Category: music

Vault Finding #8

Browsing through unused drafts, I’ve just found this clip of Jimi Hendrix playing a guitar instrumental evocatively entitled ‘Villanova Junction’.

Speaking as one lucky enough to have seen him live, I can testify that his semi-shamanic performances took audiences on thrilling musical journeys where fiery funk-rock numbers alternated with beautifully delicate and lyrical pieces such as this one.

For all his skill, however, he was no mere technician. A natural and instinctive player, his real genius lay in an uncanny – at moments, almost unearthly – facility for plucking the heartstrings. If you never glanced at the rapt faces all around, he might have been playing just for you …

 

 

 

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Vault Finding #3

As an amateur blues harmonica player, I’m always reading instruction books. One of the best managed to sweet-talk me through the tricky early-days business of bending notes – dropping your jaw is the key, I reckon – by alternating gentle practical guidance with support for my bruised beginner’s ego. The support took the form of little stories along these lines:

You’re standing in the wings, listening to the band play. The guitarist beckons you on. You don’t want to spoil things so you blow a safe note. To your surprise it blends in perfectly. The guitarist nods and smiles. So far, so good. You’re in business.

For me, the psychology worked. The message: sure, this is tough but think of the gratification to come! 

I just came across the following clip in my unused archives and recognised the same patient, encouraging tone. Success at anything is all about deferring gratification. And I don’t think you have to be a harmonica player to recognise the teaching skills on display here:

On the subject of excellence, how about this crystal-clear explanation of what made drummer John Bonham the driving force behind Led Zeppelin? Once again, I think, good teaching enhancing an experience of intrinsic value. Doubly excellent, you might say …

And finally, while I’m recycling examples of communication about music, how about this for sonic magic? Music is our common birth-right, although few attain this level of performance. Still, we all know enough to acknowledge excellence when we hear it. Surely life’s real joybringers are those like Anna-Maria who are willing and able to share its secret mysteries?

What floats your boat when it comes to music? I’d love to hear a favoured example of musical excellence from you. Or maybe a charmed explanation?

Ten Top Albums

A friend on Facebook challenged me to name 10 albums which made a big impression. I posted them over 10 days and then thought, hmm, why leave it at that when I could rejig them into a half-decent WordPress post? Waste not, want not, as granny used to say! 

And when I saw that the latest Daily Prompt was Sleeve … well, how could I resist?

Starting with the oldest, then, I’ll go for ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959). As kids wandering the streets we’d hear stuff like this coming out of houses and wonder what it was. Eventually found out that Miles Davis mostly improvised it with a brilliant line-up including John Coltrane and Bill Evans.

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Bob Dylan showed John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and many others how pop lyrics could venture beyond Tin Pan Alley’s Moon/June simplicities. Could have picked any of his early 60s albums but will go with 1965’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, if only because I still butcher four of its songs at open mic nights.

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As dedicated Beatles fans, we loved ‘Rubber Soul’ but ‘Revolver’ (1966) amazed us – John, Paul & George all spurred on by the Beach Boys and ‘Pet Sounds’ to reach their own song writing heights, helped by glorious musical arrangements from producer George Martin. Not one duff track. No wonder Brian Wilson blinked … though he did complete his ‘Smile’ masterwork 40 years later.

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The Beatles inspired the huge wave of creativity which fuelled the so-called Summer of Love – Pink Floyd’s ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ and eponymous album ‘The Doors’ both spring to mind – but the debut that made everyone’s jaw drop was ‘Are You Experienced’ by Jimi Hendrix (1967). They say if you remember the 60s you weren’t there, well, first heard this at a party that year and remember every damn thing – who, what, why, where and when!

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Growing up in the 60s you couldn’t ignore Jefferson Airplane – the most outspoken, volatile, political band of them all. I reckon 1968’s ‘Crown of Creation’ is their best disc, by a narrow squeak, although Paul Kantner’s solo concept album ‘Blows Against The Empire’ has the edge in radical fervour.

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As blues commentator Charles Shaar Murray advised, ‘Go for the live album!’ So many to choose from – Grateful Dead ‘Live’, Byrds ‘Untitled’, Who ‘Live at Leeds’, Hendrix ‘Band of Gypsys’, Marley ‘Live at the Lyceum’, Little Feat ‘Waiting For Columbus’, Thin Lizzy ‘Live and Dangerous’, Doctor Feelgood ‘Stupidity’, the list goes on – but, with the blues connection in mind, I’ll go for ‘At Fillmore East’ by the ever-classy Allman Brothers Band.

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Not only did The Doors produce one of the best ever debut albums but maintained the highest musical and lyrical standards right up to their fifth and final studio album ‘LA Woman’ (1971). This went back to their bluesy roots and was, as a noble swansong, close to perfection.

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Two 1970s US bands stood out from the crowd in bringing a distinctively jazzy edge to rock. Different ends of the jazz spectrum, too – swampy Noo Orlins and bustling Noo York – and who could do without either? So I’ll cheat and feature favourite albums by both bands – Little Feat’s ‘Dixie Chicken’ and Steely Dan’s ‘The Royal Scam’.

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If blues was where Africa met a Celtic tide, how can I ignore the traditional music of these isles? Folk-rock was my doorway via the Fairports, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band to the Watersons, Alan Stivell and Nic Jones. The Irish connection ran from Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Horslips to the Chieftains, Planxty and the Bothy Band – whose 1976 album ‘Old Hag You Have Killed Me’ has gorgeous songs and thrilling instrumentals.

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My final choice has to be Captain Beefheart, that wild and woolly rebel genius who rejected show-biz blandness – and the trance-like conformity of what he called ‘the mama beat’ – to produce music of startling originality. 1969’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ was his uncompromising masterwork but I’ll go for 1972’s ‘Clear Spot’ – no less challenging although perhaps a little easier on the ear.

Image may contain: textIf you’re up for the full nine yards, my exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) fan letter to music can be found by clicking A Life in MusicAfter 3 years some of the music links will have gone but even so you might consider taking a packed lunch …

Substitute

Z eitgeist Monitors stationed
O n the third planet report a disturbing displacement
O f natural realities by seductive virtual facsimiles.

 

 

An acrostic poem suggested by the WordPress Daily Prompt Zoo and in response to an uneasy feeling that we may be lost in a collective trance of our own devising. At first I thought it was just me but The Who also appear to have noticed something strange …

 

The Art of the Possible

“No artist tolerates reality.”  –  Friedrich Nietzsche

And no artist was more influenced by Nietzsche than Jim Morrison of the Doors. His last ever song-recording was the majestic Riders On The Storm which presents Nietzschean philosophy in a nutshell.

Life, according to Nietzsche, is neither good nor bad. It is interesting. He urges us to be creative and invent new values. ‘Nothing is true,’ he writes, adding, ‘everything is permitted.’

Morrison’s lyric suggests that life is a beautiful yet fragile mystery, without obvious rules but wide open to creative interpretation. His song’s dark imagery nevertheless has the power to Enlighten if we can only – as he urges elsewhere – break on through to the other side. He took the idea that we’re thrown on to the earth from philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Here’s the song, followed by a transcript of the words. There may be no commandments  but, in the free spirit of Jim and his mentors, I’ll end this post with 10 possibilities for artists:

 

Riders On The Storm

 

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm 

There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If you give this man a ride
Sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah

Girl, you gotta love your man
Girl, you gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm, etc.

10 Suggestions
art holds up a mirror to nature
intuitions give rise to explanations
seek unity in diversity
make new meanings from old ingredients
character is choice under pressure
suffering yields insight
enact a better world
truth is beautiful fiction
turn subjectivity into objectivity
create as if life depended on it
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Image: Pinterest

 

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.

SSL_SL9000J_(72ch)_@_The_Cutting_Room_Recording_Studios,_NYC

 

 

 

 

 

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 …