the unmarried Beatle, is also the only one who lives in London. He is swept up in London's so-called swinging world, goes to dinner parties and discotheques, and talks about art and football. He is very much aware of the world's troubles and has his own ideas of what it will take to straighten everything out.

"If the politicians would take LSD, there wouldn't be any more war, or poverty or famine."

The album that resulted from these recording sessions, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, had been released the previous month, June 1967 and was immediately hailed as a new creative peak, not just for The Beatles, but pop music in general.

Its influence on the generation of musicians that came through in the 60s was immeasurable. That is why many people still consider it to be their best album. Not only for the songs themselves, but for the unique and groundbreaking way they were recorded.

George Martin's view of their creative genius was that "they're always coming up with something new they've just learned; something I wouldn't dream of. They never cease to amaze me."

Elsewhere on this blog:

Sgt. Pepper Is The Beatles - Who Knew?

At Home With the Lennons, 1967 

A Night With John Lennon - The Fab Faux at Radio City Music Hall

Monday, 4 January 2021

Vinnie Colaiuta - Master of the Polyrhythm

When people write about music with complex or unusual rhythms, they will often use the word 'polyrhythmic', without really understanding what it means.

A polyrhythm is not just playing in one rhythm or time signature, however complicated it might be.

A polyrhythm occurs where a soloist is playing over the main pulse of the music in a time that does not conform to that underlying pulse.

In compositional terms, the more the rhythm of a line rubs against the implied basic time (which in rock music is typically 4/4) the more 'statistical tension' is created. This requires the rhythm section to be able to respond to the soloist's rhythmic shifts - and still come back on the 1.

Most drummers can't do this. Frank Zappa put it this way: "Either a drummer will play steady time, in which case my guitar line will wander all over his time, or he will hear the polyrhythms and play inside them, implying the basic pulse for most rock drummers, accustomed as they are to life in the petrified forest on boom-boom-BAP!"

"The chances of finding a drummer, a bass player and a keyboard player who can conceive of those polyrhythms - let alone identify them fast enough to play a complementary figure on the moment - are not good."

Lucky for Zappa, he found such a drummer - the inimitable Vinnie Colaiuta. Of all the talented drummers operating in rock and jazz, Vinnie is considered the master of the polyrhythm. He played with Zappa in 1978 and '79, appearing most notably on the album Joe's Garage and, on video, in the Circus Krone concert filmed in Germany in 1978.

Vinnie playing with Frank Zappa, late '70s
He has recorded with a wide range of artists including several tracks that remain benchmarks for complexity. These include the Sting song 'Seven Days', Joni Mitchell's cover of 'You're So Square' and the Zappa tune 'Keep It Greasy'. I have listed some more of his recorded highlights at the foot of this piece.

Of the experience in FZ's band, he said, "Frank liked that I understood polyrhythms - bizarre groupings of rhythm that I was able to sort of play with him because he loved all that stuff.

"And for me, I think that one of the things he liked about the way I played was that he played guitar solos and I'm improvising with him, kind of having this dialogue with him."

The best musicians invariably wound up being hired by Zappa, if they could hack it. He was famously demanding of his hired players and, because Zappa was a master of compositional complexity, the musicians themselves had to be able to handle whatever Frank would throw at them.

Even someone as accomplished as Vinnie Colaiuta was initially intimidated by the prospect of trying out for Zappa's band. Here, Vinnie describes his audition.

On tour with Joni Mitchell, 1983
Vinnie became immensely popular as a drummer for hire and by 1980 he was able to quit Zappa's band and rely solely on being a session drummer. 

Some of the best sessions and albums he appeared on in the 1980s, include Gino Vannelli's 'Nightwalker', the amazing City Nights from the 'Secrets' album by Allan Holdsworth and The Three Graces by Jeff Beal - Vinnie plays on one half of the record and Dave Weckl is on the other half.

In 1982, he became part of Joni Mitchell's band for the 'Wild Things Run Fast' album and the subsequent tour of North America and Europe.

Wild Things was Joni's rockiest album, at least in parts and Vinnie plays some dazzling stuff, particularly on the title track, the song 'You Dream Flat Tires' and the cover of 'You're So Square'. The latter has a drum break that includes a polyrhythmic pattern that Vinnie nails by coming back in - magically - on the one.

In 1994, Vinnie released a solo album, showcasing, as he said, his many influences in jazz and rock music. And once again, within many of the tunes he demonstrates his unique ability to throw bizarre and, to ordinary mortals, unfathomable drum patterns into conventional rhythms. 

Another of his most astonishing displays was the jam band session at the legendary (but tiny!) Baked Potato live music bar in Hollywood.

It's just phenomenal. I have a DVD of this and I never tire of watching it. It's a fixed camera angle side-stage with an odd sound mix (that is, no mix) but you're right in there with Vinnie, to witness his groove, his swing, his outrageous flights of fancy and mastery of rhythm.

I have followed Vinnie's career from those early days with Zappa and I've been lucky enough to see him play live several times over five decades and in many different situations:

- with Frank Zappa at Knebworth in 1978 - my first time seeing Vinnie - a fun day at this open air festival in the UK. Zappa played the hits and there was a good spirit about the concert.

 - Joni Mitchell at Wembley in 1983 - Joni's partner, bassist Larry Klein, put a band together including Mike Landau on Guitar and Russell Ferrante on keyboards. It was a real treat to see Joni playing with a rocking band, who were also able to bring out the sophistication in her songs, especially those more jazzy tunes from the late 70s. Vinnie was especially good at laying back on the beat here. Also the best sounding arena show I ever saw.

- with Chick Corea in 1992 - my wife and I were in New York at Christmas time and this particular evening, after an expensive dinner at a midtown restaurant, we headed downtown to the Blue Note jazz club. The Blue Note is not a big venue and Vinnie's drumkit was set up at the front of the stage, so there was going to be no getting way from him on this night. I credit my wife for not being overwhelmed by it, because this was an amazing display by the whole band - John Pattitucci on bass, Wallace Roney on trumpet, Bob Berg on sax and, of course, Chick Corea on keyboards. The clip linked to above is the trio recorded in Tokyo around the same time. 

- with Jeff Beck at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007 - My brother and I went to this show. David Gilmour came on for the encore.  

- with Herbie Hancock, 2006 - my wife's second experience of live Vinnie, in a bigger venue this time, Auckland's ASB theatre.  

Here's a collection of some of his best playing:

and here's some more:

Here, he talks about his influences and how Tony Williams turned his head around. 

He's a monster drummer, that's all there is to it.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Duncan Browne's Journey - and comparisons with Nick Drake

One of my absolute favourite songs from the summer of 1972 was 'Journey' by Duncan Browne. It wasn't a massive hit single - number 23 in the UK charts - but it had a jaunty melody to it, driven by some nifty acoustic guitar playing. 

He released an album in 1973, called Duncan Browne. It contained Journey and several other similarly pretty and sometimes melancholy songs, such as My Only Son.

Browne accompanied himself on Spanish and electric guitar and there was some piano accompaniment from John 'Rabbit' Bundrick and bass and drums by Argent's Jim Rodford and Bob Henrit on some tracks. 

The mood evoked was not dissimilar to Nick Drake and there are clear parallels in how their careers progressed, or rather how they didn't progress.

Like Drake, Browne came from a well-to-do background. His father was an Air Commodore and Browne had initially planned to join the Royal Air Force himself, but chose instead to follow a musical path. He attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, developing skills as a player and an arranger that would serve him well later.

Duncan's 1973 vinyl release

His first break into the music business came in 1967, when Andrew Loog Oldham signed Duncan to his Immediate label. The resulting album, Give Me Take You is a fine example of the classical and medieval-influenced folk music of the period. 

It didn't sell though and Duncan focused instead on work as an accompanist and arranger for the next couple of years.

In the early 1970s, Mickie Most signed him to RAK Records and the first fruit of this new patronage was the single 'Journey'. It was the surprise hit of the summer in 1972, a quirky tune with a bright and breezy lyric:

"Pack up your sorrow, put away your evening star
But don't change your clothes, I like you just the way you are"

and: "Soon we'll be sailors, sailing on the salty sea
Where the waves of the world would be the one and only company"

Artist and label were taken by surprise at the single's success, it seems, because it was many months before an album was ready for release. By then, the momentum had been lost and the Duncan Browne album was another commercial failure. 

Which is a shame because it's a fine album. The songs have a distinctive character and the guitar playing is excellent.

Clearly, the competition among singer/songwriter/guitarists was intense in the early '70s. It's not hard to see why artists like Cat Stevens and John Martyn succeeded. It's less clear why the likes of Nick Drake and Duncan Browne didn't. 

With Nick, you could say he failed at least partly through his own refusal to play live, after the initial round of concerts promoting his first album. His shyness and awkward demeanor made it hard for him to tough it out on the gig circuit.

Duncan did at least try to gain a wider audience. He appeared on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test in February 1973, playing two songs from the current album - the opening track Ragged Rain Life and My Old Friends. 

Watching the clip of Duncan, it's easy to imagine how it could have been Nick Drake up there being introduced by Bob Harris. I wonder if the BBC approached him. He did do at least one radio session for John Peel's Top Gear show in 1969. What a shame he didn't do a Whistle Test session, so at least we would have film of him performing.

As with Nick, Duncan's recorded legacy is fairly slim. One of his most engaging songs from the early 70s was the 7-minute B-side of Journey, called In A Mist

It displays his natural dexterity as a guitarist and conveys the story of a love lost, reflecting on the nature of fidelity, commitment and possession. It is open and beautiful in its melancholy, just as Nick Drake's songs are.

Again, the low sales of the Duncan Browne album convinced him that he was better suited to being a backing musician and arranger for others. 

It's not such an unusual choice for musicians who, for whatever reason, find themselves better suited to being a sideman. Think of Mick Ronson, who most often played second fiddle or arranger for other artists. Or more recently, Eg White, a wonderful musician and songwriter who has had no success on his own, but has won Ivor Novellos for his writing for the likes of Will Young and Adele.

In the late 1970s Duncan tried again. He had a hit single in the Netherlands with The Wild Places and formed the band Metro with Peter Godwin; sales were modest. 

In keeping with the more polished stylings of Metro, his solo album Streets of Fire at the turn of the decade had hints of Dire Straits, especially in the opening track Fauvette. The pattern of commercial failure remained intact, though.

His biggest commercial success came later, when David Bowie recorded the Metro song Criminal World on his massive selling 1983 album Let's Dance. By that time though, Metro had disbanded. Later in the decade Duncan was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1993, aged 46. 

Duncan Browne sustained a reasonable career as a musician without ever making the big time. And perhaps he was content with that. He certainly hasn't enjoyed the same posthumous success as his contemporary Nick Drake, though he deserves it.

Also on this blog:
A Visit To The Annual Nick Drake Gathering

Nick Drake: Better Album Programing Might Have Helped