Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Heyday of the NME

There's a been a lot of talk this week about the closure of the NME's print edition - the end of an era and all that. In his Guardian obituary for the music paper, Alex Petridis reckoned the NME had umpteen “golden eras” which he said usually had less to do with the quality of the writing "than whether or not you were 17 or 18 when you were reading it".|

That's true-ish, but really, the legend of the NME as the cool, trend-setting weekly bible for music fans, was formed in the first half of the 1970s, which was really a hangover from the late 60s. It was a wild and often chaotic paper in those days, informed by the underground press vibe of Oz and IT, that had spawned some of the NME's own writers including Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent.

It was the first break with the formal traditions of music writing, passed down through the jazz age in the 50s and the still formal and respectful pop journalism of the 60s. The more anarchic style of the NME's new brand of hacks made star names out of maverick characters like CSM, Nick Kent, Mick Farren and Ian MacDonald.
They were given as much space as they wanted and used the opportunity to write think pieces about relatively obscure artists. Kent's long elegy to Nick Drake soon after the singer's death, was a landmark in UK rock journalism, influenced no doubt by the kind of intelligent analysis they had seen in Rolling Stone.

The central storyline of Kent's 1975 three-part series on Brian Wilson, 'The Last Beach Movie', was the collapse of the Beach Boys' 'Smile' project. It was the first time most of us had heard any details about the album Wilson was forced to abort in 1967 and Kent's detailed account was rightly acclaimed.

This was also a time when the market was clearly divided between pop and rock, albums and singles, US and UK - two very distinct music markets in those days. America was still a foreign land in those pre-cheap transatlantic travel days. The NME writers schooled us ordinary folk in the different music coming out of New York, Detroit, LA and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the thinking freak's rock critic, Ian MacDonald, a Cambridge drop-out, was writing feature length pieces about Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan and Sparks - expanding our consciousness and daring us to go along for the ride. Ian Mac was the guy that turned me on to all these artists and more.

It wasn't all ground-breaking though; much of the rest of the NME was throwaway - entertaining that Thursday when it hit the streets but not meant to last. Nonetheless it was a reflection of the time. Rock had yet to become an 'industry'. The lunatics were still running the asylum. The Lone Groover, Tony Benyon's stoned cartoon character, was emblematic of the long-haired freak scene, a hangover from the sixties that persisted until the advent of punk. The NME's album reviews were often wildly funny, but often dismissive - and downright wrong - about albums and artists whose work is now justly revered. From Bowie to Joni to Marley and even the early punk scene - there are individual examples where the NME's writers didn't get it right.

But collectively they had great taste, as the 1974 Top 100 albums demonstrates. Every single one of those 100 albums remains a classic, which I suppose goes to support the idea that the period up to 1975 was the classic era for rock and roll.

No doubting that things changed from '77 onwards, and if truth be told, the NME's writers were as blindsided by the new wave as any of the other music mags. For a time though, in the first half of that decade, they created the lasting legend of the NME. The rebelliousness was now led by the musicians themselves, and arguably that's just another form of PR. But the legend of an NME full of edgy, exciting music writing allowed it to remain in business way beyond any of the other music papers of the time. Melody Maker and Sounds went the way of the dinosaurs. Smash Hits was wildly successful for 20 years but was closed in 2006. It's a wonder the NME lasted as long as it did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bowie - "It's a Drive-In Saturday"

Other-worldly. In the early 1970s, David Bowie really was that rock hero from another planet, the starman waiting in the sky. His words and music sparked the imagination of a new generation of pop fans. The images from the Ziggy Stardust period in 1972 and '73 show an artist taking the early stylings of Glam Rock established by T. Rex and Slade to a whole different level. The front cover of the Ziggy Stardust album plays up the other-worldliness perfectly, as if Bowie had just fallen to earth. And this advert for his 1973 single 'Drive-in Saturday' plays on the other-worldly persona; a cleverly cultivated image and a perfect complement to the music. Drive-in Saturday  is one of the stand-out tracks on the 'Aladdin Sane' album and, for some fans it is one of Bowie's greatest songs. Its setting is a futuristic world where people have forgotten how to make love. When he played the song live soon after he wrote it, Bowie said, "This is after a catastrophe of some kind, and some people are living on the streets and some people are living in domes, and they borrow from one another and try to learn how to pick up the pieces."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Kansas - why 'Leftoverture' is their masterpiece album

Kansas may just be the ugliest band in the world. Not hip or trendy in any way, but if you can put that aside and you have an appreciation for progressive rock, read on.

To put my interest in context, 1977 was a schizophrenic year. My old concert tickets show that I saw Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, but I also saw the Clash and the Sex Pistols. In the middle of all that, in the summer of ‘77, I went to America for the first time and stayed with a family in the heart of Long Island, New York. I had met the girl when she came over on a school exchange trip. We bonded over a shared appreciation of Boston’s first album.

The other music she and her friends listened to was Aerosmith (Toys In The Attic), Foghat Live, Frampton Comes Alive, Rumours (you couldn’t get away from it) and Leftoverture by Kansas, which contained their big hit at the time, 'Carry On Wayward Son'. Some of it has stayed with me. In fact all of it, except Foghat.

Leftoverture has great songs, some intricate but not too complex arrangements, with just the right mix of guitar and keyboards to keep the whole thing interesting. It was on pretty constant rotation in my bedroom in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to see them live at Hammersmith in 1978 too, playing the set you can hear on the live album from that time 'Two For The Show'.

Kansas have recently released a 40th anniversary 'Leftoverture' concert CD, with a second CD of other classic material. It's probably not the best starting point, but it does at least highlight their prog credentials, including as it does many of their long-form compositions. This incarnation of Kansas contains only two original members out of six – drummer Phil Ehart and rhythm guitarist Rich Williams. Leader and songwriter Kerry Livgren left many years ago, while more recent departures include singer and keyboard man Steve Walsh, along with singer and violinist Robbie Steinhardt.

So, the first thing anyone familiar with the originals will have to get over is the change of singer. Vocals are now handled mainly by new keyboardist Ronnie Platt, supported by bassist Billy Greer. Platt can carry a tune, but prog singing requires a certain delivery to match the ostentation of the music. Steve Walsh had that in spades. A song like Journey from Mariabronn, from the first Kansas album, is one of their most successful compositions, made especially effective by Walsh’s impassioned delivery. Platt, while he hits the notes, can’t convey the drama in the same way.
This clip of JFM is a little fuzzy but it's the real thing. Early Kansas in all their prog pomp
Listening to ‘Journey from Mariabronn’ again on this disc, I’m reminded they did some really good long-form compositions that mark them out as the best of the few US bands that could be compared with their UK prog peers. Those who bought the Best of Kansas because they liked 'Carry On…' and 'Dust In The Wind' probably missed that point, which is why Kansas get lumped in with the pomp rock bands like Boston and Styx.
Here's 'Icarus - Wings of Steel'

I had hoped for a large dollop of nostalgia listening to them play Leftoverture, which takes up disc 2. It was OK, but I felt I was listening to a tribute band. If you don’t have the originals, this is not the place to start. Get a copy of Leftoverture and the original live album, Two For The Show. And if you want to investigate further, the albums either side of Leftoverture – Song For America and Point of Know Return, as well as the first album – are worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The many sides of Walter Becker

Having just contributed to a podcast in memory of Steely Dan's Walter Becker, who passed away this week, I've compiled some examples of his work that casual listeners and readers may not be so familiar with.

The partnership between Becker and Donald Fagen was such that it is often difficult to know where an idea has stemmed from. They were so well-matched in terms of intellect and musical knowledge, they were in the habit of finishing each other's sentences. Nonetheless, it is fairly well accepted that Becker, with his rather more chequered background, contributed the darker, more surreal ideas to The Dan's music.

And there were plenty of them. The new identity fixer in Sign In Stranger; the 'man of science' mixing up his psychedelics in Kid Charlemagne; the ode to "the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian" in Hey Nineteen and perhaps most personal of all, Any World (That I'm Welcome To).

"Whenever I recorded with Walter and Donald, right before the engineer pushed the red button, Walt would shimmy over to me and in a stage whisper, would say: 
“Just play the blues Elliott… just play the blues”.
- Elliott Randall, session guitarist on Steely Dan's albums 
and most famous for his soloing on Reelin' In The Years

We don't know too much about Becker's early years, apart from the fact his parents separated, but we do know he had his demons and, as Fagen noted, his "habits". The song 'Time Out Of Mind' from Gaucho would have been very close to home at that point in his life. The heroin halted his friendship with Fagen at the end of the 1970s and Becker retreated to Hawaii to recover from his addiction.

He re-emerged in the 80s handling production for the band China Crisis (the story of how he was attracted to the British band because he'd misheard their name as Vagina Crisis seems fitting somehow). He produced their album 'Flaunt The Imperfection', which contains the track 'You Did Cut Me', released as a single in 1985. It could easily be a Steely Dan song.

In 1989, he met up with Rickie Lee Jones and the two collaborated on her fourth album 'Flying Cowboys', which contained a lovely song 'The Horses'. Co-written with Becker, a cover version of the song by Daryl Braithwaite made No 1 in Australia.

and this song, Satellites, which shows traces of Becker's influence
Rickie Lee Jones wrote a touching tribute to Walter this week for Rolling Stone magazine. She said Steely Dan made it OK to be educated: "It was the idea that intelligent music was cool".

"I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn't write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history."

Of Becker, she wrote, "I have often said that so much of what we write seems to be prophetic. Walter lost too many people to drugs. He found too many people laying on the floor. The bed. Too many heartbreaks."

Becker and Fagen were able to move forward with their unique musical partnership in the 1990s, initially working together on Fagen's second solo album Kamakiriad, where Becker was the co-producer, and co-writer of the song Snowbound. He is listed as the bassist/guitarist on the album too.

In 1994, the year after the Steely Dan reunion tour, Walter produced his first solo album '11 Tracks of Whack', which was well received but not as commercially successful as his partner's solo records. Becker's sound was less polished and without the rounded melodies of The Nightfly or Kamakiriad. But it did contain some great compositions, demonstrating Becker's vivid imagination and a lyricism few could match.

This, for example, from the track Surf and/or Die, about a friend of his who died in a hang-glider accident:

Earthbound to Johnny boy just picked up your message
‘Bout those Balinese ikats you thought I might buy
Now your voice on my machine is more alive than what you are
Since your daredevil hang glider fell out of the sky
Now Armand’s looked all over but he can’t find your car keys
Were they under the tire? Were they under the seat?
Because as it stands now your beloved white Aires
Is fair game for the vandals up on Makapuu Street
And your grandmother’s number, we know it’s here somewhere
But Suze can’t seem to find it, now she’s losing control
And so what about her, and little Eldon and Layla
And that hypothetical spectre, your gilt-edged soul
Which defied many perils, in the face of all reason
And in so many settings and for all your young years
Insisting on pure freedom for its too-short season
Riding high on its ration of enchantment and fear
Over the hill and into the next meadow and on and on and on
In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they’ll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, suspended without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show
Going too far too fast in that final wing over
As your glider comes tumbling out of the clouds
And you clutch at your chest but the chute never opens
And they find you there tangled in that white nylon shroud
When we get Grandma’s number I think I’ll just say to her
Your Johnny’s home for Christmas, it was a hell of a ride
And I know that some day you’ll be showing me those blankets
All covered in glory on the hereafter side, saying
There was never any question, it was always all or nothing
Surf and/or die

"My inner Steely Dan geek was extremely anxious to get answers to the many questions I had since the age of 14. What guitar did you use on the solo (perhaps my favorite of his) on “Pretzel Logic”? Answer: an old Epiphone solid body. What is a “squonk”? (now, of course, you can wiki it). Who were some of the others on the legendarily large list of guitarists who took a stab at the solo to “Peg”? (He told me that Robben Ford had recorded an especially awesome solo.)"
- Drew Zingg, lead guitarist on the reunion tour, and heard to best effect on Third World Man from the 'Alive in America' album

Becker didn't produce his second solo album, 'Circus Money' until 2008 and many Dan fans are probably unfamiliar with it, as it received no promotion and virtually no airplay. But it has better production values than the first album and hangs together as a good collection of songs.

In the last 10 years, he also collaborated on a couple of albums with Madeleine Peyroux, notably on the 2009 album Bare Bones. One of the co-writes on the album is the song 'You Can't Do Me' which has an undeniable Becker stamp on it.

To round off this review of Walter Becker's musical legacy, if you want to enjoy more of the man's writing and his sense of humour, check out the stories and tour notes he wrote for the Steely Dan website. The site was set up when they first started touring again and many of the early stories are still up on the site - - here's one random example. All this stuff is made up, it's just him riffing on an idea:

And while they took songwriting to another place, and made it OK to be intelligent in popular music, Becker and Fagen never took themselves too seriously. As here, where they cruise around New York, picking up seemingly random girls to discuss their music: 

Not that you'd know it from that clip, but Walter was the quiet one of the two, and would have been a rather intimidating presence at times I'm sure, as the wittiest and most urbane guy in the room oft times. But his wit and intellect added much of the spice within the complex flavours of Steely Dan. He was a one off, and he's left a wonderful musical legacy.

Here's what his daughter had to say in memory of her dad:

RIP Walt.

Further reading and listening:
New York Times: Listen to 13 Essential Walker Becker Songs
Pitchfork: 8 Songs That Show Walter Becker's Brilliance
Washington Post: Walter Becker was the cynical one, hiding behind the guitar

If you're looking for a thoughtful and perhaps unusual Steely Dan playlist, may I suggest this one?

And someone has thoughtfully packaged the out-takes from the Gaucho Sessions into a 'lost' album compilation:

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reviewing Pink Floyd at the V&A: Their Mortal Remains

We don't need no Edu-cashun
The enduring nature of classic rock music and its connection with popular culture is reassuring for an aging hippy like me. While my kids may mock a lot of the Dad Rock I still listen to, they do actually listen to it of their own accord and with open ears. That's what brings us to London's Victoria & Albert Museum to see the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. It was my daughter's idea, so I'm curious to know what she will make of it, especially the early stuff. 

As we enter the exhibition, headphones up high, we are transported into the world of the 1960s, passing into a psychedelic subterranean scene, with exhibits from the band's earliest days, including examples of Syd Barrett's art and writing. Even for a seasoned Floyd fan such as I, there are some fascinating exhibits and each phase of the band's career (especially the classic period) is brought to life with dramatic set-pieces, interviews and live footage.
Syd Barrett's guitars from 1967
Nick Mason's drumkit from 1974

Throughout, we get to see the actual instruments used during their career, including Syd's mirrored Telecaster, Rick Wright's various primitive electric pianos and Nick Mason's tsunami double bass drum kit. Naturally, Dave Gilmour's guitar playing features prominently throughout the exhibition, including the finale.

If you weren't familiar with the arc of their career, you might miss the significance of the developments that led to The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. The demise of Syd due to his over-indulgence in LSD and the band's fragmented journey to their second wind in the 1970s are rather glossed over, which is a shame because these are important aspects of the story. But there are illuminating interviews with Waters and Gilmour scattered around to keep the narrative going.

The role of Hipgnosis is highlighted through their cover art, with an infinity mirror used to particularly good effect to accentuate the impact of the Ummagumma cover image from 1969.

Since Dark Side is such a pivotal album, and an image that resonates even for my daughter's generation, the making of the record is at the centre of the exhibition. Again, the technology they used is on show and the band members describe how the recording developed. There are also candid photos from the sessions. We then pass into a room with a 3-D depiction of the pyramid prism image, while The Great Gig In The Sky plays through the 'phones.

The increasingly dark nature of the Floyd's album concepts and lyrics around the time of Animals and The Wall is explained in the context of the social and cultural changes that occurred in the 1970s, particularly in the UK with punk rock and the economic blight that ushered in Thatcherism. The set pieces include giant stage-size versions of the Gerald Scarfe characters from the Wall, a recreation of Battersea Power Station and the flying pig, plus various other props from the Animals tour.
A contact sheet from the Animals cover shoot at Battersea Power Station
For me, post The Wall, there is little of the Floyd's music that grabs me in the same way their classic 1960s and 70s albums and shows did. I was lucky enough to see them playing Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and Animals live in the 70s, topped off typically by an encore of Echoes from Meddle. Nonetheless, the Gilmour-led Floyd era is handled well and there is a touching section just before the end dedicated to the Rick Wright tribute album, The Endless River, which is my daughter's favourite.

The final room is an immersive 3-D effect experience with screens on all four walls showing the reformed original band's last performance together at Live-8. You are welcome to sit, lie down or just stand and watch as the band plays Comfortably Numb. It's a fitting way to end an absorbing show. (if you find this clip is unavailable for copyright reasons, there are other similar ones to be found on youtube).

It's difficult for me to assess what a young person or someone unfamiliar with the Floyd would make of it. I would like to have seen them go into more detail on the early phases and explore the music in more depth. But I'm pleased to say my daughter wasn't overawed by it. Even though I'm sure a lot of the earlier experimental stuff was not to her taste, she picked up a lot of cultural references from the exhibition. She seemed genuinely interested in the Floyd's story and eager to understand their place in the history of classic rock music.

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in London, is open until 15 October.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

50 Years Ago Today: Jimi Hendrix wows Monterey

The most electrifying three minutes in the history of live rock music, made all the more significant because it was Jimi returning to his homeland in triumph

Click this link to view the same performance but with slightly different camera angles:

On Sunday June 18 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was introduced to the American rock audience, live for the first time, at the Monterey Pop Festival. As milestone moments go, they don't get much better than this. As described in my post about Jimi's shows at the Saville Theatre in London, he crafted a stage act in those first European gigs that reached its first real flowering (man) at his homecoming gig.

Monterey was the first major coming together of rock's foremost talents, including Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and Papas, Jefferson Airplane and The Who. Jimi must have been ecstatic to suddenly be in this rarefied atmosphere - the California sunshine, a groundbreaking festival gathering and, to judge by his performance, he revelled in this talented company: "Yeah, it's really out-of-sight here, it didn't even rain; no buttons to push...". And to top it off he was introduced by rock royalty; Brian Jones being the only one of the Stones or the Beatles who attended Monterey.

And for me, the adrenalin rush of their first song, Killing Floor - that had given Eric Clapton the shock of his life when Jimi first arrived in London - is perhaps the most exciting three minutes in the history of live rock. Jimi, Mitch and Noel, with their frilly shirts and feather boa, give it everything and leave mouths agape, like 'what did we just see?'

During the set, he pulled out all the stops, showing off his unique combination of rhythm and lead playing, cuffing the guitar, playing it behind is back, with his teeth, and then finally setting light to it, to the astonishment of the audience. Remember this is 50 years ago! The 1960s may have been swinging, but what Jimi did, in common with other revolutionaries of that era, was push out the boundaries beyond most people's imagining at that time.

The drugs helped in the mind-blowing, of course. Legend has it that Hendrix was tripping on Owsley LSD at Monterey. Hard to believe he could play and sing like that under the influence of mid-altering psychedelics, but records of the time suggest that may have been the case. At the earlier free festival at Mount Tamalpais, Owsley, the acid king immortalised in Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne, was said to be dispensing acid to the performers as they were about to go onstage with the words, "do you want the sacrament?"

Robert Christgau noted in The Village Voice that Hendrix, after his famous row with Pete Townshend, (see the comments from John Phillips in the clip above) was stuck with topping the Who's guitar-smashing tour-de-force. "It's great sport to watch this outrageous scene-stealer wiggle his tongue, pick with his teeth, and set his axe on fire." 

The performance, he said, heralded "the dawning of an instrumental technique so effortlessly fecund and febrile that rock has yet to equal it, though hundreds of metal bands have gotten rich trying. Nowhere else will you witness a Hendrix still uncertain of his divinity."
This was a legendary performance. The arrival of King Guitar.

Youtube is not your friend when it comes to clips of Jimi playing Monterey. Most of them have been taken down by the copyright owners. What I have presented here - my own archived copy of Killing Floor, Rock Me Baby and the Wild Thing finale, give a taste of the magical set Jimi played. But there's plenty more, including a great version of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.

Try to get hold of a copy of the original Jimi Plays Monterey movie. I have it as part of a boxed set that includes Otis Redding's set, the original Monterey Pop movie and a DVD of outtake performances. Well worth checking out if your budget permits.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

My most-viewed Youtube clips 3: Jeff Beck and David Gilmour - Hi Ho Silver Lining

Two for the price of one on this thread. It's actually not so rare now, but back in 2009 when I filmed this at the Royal Albert Hall, I don't think Jeff had ever played Hi Ho Silver Lining live, and certainly he hadn't sung it. As you are probably aware, the song was a hit for him in 1968, but it was so untypical of his style of music that he refused to play it live.
But obviously over the years, he softened his stance.
This all happened during the encore, which began with David Gilmour joining the band on stage. Beck and Gilmour traded licks during a long instrumental passage that concluded with the melody from Jerusalem.

That's the first clip you can view here. This was a real treat, to see Gilmour, who is usually so measured in his playing, batting lines back and forth with JB, the show-off. And clearly there's much respect between them. Jeff at one point feigns shock at one of Gilmour's trademark licks.

The other musicians, Jason Rebello (keyboards), Tal Wilkenfeld (bass) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) take a restrained approach to the track, in view of the fairly unrehearsed nature of it. And the comments on youtube show how rare and how much of treat it was for us in the audience.

What could follow that? The last thing any of us expected was for them to start into Jeff's big pop hit! It wasn't immediately obvious that was what they were playing until Gilmour started singing the first verse, "You're everywhere and nowhere baby..." at which point the audience raised the noise levels a notch or two. And then, when Jeff took the second verse, they really did go wild.

Both clips have about 30,000 views at the time of writing, helped by being featured on other sites, I believe.