Category: music

Slow down, look around … (Grumpy Old Muso Rant #3)

It won’t surprise you to learn that this crotchety old-timer gets the heebie-jeebies every time he hears auto-tuned vocals or machine-generated beats. Most of us love the music that was around when we came of age and my tastes were formed when the usual method was to record several live takes and pick the best one. Overdubs were cheating and it took high-calibre artists like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix to convince us multi-tracking was OK. You can imagine my horror, therefore, that a key influence on the 1960s blues-boomers (Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the rest) may have had his recordings doctored by the money-men in pursuit of filthy lucre. Here is the shocking evidence, illustrated by short sound-recordings:

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“An abiding mystery about Robert Johnson is the rpm conundrum. Is it true, as a Japanese musician told me it is widely held to be in Japan, that Robert Johnson’s records play way too fast? Should he actually sound much more like his great mentor, Son House?

If we turn to ‘My Black Mama’ by Son House, the song on which Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is based, we find that on his recording of it in 1930, Son plays in open G, capo on the first.

Son House, My Black Mama Part I (1930), last verse

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What happens, then, if we slow Johnson’s record until it is in the same key as the song it’s modelled on?

Robert Johnson, Walking Blues, last verse, slowed down

For me, this is a music transformed. The sound of a man, first of all: this dark-toned voice would no longer lend credence to the youth of seventeen or eighteen that Don Law, the only person to record him, thought he might be. Now, especially in the dip of his voice at the end of a line, we can hear the follower of Son House, and the precursor of Muddy Waters. Hear him pronounce his name in ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ –

Robert Johnson, Kindhearted Woman Blues, excerpt, slowed down

– now he sounds like “Mr Johnson”, a man whose words are not half-swallowed, garbled or strangled, but clearly delivered, beautifully modulated; whose performances are not fleeting, harried or fragmented, but paced with the sense of space and drama that drew an audience in until people wept as they stood in the street around him.

Robert Johnson, Come On In My Kitchen, excerpt, slowed down

The wordless last lines of ‘Love in Vain’ in this slowed form, are the work of one of the most heartbreaking and delicate of blues singers.

Robert Johnson, Love in Vain, last verse, slowed down

This is a Steady Rolling Man, whose tempos and tonalities are much like those of other Delta bluesmen. Full-speed Johnson always struck me as a disembodied sound – befitting his wraith-like persona, the reticent, drifting youth, barely more than a boy, that Don Law spoke of: the Rimbaud of the blues. Johnson slowed-down sounds to me like the person in the recently discovered studio portrait: a big-boned man, self-assured and worldly-wise. It works for me, but listen for yourself.

Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, as officially released

Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, slowed down

If the theory I’ve advanced is not completely crazy, a possible motive for speeding up Johnson’s records might have been to try to make them more exciting for an age in which the Delta tradition he came out of was already a thing of the past.”

from   The Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan. by John Gibbens

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If you’ve read this far, I assume you’ve had a listen for yourself. Don’t know about you, but I find this theory pretty convincing – not least because it’s written with style and passion. Robert Johnson’s influence is undeniable but I’ve always had a problem with his delivery, which strikes me as a little heartless. The blues is at root a simple, heartfelt form that moves the listener through empathy. Displays of high-velocity picking may impress, but speed can destroy the spirit of the music just as surely as excessive volume.

Don’t get me wrong, I love heavy rock with a passion – it can unpick the knots of mad modern life like nothing else – but I can’t help thinking that a more soulful Robert Johnson could have influenced the blues and rock scene in a reflective, expressive and ultimately more human direction. We are all slaves of the machine, one way or another, and it feels like a little victory to hear the sound of a real person coming through the speakers …

 

Postscript:

In the interests of fairness, I feel I should include an alternative viewpoint. I found http://www.elijahwald.com/johnsonspeed.html after posting the above and have to admit it’s a pretty impressive counter-argument. However, it doesn’t mention the pitch experiments linked above and refers rather dismissively to ‘this story’.

Can I counter the counter-argument? I’ll take a blind stab at it. Elijah Wald admits Johnson was playing slowly when he came into the studio. The engineers would know musical tastes had changed and may have speeded recordings up to improve their appeal and fit them on the three-minute disc. This would affect everything recorded, released or unreleased. Fellow blues artists might keep schtum, not wanting to rain on the newly-departed’s parade once he’d achieved posthumous recognition. Modern experts who’ve praised him in public won’t want to rock the boat, either. The guitar-tuning arguments are inconclusive. And Johnson wasn’t playing jump-jive. This was scarifying Delta blues which achieves maximum menace at a stately pace.

If he did perform them too fast, it might have been nervousness or commercial pressure or both. Who knows? Perhaps it all comes down to what floats your boat and I’ll stick with my preference for the slower Johnson. If it turns out he really did give the music less air and time to breathe, that only confirms my uneasiness with the brusque and rather harsh playing manner. Either way, there’s no getting round his importance to the music.

But I’m not budging on auto-tuned vocals or machine-generated beats. And while I’m at it, stop singing and playing along to pre-recorded backing-tracks when performing to an audience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve recorded them yourself, they can’t respond to the live atmosphere and are – in effect – a dead hand in the room. If you want to double-track yourself, invest in an auto-loop device and learn how to use it while keeping the audience entertained.

Music is too important to be left to the technicians.

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We Can Be Together

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The death of Paul Kantner has hit me harder than I expected. More than anyone else that comes to mind, Paul represented the idealistic free spirit of the late 1960s when I had the very good fortune to come of age. Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution always carry a special power for me:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Wordsworth grew more conservative with age, perhaps because his fame and celebrity drew him to the establishment, whereas Kantner remained unapologetically radical to the end. His later Starship band may have been more commercial but was based on a concept that Paul brought to fruition as late as 2008, with the protest album Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. His continuing radicalism is clear in a recent interview with Ed Vulliamy:

“After a while, a figure approached, walking up the steep street in slippers, no socks, hair flowing from beneath a beret with a red star on it. Unmistakably: Paul Kantner …

… I always try to explain the entwined processes of age and politics in terms of two lines written by Paul. One is “Tear down the wall” – self-explanatory, from the Airplane’s revolutionary canon – and the other is “We are leaving / You don’t need us”, from Wooden Ships … One line affirms the revolutionary faith that is only extinguished – if it was ever felt – in those who lack soul. The other is the realisation with age that “the Wall” is still there, doing just fine, but one’s head hurts from banging against it and it is time to leave. For that distant place, be it in space – as Kantner believed – or within, or some shore towards which the Wooden Ships sail on their “fair wind blowing” …

… Kantner seemed ready to set sail. He broke into a requiem for all the things he and psychedelia had stood for, and a tirade against former vice president Dick Cheney – “almost as dangerous as fascism – at least Hitler had a cause!” – against SUV vehicles and mobile phones. But, he insisted, once the Summer of Love had happened in San Francisco, and the Airplane’s music was unleashed, “You are not going to be able to unring the bell! Thank you for your time.” With that, he stood up, shook my hand, signed my vinyl first edition of Surrealistic Pillow and strode off into the morning, cigarette in hand.”

In those volatile times – Vietnam was a huge awakening – Paul Kantner’s lyrics rang celebration and alarm bells alike and still resonate half a century later. But the revolutionary nature of bands like Jefferson Airplane was as much in the medium as the message. There was a wild, unpredictable, improvised edge to the music that defied the glib egotism of commercial celebrity with the fierce teamwork of a firebrand popular democracy – freedom, equality, solidarity – and the end result was always more than the sum of its parts. Surrounded by so many impassioned live bands – as I was lucky enough to witness – acts like the Airplane kept their headline status with a thrilling and daring musical empathy bordering on telepathy.

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The musical collective was as much spiritual as political.  Soon after hearing that Paul Kantner had died, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sat down and composed a statement about his fellow rhythm guitarist.

“Paul lived at the heart of the music, where the chords, the melody and the rhythm join together with the lyrics to form the story. His guitar was the glue that held all that together. His voice was the foundation of the choral vocals. Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse – when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channeled it through him.”

Weir explains that in the Airplane, the spotlight was on Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and musically, on Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady on bass.

Paul’s work was the mud from which those two lotuses grew. He made it possible for Jorma and Jack to be more adventurous with their lines, because they had a harmonic context, and a rhythmic context, to work off of.

As Bob Weir implies, Paul’s singing also underpins Grace and Marty’s extraordinary vocal flights in much the same way. His pivotal role is confirmed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, speaking after Paul’s death:

The Airplane was an amazing aggregate of personalities and talent. That we could all coexist in the same room was amazing. That we could function together and make the lasting art that we did was nothing short of a miracle. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.

These revealing personal insights made a refreshing change from the many lazy obituaries I ploughed through, all recycling the same facts and reducing Paul Kantner’s cultural significance and influence to a kind of celebrity tick-list. Put him back in the Sixties Box seemed to be the main idea. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Wall has been rebuilt and the Man is in charge again …

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But let’s not get gloomy, that was never Paul’s style. Bob Weir concludes with a more optimistic thought:

When somebody you’re part of, and of that kind of import, dies, it’s a good time to take stock of what he offered, and see what you can make of it, and what you can take from it.

Haha, where do I start? Well, I began this post with the intention of saying what Paul Kantner means to me and ended by sharing what he means to other people. But I am moved that what I sensed from a distance is confirmed by people who knew him. It feels good to have and to hold Paul Kantner in common. He was, after all, a warrior fighting for a shared human future. And are we brave enough to honour his memory, I wonder, by looking for all the other things we have in common and learning how to settle our differences amicably?

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We live in the spaces between one another. Music teaches us that. Like songs, we live on in the minds of others whenever we are out of sight and sound. In that sense, I suppose, we are already ghosts. Alive, dead, who cares as long as we are remembered with pride and affection? As William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’ And I’m still 19 whenever I listen to Crown of Creation.

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What else have I learned from Paul Kantner? Well, today, it’s … don’t vote for people who preach hate and division …  get out the car and go for a walk … and switch off your mobile phone.

It’s a start …

 

For Paul Kantner (1941-2016)

   'Where do we go from here, chaos or community?' - Paul Kantner


Two poems for peace 
which I offer in tribute 
to the memory 
of a true idealist



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		POSSESSION

We'd seen the posters stuck on every wall
(a travelling show encamped just out of town)
But when we looked again, saw none at all - 
As fast as they'd gone up they'd been torn down.
The balaclava boys were out in force
And hooded mobs watched out for signs of fun.
The circus came to town that night, of course,
But not as advertised. A signal gun

Was fired. The party crowd began to leave 
With blazing torches bobbing down the hill.
We heard the distant screams, could not believe
That folk we knew and liked were out to kill.
The evil from outside they'd keep at bay 
Burned deep within their foolish hearts that day.

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	  IN YOUR EYES

listen to the band play guitar
people come from very far
standing in a crowd you can't hide
and your joy is multiplied

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it 
	in their eyes

an old man stumbles in the street
all he can hear is the passing feet
go up to him and hold his hand
feel his life running out like sand

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it 
	in his eyes

live your life just for yourself
line your nest and count your wealth
build your walls as high as the skies
you can't buy a mirror that will tell you lies

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it
	in your eyes

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"Hide witch hide
The good folks come to burn thee
Their keen enjoyment hid behind
A gothic mask of duty ... "
        
	opening lyric of the album
	Blows Against the Empire (1970)
	by Paul Kantner


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       Rest in Peace


There’s A Whole Generation …

When we first heard this kind of music, we little thought that we’d still be listening to it half a century later.

50 years ago, old people in Britain sang sentimental music-hall songs like ‘Nellie Dean’ and cherished wartime performers like Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. Old men wore their de-mob suits on the beach and old ladies ate bread and dripping and wore whalebone corsets. This was the world of charabanc outings that the Beatles satirised in their underrated film Magical Mystery Tour. They – along with most of their musical contemporaries – believed that pop culture was ephemeral, something you did before you got a proper job. And when you retired with your gold watch, you’d be sipping warm Mackeson in a smoke-filled pub singing along to ‘We’ll Meet Again

But something had shifted. A fault line opened up. Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey still perform ‘My Generation’ with its now ironic line Hope I die before I get old. The Stones continue to defy gravity and strut their stuff to thousands of new young fans. Even the warring Davies brothers have buried the hatchet in a Kinks reunion. And tomorrow night I’m off to see the Pretty Things perform their still exciting 60s-style blend of rhythm’n’blues and psych-rock, with a new album described by Mojo magazine as ‘almost unfeasibly vital’.

As the great Bill Hicks used to say, ‘Who woulda thunk it?’

 

Grumpy Old Muso Rant #2

I really don’t want this topic to become a regular feature so here are all my gripes in one go:

  1. Intrusive photographers (see Grumpy Old Muso Rant #1)
  2. Sound engineers – usually young – who turn the dynamics of perfectly good rock bands into crass drum’n’bass
  3. People who talk loudly during gigs, making you wonder if they’ve got in without paying
  4. Performers who spend more time regaling the audience with anecdotes than playing music
  5. Small venues that oversell when they get the chance, turning the evening into one long game of Sardines
  6. People who shout out, “Play something we know!”
  7. Tribute bands that churn the stuff out note for note when the originals probably never played it the same way twice
  8. Clapping along on the On Beat
  9. Perfectionists who get halfway through a number, make a mistake and then force you to listen to the whole thing all over again as if it’s your fault
  10. Performers dissatisfied with the turnout who blame the people who have turned out for not bringing their friends

There may be more but no list should ever exceed 10 items. By order. And if you’re thinking I’m rather hard to please, you could have a point. I was once thrown off an anger-management course for punching the organiser. He made the mistake of recommending we go see more live music …

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Grumpy Old Muso Rant #1

Anyone else had an experience like this?

I am standing in a dense crowd near the stage in own little musical bubble, with the funky keyboards of Booker T Jones swirling around my head. Suddenly, I am barged from behind and forced to stagger forward. A small woman has pushed past me to take a photograph of the organ maestro. I shrug and get back in the groove. It happens again. The third time, I turn to her, moved to say something polite but firm.

Me   Look, if you want to take a photo just tap me on the arm and I’ll move aside. The pushing kinda breaks the spell …

She  You’re rude, you are!

Me    Oh, and shoving me in the back without warning isn’t?

She   (leaving for the back) You’ve spoilt my evening, you have!

I turn to watch her go and am confronted by a little guy with two large henchmen.

He     That’s my missus you’ve been slagging off, mate …

Me     Well, actually, it’s the other way around. I was standing there enjoying the music, when …

He      Button it … there’s people here trying to enjoy the show!

That is rich. And his pet Neanderthals – no offence to that unfortunate species – manage to look offended on behalf of the whole audience. I leave, but only to find a bouncer. Once I’ve told him the problem and he’s reassured me that I can rely on him if there’s any trouble, I go back to stand exactly where I was when so – yes – rudely interrupted. The sound is perfect there and besides, a principle is at stake.

I’m trying to get back in the bubble but now I can’t help wondering why people have to take photos at moments of particular musical intensity, oblivious to the enjoyment of others around them? And why do people sitting down insist that others, inspired to stand up and dance, move out of their personal sightline to the stage when the generous thing would be to enjoy the dancers’ joyful abandon? Is visual obsession the new fascism … oh, buggeration, the gig’s over! 20130114-cellphone-595-1358196043-650x0

Captain Beefheart (Slight Return)

Anyone who read my recent post Of Bob & Beefheart & A Big Old Hat may feel a sense of deja vu. I’m repeating the final section on Captain Beefheart (with a few additions to encourage re-reading) because my earlier post broke the 15+ tag prohibition and consequently didn’t show up on the WordPress Reader. Too many tags and too long-winded (just ask my friends, if you can wake them!) so I’ve cut to the chase, trimmed the fat and left you the juicy bits. Let’s see if this shows up on the radar … 

                                 

                                   Key   Brown for sound, big arrow on left to return to text

I like to imagine Bob Dylan tearing pages out of the rule book and feeding them one by one to a roaring fire on the windy beach in Mister Tambourine Man. But perhaps the best candidate for Most Complete Musical Rebel of the 1960s was Captain Beefheart. Don Van Vliet, to use his civilian name, certainly ticks all the boxes … though I can’t imagine he would enjoy filling in the forms.

There’s a filmed interview where Beefheart describes the bom-bom-bom-bom-bom of commercial music as ‘the mama heartbeat’ – a hypnotic that sent people into a trance, he believed, a cataleptic state from which he sought to shake them with his fractured and wildly unpredictable music. And just down the beach from Bob Dylan, here we see The Magic Band pretending to imitate the surf boys but please click on Diddy Wah Diddy to spot early signs of subversion.

Debut album Safe As Milk was conventional by later Beefheart standards with a commercial touch provided by Ry Cooder, whose favourite track was Autumn’s Child. I’ll plump for the even more surreal Abba Zaba, the only song I know that celebrates a private childhood mythology about a chocolate bar. Babbette Baboon was his secret name for the monkey on the wrapper …

The ‘difficult’ second album was Strictly Personal, wrecked or rescued – a matter of personal taste – by its trendy use of phasing effects. In my view, the material was strong enough without fancy production tricks. The controversy doesn’t stop there because John Lennon was reportedly offended by the pastiche of Beatle Bones ‘n’ Smokin Stones which pokes fun at the childlike elements in Strawberry Fields. This is ironic because the waspish Beatle never showed pity towards the objects of his own barbed lampoons. The irony deepens when you consider how childlike Beefheart was, still the young boy who won the sculpture competition but was prevented from taking up a six-year scholarship in France because his parents thought the art world too ‘queer’. You couldn’t make that up, could you? But it goes some way to explain what drove the guy. Yeah, strictly personal …

Widely acknowledged as The Magic Band’s masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica broke new territory in sheer Dadaist daftness. Almost as weird is the story of this monster double-album’s making as told in the excellent 1997 BBC Documentary – public broadcasting, yay! – narrated by John Peel, the DJ who made the band famous in the UK.

Come to think of it, why are you wasting time reading this when you could be watching the documentary?

trout-mask-replica-501d04ad4c085Oh no, you’re still reading … I expect you want to know what I think of the album. The short answer is, I’m trying hard not to. That front cover gives me the heebie-jeebies and this back cover scares me shitless. Who are these crazy people, that they invade my dreams and point their alien death rays in my direction?

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I have it on very good authority that anyone who makes the mistake of listening to these hideous jungle rhythms will never be the same again … so don’t say you haven’t been warned. By all accounts, the follow-up album Lick My Decals Off, Baby is even more scary. Let’s keep Halloween a wholesome family festival, I say … and will therefore take absolutely no responsibility for what might happen if you click on Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop which sounds to me like a foreigner of terrestrial or even extra-terrestrial origin pretending to speak English …

OK, feeble attempts to be funny aside, time to come clean! My name it is nothing (thanks for that, Bob) and I am a Captain Beefheart junky. I like everything he did, the weirder the better. TMR is a bona fide work of genius which should be heard all the way through at one sitting – hence no tracks here – and LMDOB, though it doesn’t always hang together, isn’t far behind.

But if your own strangeness threshold is set lower than mine you may be on safer ground with the album many folk say is the place to start – Clear Spot. Made with the intention of establishing a more commercial direction, its clean sound and crisp delivery can be heard on tracks such as Big Eyed Beans From Venus … but wait a minute, what’s with the weird song title? … and those people on the album cover with that spooky thing that looks like a spaceship command module … I think one of them might be Chinese …

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Hang on, unless I’m imagining it, I can hear these like well weird words …

Mister Zoot Horn Rollo / Hit that long lunar note / And let it float …..

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By contrast, the cover of Spotlight Kid shows the good Captain as a model of sartorial elegance, albeit a little dandified. But spin the platter and any suspicion he’s become a lounge lizard is dispelled after a few notes. We hear the old brain-mangling rhythms, the wild lyrical pastiche, the whole crazy circus – as here, in a live and dangerous version of the album’s most compelling track, Click Clack.

The mid 1970s were his wilderness years. Soft rock and singer-songwriters held sway and there seemed to be no place for this eccentric genius, never a friend to fashionable formulas. It took the rise of punk to bring him back in favour but Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was no garage record. Adventurous horn arrangements created a distinctive new soundscape for his usual flights of vocal fancy.The title track was an attempt to replicate the rhythm of windscreen wipers on a car at a level crossing with a train lumbering slowly past … his composing method always more like painting, daubing sound in layers. If all art aspired to the condition of music, as the Victorian critic Walter Pater believed, then you could count on Don Van Vliet to be moving in the opposite direction.

For fans of Beefheart’s weird side, Doc At The Radar Station was even more welcome. Here he returned to late 60s demos and created new songs around them, like Dirty Blue Gene, just as good live in 1980. And as for his last ever record, the third of his acclaimed come-back albums … would his newly-diagnosed illness and his return to painting find him muted and mellowed, taking the company shilling, selling out to the man at last? Anyone would have forgiven him for taking it easy.

The opening shot in the next clip looks promising. There he is, silhouetted against the golden evening sun, standing calm and quiet in a big old hat … tell you what, why don’t we give the old reprobate one more chance to prove he’s a reformed character? Let’s hit the album’s title track, kinda sweet idea ain’t it … Ice Cream For Crow?

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