Archive for August, 2005

Entry for August 26, 2005

August 26, 2005

The completely fab people at MOJO/Q magazines recently published a special issue entirely devoted to progressive rock, and by slapping Pink Floyd on its cover at precisely the right moment—circa their Live8 performance—probably sold copies by the arkload.

How sad, then, that due to the vagaries of fate—and the appearance of an additional advertisement at the very last minute—the following commissioned piece was paid for but pulled.

Luckily, in my personal quest to make use of any collection of text previously produced but as yet unseen for the purposes of this so-called “blog,” I now present you with the piece that represents the “American” take on Progressive Rock. Damn, it’s impressive!

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It’s May 1968. We are at the Gulfstream Race Track in Hallandale, Florida, at the first Miami Pop Festival. Eyes open wide, we are watching a crazy man who sings like Tom Jones ascending the scaffolding of the main stage, microphone in one hand, singing. Below him onstage are organist Vincent Crane and very young drummer Carl Palmer, riffing wildly, seemingly oblivious to the whereabouts of their lead singer, one Mr. Arthur Brown. Moments later, near the very top of the structure, the singer fiddles with his zipper, tugs rapidly, and then proudly announces to the befuddled audience: “I give you Americans….MY COCK!”

Fourteen years later in Detroit, I am asking an older—and quite wealthier—Carl Palmer about the very same incident. He cackles somewhat. “I didn’t see him actually expose himself,” he says, “but he did it quite a lot.”

Somewhere between those two points, progressive rock arrived, and America clutched it to its swollen bosom.

To my ears, it officially arrived locally in November 1969, when those of us at the West Palm Beach Pop Festival watched a then unknown British group called King Crimson feature an entire orchestra over the public address system, launched from what appeared to us to be some sort of odd-shaped organ. We’d heard it before—on Their Satanic Majesties Request, say—but always assumed we were hearing live strings; we’d certainly never seen a mellotron before. And those of us who’d read the festival schedule had been expecting this King Crimson to be a soulful Bahamian percussion act in the first place.

One might say prog rock then arrived full bore—pardon the expression—locally in little over a year, when opening act Humble Pie left the stage and a road crew then wheeled out a massive drumset, gong included, and a equally massive array of keyboards, including organ, piano, and a big box that looked like a telephone operator’s nightmare. The latter was a synthesizer, of course—the first one most of us had seen—and it would be played by Keith Emerson, formerly of the Nice, joined by Greg Lake of King Crimson and the same Carl Palmer of Arthur Brown’s acquaintance.

This of course was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, soon referred to by a growing legion of fans as ELP, in many ways the conceptual grandfathers of it all. For two reasons: First, their instrumental prowess—not slim—was conspicuously announced through a route of excess—via the raw amount of stage equipment, the deliberately extended length of songs, and theatrics that included Emerson’s lovably hammy stabbing of his organ with knives and Palmer’s delightfully choreographed use of gong. Secondly, in the tradition of the blues-based Cream and Blind Faith before them, this trio was a “supergroup.” Americans like baseball cards and Americans like supergroups, and in a perfect world Americans would collect them both.

Though a surprising number of obscure prog albums had already seen US release—Arzachel and the Egg albums were there in the racks, for example—no one had quite figured out if indeed an actual movement was afoot. One presumes someone somewhere, after intaking the requisite amount of cannibis for the standard rock epiphany, might’ve had an inkling of excess-to-come by staring at the truckload of equipment proudly laid out on the backside of Ummagumma, but many of us were caught unprepared. Especially when at least two bands we were already vaguely familiar with—blues-rockers-with-flute Jethro Tull, and apparent Beatles/Buffalo Springfield fans Yes—would become virtual prog demigods in short order.

“At one time it was very fashionable in London to do Beatles numbers but to draw them out,” bassist John Wetton told me in 1982, “you know, what the Vanilla Fudge did with the Supremes?” Wetton, in the prog/baseball card collecting world, may indeed be the genre’s most valuable player, with a resume that includes stints with Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, UK, and Uriah Heep, among other endeavors. “That’s where all these bands came from, make no mistake about it,” he said. “They all took Beatles songs, stretched them out to full blown arrangements, and then thought, `Wait a minute—why are we playing the Beatles? We get no publishing royalties on this. Let’s write one that’s a bit similar.’ The whole art-rock movement started with Spooky Tooth and all those bands–like Yes and Jethro Tull—rearranging blues numbers and Beatles standards and writing their own songs like that, then stretching them out further and making 15-minute epics out of them.”

The onslaught came, and Americans sat there transfixed as Steve Howe and company played not 15-minute epics, but the entire quartet of album sides that comprised Tales Of Topographic Oceans, all the while perched in a Roger Dean-designed stage set that Bilbo Baggins might mistake for his backyard. Indeed, when Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, notable for consisting of just one song, reached No. 1 on the American charts, rest assured that song was not “Cat’s Squirrel.” This was a market ready, willing and eager to see Rick Wakeman perform his Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table—and not just because of its accompanying bonus ice show.

If one wanted to put a finger on the precise point when prog made its final commercial stand Stateside before sliding into the cult/muso ghetto where it presently resides, consider the band I was speaking with in Detroit those years ago. That band was Asia—featuring Wetton, Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and former Buggle/Yesman Geoffrey Downes—a veritable prog supergroup-of-supergroups, who folded up their collective 15-minute epics into 3-minute long pop songs and saw their debut album hold the peak position of the Billboard album charts for 9 full weeks. Their biggest hit was “Heat Of The Moment,” but as they faded from the picture—and fade they did, quite quickly—the title took on at least a sliver of poignancy. And, perhaps to someone in some small Eastern European village, begged for its own concept album.

Entry for August 25, 2005

August 25, 2005

PUBLICITY SHOT OF THE DAY

Flying in the face of all truth in labeling laws comes the exciting…Bimbo!

Entry for August 24, 2005

August 24, 2005

SOUND YOUR FUNKY HORN: CHRIS SPEDDING (Part 2)

Interviewed on March 3, 1996

 

6)Motor Bikin’

Chris Spedding, from Chris Spedding (Rak, 1976)

“Motor Bikin”‘ is my bona fide hit.  If I’m a one-hit wonder, it’s because of “Motor Bikin’.” It was produced by Mickey Most, who I’d worked with on a Donovan record [Cosmic Wheels] Unfortunately, when we did “Motor Bikin’,” it was hit and then they decided to do the album.  But if I would’ve had the album out at the same time as a hit record, it would’ve probably done a lot better.

That was a good period for me–very creative–and I was writing a lot of songs.  It was the year before the punk thing happened, and I was the old leather jacket and short hair.  I was on Top Of The Pops and everybody else had flared pants and platform boots, it was quite funny to see.  I think what it was was that whenever I’d go to session, everybody would be looking at the Top 10 and they’d say, “I want it to be like this song, ” which was Number 5 at the time. But in fact my first inspiration was stuff like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Elvis and stuff like that, and I said, ‘Well, there’s room for stuff like that, so I wrote “Motor Bikin’.” Eddie Cochran used to write about cars, Chuck Berry used to write about cars.  I know there was “Born To Be Wild,” but there was never a song that was called “Motor Bikin”‘ that was about motorbikes, and that’s a very rock  â€˜n’ roll image. So I wrote it more or less by default. I said, “What isn’t on the charts,” and it was that rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll-type feeling.  So I wrote that for the opposite reasons. Mickey got me out of my Island deal.  We didn’t even have a contract signed when the thing was a hit, which is pretty rare in the music business We didn’t even have the contract signed until the royalty check came–and we said we better because of the formality, so we did.

Playing on it was [drummer] Barry Morgan–we did it at Morgan Studios–and the guy we got in Sharks in the end,  [bassist] Dave Cochran, who was also in Roy Harper’s group.

Ironically, when “Motor Bikin”‘ was in the charts, I was. touring England with John Cale.  His guitar player was the guy with the hit single, which was odd.  We didn’t play it.  His audience didn’t even want to know about “Motor Bikin’,” it was a teenybopper record.  There was nobody shouting for “Motor Bikin”‘ or “Give Chris a chance”; nobody was interested.  It’s pretty odd when you think about it.

 

7)Music Breakout

Chris Spedding, from Guitar Graffiti (Rak, 1979)

The Guitar Graffiti album was consciously made to be performed live–it wasn’t a “studio album” per se, it was an album made in the studio with rhythm guitar and lead guitar without lots of keyboards.  There were backing vocals and stuff, but it was made as a rock album, not as a studio pop album.

Basically Side A was studio tracks, with me doing all of the stuff myself–including the bass, keyboards and drum machine, which was pretty rudimentary in those days.  I got a real drummer in afterwards, Tony Newman.  I needed some more groove and feeling, so the drummer played to the track, knowing that the track was in good time, because we’d already used a drumbox. Sometimes we used both the drummer and the drumbox in the mix.

“Music Breakout” was on Side B. There’s that one studio track, and the rest of the side is filled up with a montage of live stuff from the tour that I’d done to promote the previous album, Hurt.  “Music Breakout” was the old Sharks song that never got recorded, it was on the [unreleased] third album.  It was written by Steve Parsons [Sharks singer Snips], and I thought it was quite prophetic–inasmuch in 1973 he was talking about “waves” and “riding waves” when everybody was talking about the “new wave” years later.  With Sharks I used to do it as a kind of ballad, this time I made it more rocky, more uptempo.

 

8)The Crying Game

Chris Spedding, from I’m Not Like Everybody Else (Rak 1980)

I was in England producing an album for Steve Parsons, the Sharks vocalist, called La Rocca; he was still going under the name of Snips then. After I finished that, Mickey Most said, “Why don’t we do an album?”  I had some songs, and that became the Not Like Everybody Else album.

I like “Crying Game” because it’s got a good mood.  It was Mickey’s idea to do it–another example of Mickey’s talent in getting somebody to stretch themselves and do something that they wouldn’t normally do.  I’d never have dreamed of doing it, because the song itself has a big wide range.  And when we did do it, I remembered that the original Dave Berry version had this great sort of guitar sound.  I think Jim Sullivan used not a wah-wah but a steel guitar volume pedal–where the sideways motion is a tone control, sort of a primitive wah-wah–and he was making these crying noises on it.  And I thought, ‘Well, that’s great, but I can’t copy that.” The only way I know how to make the guitar cry is to turn the tape around and do it backwards.  So I wrote the chords from the last bar to the first bar, backwards, turned the tape over, and I played, reading  the chart, backwards guitar. And  t had this crying effect, which I was always pleased about. It was a technical thing, but there  again it had this sort of mood that I like. It was a cover done years before the movie version.

Incidentally, Dave Berry was a fellow Sheffield man. Pre-Beatles, around 1959-60, he had the best band around and was just playing up rhythm and blues.  He used to do Chuck Berry numbers very, very well–and then he became a recording artist and became known as a balladeer.  I think maybe when I was a kid I came up and asked him for his autograph, because he was my big idol at the time.  He was the best rocker around–it was pre-Beatles, 1959-60.   I never knew Joe Cocker back then, but I did know Chris Stainton.  He was in a rival school band and played bass.  He was always incredibly good.

 

9)Love’s Made A Fool Of You

Chris Spedding, from The Enemy Within (New Rose, 1985)

That’s another thing that’s got a great mood.  I totally rearranged the Buddy Holly song and gave it kind of a Bo Diddley beat, and I liked the way it turned out.  It’s got Anton Fig on drums, and its the first thing we did on the album.  The guitar solo is live on the backing track, and everything else was overdubbed around the guitar solo.  It has a mood to it that I like.

When I did this whole list and looked it over, I realized that I’d chosen songs that had a good, satisfying mood to them.  I don’t know why, but that song just sort of struck me.  When I put

it on, it paints a kind of picture.  It’s very subjective.  I like the way it sounds, and it’s a successful, mix, recording, performance.

The only thing that was overdubbed was the vocal.  We edited it down a bit–it was about six or seven minutes of jamming–so I just edited it down rather than struggle to put spontaneous-sounding guitar on.  Overall I was pretty pleased with the result. It was the first track of the whole project for the album, and I played all lead guitar through it, which I normally wouldn’t do. I’d normally lay a rhythm part down and do a rhythm part first and then do the lead later, by which time I’d have plenty of time to figure what I was going to do, but then it wouldn’t sound spontaneous.  So on that I just went ahead and played the solo.

 

10)Portobello

Chris Spedding, from Cafe Days (New Rose 1990)

One guy in Toronto put up half the money for Cafe Days, New Rose Records put up the other half, and Steve Berlin produced it. The mixes are not to my liking; I’d like to have remixed it. What’s special about it?  On “Portobello” it all gelled.  It was a mood piece.  It’s quite minimal lyrically–there are only three lines of lyrics in it that are repeated–and it’s the one track off that record that I like, that came off.  It’s a kind of mood that I haven’t explored in years.

I remember “Portobello” being around in demo form.  I used to do demos on a Revox using sound-on-sound before I got my 8- track; I used to mess around with a drum machine doing demos like that.  I probably wrote the song in the early ’80s, and it took a good 10-12 years to get to a record.

All the album’s drum parts were done by Steve Berlin, the producer, and they were all pretty comprehensive–they were like what a drummer would play on a pretty state-of-the-art drum machine.  But on “Portobello,” it seemed to work with just the drum machine.

 

 

Entry for August 23, 2005

August 23, 2005

MOJO Magazine used to run an irregular feature titled “Sound Your Funky Horn,” in which musicians of particularly distinguished pedigree would reminisce about their all-time favorite recording sessions.  It was always a good read–and the selection of the artist typically proved the magazine’s editorial astuteness.

So I was slightly befuddled in 1996, when the magazine asked me to profile British guitarist Chris Spedding for a slot in series, and the piece never ran.

I suspect it may have fallen in between the cracks during an editorial shift there (of which there were many), or else somebody  there simply didn’t think what Spedding had to say was all that interesting—but, um, if that was the case, one might ask, why did they set up the interview in the first place?

Editors: they are so wacky!

Presented here in two parts, then, is the previously unpublished Spedding piece—which, considering the timeframe covered within, is as relevant today as it was in 1996, when it was written. In a manner of speaking.

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SOUND YOUR FUNKY HORN: CHRIS SPEDDING

(Interviewed on March 3, 1996)

1)Theme From An Imaginary Western

Jack Bruce, from Songs For A Tailor (Polydor 1969)

It was kind of my first session–my first big session, anyway.  I was pretty well unknown in the session field at that time.  And I didn’t really know how records were made.  Jack came in with the piano part and Jon Hiseman played the drums, and it was left for me to fit something in between the drum part and the piano part. When the record came out, I heard this great song–“Theme From An Imaginary Western.” I always thought, well if he’d have played me the song, I might’ve played this or I might’ve played that.  I didn’t know how records were made.  I was trying to fit in.  So whenever anybody hears that, bear that in mind–that I’m trying to fit in between a piano part and a drum part.  That was all I heard to go on.  I didn’t hear him sing, I didn’t hear a bass part.  And I thought that was how people made records.  Of course that was just how Jack chose to make that particular record.  I always thought I could’ve done a little different and it might be better, but Jack must’ve liked what I did, because he brought me back to do his next album, Harmony Row.  It was his first solo thing after Cream, and I was a bit conscious of stepping into Eric Clapton’s shoes.  And I was conscious of–well, Eric would’ve done this, so I’m gonna do totally opposite.  I was conscious of playing totally opposite so I wouldn’t get compared to him.  I thought he wanted somebody that was different to Eric because he’d played with Eric for so long.

The song was written by by Pete Brown and Jack Bruce. That was how I came to know Jack–I was in the right place at the right time.  He’d wanted a guitar player, and he came to see the band [Pete Brown & the Battered Ornaments] a few times, and he must’ve figured that he could use me on the other stuff.  The reason I like this song is because it’s a great piece of music, it’s a great melody, and it has a great mood to it.  And I found after I chose all these songs that I really chose things that had a good mood to them, that actually depicted a picture, had a great feeling or a great mood.

I think Jack knew what he wanted.  Neither Felix [Pappalardi, producer] or Jack gave me any direction, and at that point I think I was kind of in need of some direction.  I was totally in deep water–I’d jumped into the deep end of the pool with that one.  It was a big-time session and I wasn’t being given any clues or help or hints and I guess I managed to do the best I could.

It was also one of the first big records that Andy Johns did, who at that time was the staff engineer at Morgan studios, and he also worked with the Battered Ornaments, so Jack used our studio and our engineer.  Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, we recommended Andy Johns to him.  Andy Johns at that time was pretty much an unknown–later on he went on to do “All Right Now” and “Brown Sugar.” That was one of his first projects.

 Harmony Row was a bit more jazz-fusiony.  Jack was a little bit ahead of his time with that.  If those records had come out maybe three or four years later…Because the Mahavishnu Orchestra became popular, and Miles Davis’s Bitches’ Brew and stuff like that.  He was kind of a pioneer at that time with jazz fusion.  Because it wasn’t commercial at that time.  It was kind of a shame that a little later on that would’ve been a little more acceptable to some people, that type of stuff.

Harmony Row was more of a jazz fusion thing, which I’m not good at.  I can just about make those weird time signatures and stuff–just about make them–but I’m not that comfortable with them.  I always think it’s like a heartbeat in music–a beat which goes dum, dum, dum–you’re gonna give somebody palpitations, or at least it’s going to make them feel awkward, and they won’t know why.  It’s got to be like a regular beat, not with any odd eighth notes in the measure.  But of course Jack was well into that, and he’d have all these 7/8 and 9/8 signatures and chop them and change them in and out of time.  I remember that I was working with John Marshall on the Harmony Row thing, and sometimes we’d be there before Jack would arrive at the studio, and we’d think, what sort of monumental piece of music do we have to master today?  What’s he gonna bring us in today?  Music to me should feel comfortable, because then the listener will feel comfortable.  And we used to try to make these odd pieces sound as comfortable as we could.  To me they always sounded a little bit awkward.  But “Theme For An Imaginary Western” I think is a great piece of writing–and I forgive him for all the 9/8 stuff, if he writes the occasional song like that.

2)Elastic Rock

Nucleus, from Elastic Rock (Vertigo, 1970)

I think they’d already cut the backing track, and they got me in one morning–I was bleary-eyed at 10 in the morning and I was just wondering whether my car was parked properly or was going to get towed away.  And they played me this track which had some odd time signatures in it, some very odd time signatures.  They had just replaced [guitarist] Bernie Holland with me, and they gave me kind of a first- take solo–and I was quite pleased that it came off as well as it did.  There are a couple of little dodgy notes in it, but I don’t think I could do it again, you know? It’s what it is, you know?  But then again it has a good mood to it. And it was a title track and the album did well, so I was quite proud of that, because it’s a good representation of my jazz-solo style,if you can call it that.  I was very influenced by Jim Hall, and it has that sort of sound to it.  And I don’t think there’s another recorded example of that style that I’m proud of, so that’s why I included that.

I guess they were kind of following in Miles Davis’s footsteps there. There was a clique of musicians there that would always buy Miles Davis’s latest album and rave about it.  And of course they decided they wanted to go into jazz rock, and they needed to add a rock element to it–and I became the rock element.  Because I’d been through a phase of playing jazz, so I could relate to jazz musicians easier than most rock ‘n’ roll-based guitar players could.  I had certain common roots in the bebop thing that they did, and also I could play rock ‘n’ roll that sounded like rock ‘n’ roll–it didn’t sound like some jazz guitar player trying to play rock ‘n’ roll, you see.

I was quite amused by the fact that I could play the corniest old Steve Cropper lick–not to say Steve Cropper is corny–but the simplest basic Steve Cropper lick, and because the drummer was playing like Tony Williams and the bass player was playing like Ron Carter, it would sound totally different, and they’d be floored by it.  And it would be the most simple thing imaginable.  I could come up with a cliche that a guitar player would never dream of playing, and in this context it would sound amazing.  And they never heard this cliche before, so they would think I’d be very inventive.

I always must say that I was not quite in the same bag as being totally into doing a Miles Davis/Bitches’ Brew kind of thing–I always look at it as sort of a bit bogus.  Why don’t we just play rock ‘n’ roll if you want to do it?  I always said to John Marshall, at the end of an hour-long set, he’d be thrashing away on the backbeat, and I’d say, why’d it take you 50 minutes to get to the backbeat?  Why don’t you just start off playing the backbeat, like Ringo would?  But it was a good experience; I’m glad I did it.

3)Super Womble

The Wombles, from Superwombling (CBS, 1975)

I thought I ought to include the Wombles.  Mike Batt was a talented writer.  The Wombles were a kiddies puppet show, he wrote the theme music, and it became a big hit.  And it was a jumping off point for him to use his very eclectic talents, to put together Womble music for all these kids.  I’m always very proud of the fact that most adult listeners in England today, as adult music fans, probably had their first musical experience with a Wombles record.  That’s something to be proud of.

Clem Cattini on drums, Ray Cooper did the percusion, Les Hurdle and sometimes Herbie Flowers on bass–[Batt] had a little sort of session team he used to use.  It was at Wessex Studios. And those were huge records, and of course because of the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be known that we were session musicians, I didn’t get known for being on the Wombles records until I actually spoke up and said, “Hey, I’m on those records”–and I was proud of being on them, because they were well-made records, and hugely succesful in England.

4)In Your Mind

Bryan Ferry, from In Your Mind (Polydor, 1977)

Let’s Stick Together was not done as an album, it came out as an EP in England, and it was put together with some other tracks that I wasn’t on as Let’s Stick Together as an album in America.  I think I did the Let’s Stick Together songs first, and then we did this–which was an album, and this track is the title track of that album.  By the time we got to the album, I was in a situation where [Ferry’s] manger called me once to see how the session was going.  And I was saying how bored I was with sitting around waiting for everybody to learn the song–that by the time it came to my solo, my spontaneity was gone.  People have said I play better on other people’s records than I do on my own. There’s a good reason for that, if it’s true.  On other people’s records, I go to the studio with my mind completely blank and I play spontaneously and react to the music that’s going on.  If I’d have to do a solo, maybe I hadn’t heard the track before and it’s a first take.  How can I do that on my own records, when I’ve written the song and I know what it is?  There’s a certain spontaneity that’s lacking, and if what they say is true, that’s probably the reason.

And Bryan Ferry was very hip–inasmuch that he realized that I was getting bored hanging around doing a track, so he’d make the guys come in in the morning.  I’d be sitting at home, and I’d get a call and drive in.  They’d have everything set up for me and I’d do my solo, first take, maybe having heard the song only once–and this was the case with the solo on “In Your Mind.” Again, it was very hip of Bryan to do that, which is what I’d like to say about Bryan.

I always get asked what’s your favorite artist you’ve worked with, and I get worried because all these people will be left out.  But I can say two artists.  I enjoyed Ferry in the studio–on the road it wasn’t spontaneous at all, because we were just recreating the record.  But John Cale in the studio–he’s a little too experimental to make a great record.  Never sort of locks in and concentrates–it’s always sort of throwaway in the studio.  But I love him live.  The band I was in with John Cale promoting Slow Dazzle was dynamite–things would be in different keys, different tempos, and I’d be surprising him with stuff.  It was a very creative thing.  It’s a pity [the gigs] weren’t all recorded, because they’d be all great stuff …

I always wanted to get John to do that stuff in the studio, but he never wanted to trust me producing in the studio to try to get that.  It would involve doing stuff to a click track and then editing in afterwards.  I always wonder what would happen if we got together and did that, with me sort of controlling it a bit more.  I don’t think it’ll happen, which is a shame—because together we could do something really amazing.  He can improvise, lyrics and chord progressions, and we can follow each other. Occasionally you have a train wreck, and if you’ve got a click track, you can cut it out and meld it together.  That’s my idea of getting the best of John Cale.  It would be brilliant.  There would be nobody who could touch it.  I think maybe if he reads this, he can call me up.

5)All The Way From America

Joan Armatrading, from Me Myself I (A&M, 1980)

That was a good experience, that’s probably one of the better albums that I’ve done as a session guy.  It was a very fulfilling experience–we did it in New York, and it’s probably her biggest-selling album, actually, I think.  I didn’t know her at all, I was just called for the session.  All the other guys were American session players.  We had a bit of trouble with “All The Way From America” because the other guitar player, this American guy on it, they’d given the lead part to him.  And it was alright, but they wanted some special flavor to it.

And as a British person I was thinking, now what is a guitar sound that says America? And I came up with this sort of Duane Eddy sound.  I didn’t change what was being played, I just played it in a Duane Eddy sound.  And everybody said, “Oh, of course, that’s perfect,” so I got to play the lead part on it, and it turned out pretty good.  There again it had a mood to it–because it was a mood thing, Duane Eddy/spaghetti Western/wide-open type cowboy sound.  And it just fitted a song about America by somebody who wasn’t American. Maybe because of the fact that I was the only other British person on the session, and I came up with the idea–which an American person probably wouldn’t have the same vision of, of what is an American guitar sound, you see?

She was one of these moody artists, the uncommunicative moody artist, but I was fascinated working with her.  Because she knew exactly what she wanted and she’s extremely talented, so what more can you want, you know?  I know there was one part where I was playing a ballad part and I had my guitar really distorted, but it was the sort of part that, say, Steve Cropper would play really cleanly.  And she really worried about it, so I said, “No, trust me, it’s gonna sound great,” and she did.  And it’s on the record like that.  I would be pretty uncompromising myself, and so would she, and it came off as an artistic result. I have the highest regard for her.

 

 

Entry for August 22, 2005

August 22, 2005

I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago and was thumbing through a big fat music book called Sonic Cool, written by one Joe Harrington.

In it, I came across a passage that made me giggle:

“In a revelatory article entitled `Rock Critics: Why They’re Morons,’ published in CREEM in 1987 just before the magazine went down for good, writer Hercules `Archie’ Bovis makes a good point:…”

Forgive me for not mentioning writer Bovis’s good point—man, was it good, the guy’s a genius!—but as a former editor of CREEM, I was compelled to go back home and dig that article up and check it out for myself.

Revelatory is right! It was a piece I wrote, after I’d left the magazine, when my good buddies the editors had a ‘content hole” and needed somebody to fill it in a jiffy. If I remember correctly, I found the pseudonym in a sample news story included as part of the Xywrite word processing program in the computer I was using at Billboard, where I then worked. Just dug that the quotation marks were around the middle name instead of the first. (Sample pick-up line: “Hi! You can call me Archie, but my real name is Hercules!”)

By the tone of the piece, you can see why leaving CREEM for a real job at Billboard was a no-brainer for me at the time. Little did I suspect that no good records at all would be released for the next 19 years!!

Anyway, here’s the piece as it ran:

ROCK CRITICS: WHY THEY’RE MORONS

By Hercules “Archie” Bovis

I am a fan of rock ’n’ roll. I like to listen to it. I have listened to it for years.

I don’t like to read about it.

I have read about it for many years, and what I read is usually poorly written. Almost always, it is poorly written. When it isn’t poorly written, it is filled with poor judgment by rock critics who have misinformed, second-hand opinions.

However, as you are now reading this, and I am writing it–all because John Mendelssohn, who normally fills this space, is not filling it–perhaps I had best explain myself further. In case you think I may be wrong.

Let’s run it down point by point:

I: THE “HISTORY” OF ROCK IS WARPED

Best illustrated, of course, by an issue of Rolling Stone a few months back which purported to document “The 100 Best Albums Of The Last 20 Years.” It was as good an example as any of the current critical consensus about the best rock albums ever made.

The article was full of shit.

II: WHY

The majority of people who now write about rock music for a living are under 35 years old, mostly because the pay is so crummy. The ones who are older–and they’re getting less and less in number–usually pull down full-time pay at a daily newspaper, work for non-music magazines, or else have a “real” job in some other, unrelated field. If not, they are very likely socially maladjusted. It doesn’t really matter.

The bulk of those under-35 critics grew up reading magazines like this one, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Fusion, Changes, Hullaballoo/Circus, Hit Parader or a few others. Most of those magazines usually contained the writing of the same, say, 25 people–including Mendelssohn, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Paul Nelson, Lenny Kaye, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and a limited number of others. Go buy issues of these magazines from about ’68 to ’73, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Anyway, it is a very safe bet to say that this group of 25 people combined formed what is now regarded as The Way Rock Went Down In History. In other words, together they assigned random bands such as the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band incredible importance in rock’s scheme of things. Likewise, when things were dull, they droned way too loudly about performers like Rod Stewart, the Who, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and more.

The important part comes next. All of today’s under-35s absorbed these opinions in their formative years–and they trusted them completely. So completely, in fact, that this “new” breed of rock writers never learned to go back and listen to that era’s critically-lauded music without always being conscious of its alleged greatness. Thus, whenever these under-35s critique current music, their past reference points (Revolver, Dylan & The Band, James Brown’s Apollo recordings, even Exile On Main Street) make “historic” sense, and re-establish what was, by and large, a spontaneous opinion generated by someone like Lester Bangs when he needed to write three more pages of copy–copy that has, by accident, become history.

In short, if you want to know the opinion of every rock writer now in the business, find one of Rolling Stone‘s paperback record review collections–preferably from the ’68-’73 era–and you’ll know. Visualize, if you will, the under-35 rock writer as a human meat grinder, with the unchopped meat represented by Documented Rock History, the writer’s “new” opinion the homogenized, potential sausage or hamburger patty spewed out on the keys of his or her typewriter–and, eventually, the printed page

III: OLD CRITICS NO BETTER

By no means does this imply that only those rock writers over 35 know what they’re talking about. Indeed, even back in those days, as they were writing what would become historical rock criticism, they were continually conscious of their peers’ opinions of their own critical accuracy. Witness how the perception of Elvis Presley changed in the 10 years since his death: people who once scoffed at the artist began to write books about him, continually revising their opinions until, in 1987, you will not find a single rock writer who will admit to ever thinking Presley was less than All That Is Rock.

What happened? Why did they change their minds? Do you think you will ever see a well-known, respected rock writer not give a shit and plainly state that Presley’s importance to the music itself was minimal compared to his sociological relevance? If you know rock music, you’re not supposed to feel that way.

Critics’ revisionist antics are hilarious. Even Robert Christgau, probably the most astute rock critic out there, could not resist revising the grades of the albums he reviewed in his Consumer Guide column when all were collected for publication in book form. Maybe he would call it hindsight; what it really was, though, was his not wanting to look foolish because he was caught up in the Myth Of What Is Good. And maybe he wanted to stop liking artists he’d previously liked when it was historically appropriate to stop liking them.

IV: IT’S ONLY TIMELY ONCE

“Sociological relevance.” Putting too many words in quotation marks is either the mark of a poor writer or a borderline schizophrenic; I hate to do it. But those two words have rendered the bulk of rock writing totally useless.

Rolling Stone voted the Sex Pistols’ one album the second best album of the past 20 years. It sucked. What was important was what it “stood for.”

Remember when “The Message” was voted #1 Single Of The Year by a large group of American Rock Writers? Ask an American Rock Writer when he or she last listened to it. Then ask them which is better–“The Message” or “Friday On My Mind” by the Easybeats. They’ll get very uneasy; it’s called cognitive dissonance.

In fact, Christgau’s famous, annual year-end Village Voice critics’ poll–that’s what we’re talking about here–is the ultimate case in point. As the number of voters has grown over the years to encompass rock writers at daily newspapers, fanzines, etc., the poll winners have become embarrassingly predictable and, most often, laughable.

Rap artists like L.L. Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, by common consensus, make 1986’s “best” records; next year, if each artist makes an even better record, let alone one just as good, it won’t make any difference at all, they’ll end up in the Top 15, and in two years probably won’t be there at all. Just ask someone like Richard Thompson, King Sunny Ade, or Paul Simon–all who have placed highly or been totally absent in different years’ polls, all with their own series of albums that, on a purely musical level, were equally as innovative or interesting.

In other lines of work, it’s what’s known as following the party line. Christgau or any other influential writer gives the nod to an act, and if it’s early enough in the year, say, his opinion will be absorbed and rewritten by the 400 rock writers who saw it and were then obliged to have their own opinions. Then they’ll vote in the year-end poll. Those who don’t agree with any particular aspect of the party line–that think rap is extremely dull, or feel the Replacements are just a mite too derivative–usually avoid discussing their feelings about such bands to save face, to not look foolish in front of their peers who have bought the myth. Rock history is then set in stone.

V: THE SOLUTION?

So rock criticism is useless.

It’s no big deal, and it’s certainly the way it’s going to be from now on–or until MTV and USA Today and People magazine render rock magazines, and the opinions of rock writers themselves, even less meaningful than they are today, and they then vanish completely.

Get used to it. Don’t get shamed into liking anything that stinks. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s–and probably more so, since you don’t make money writing about this stuff for a living.

One of the meanings of the word leech is, “One who clings to another to draw gain from him.” Rock critics like to make lots of analogies.

(Hercules “Archie” Bovis currently edits Touch It, a rock fanzine based in Ionia, Michigan, and was editor of Pig List from 1975-82.)

[from CREEM, December 1987]

Entry for August 19, 2005

August 19, 2005

The Church

Heyday

EMI 46256

Tracks: Myrrh/Tristesse/Already Yesterday/Columbus/Happy Hunting Ground/Tantalized/Disenchanted/Night Of Light/Youth Worshipper/Roman/The View

Recorded: EMI Studios 301, Sydney, Winter/Spring 1985.

Released:  1985.  Chart Peak na (UK) 146 (US).

Personnel: Steve Kilbey (bs, voc), Peter Koppes (gtr, voc), Richard Ploog (drm, perc, voc), Marty Willson-Piper (gts, voc). Producer and Engineer: Peter Walsh.

*Superb Australian quartet with all the right influences gets it completely right for one magic moment before success and its trappings takes its inevitable toll.

If rock ‘n’ roll bands–particularly successful ones–have preordained career trajectories, Heyday catches Australian band the Church at their absolute peak. The band’s fourth album, it came at a time when international acclaim seemed a definite possibility: the group’s various label deals had begun to unify and they found support from powerhouse conglomerates EMI in the UK and Warner Brothers in the States. Their music was a tasteful  concoction of all things good–Byrdsy, early Pink Floydesque stuff dripping with melodic hooks–and, with proper exposure, massive success seemed a given. Though it would come on a significant level via 1988’s Starfish, the earlier Heyday was the set that delivered on every level but financially.

Recorded on the heels of an 1984 American tour spent promoting Remote Luxury–essentially a five-song EP beefed up with new tracks at new US label Warner Bros.’ request–the multinational quartet (Brit guitarist Willson-Piper the only non-Australian) were energized by the possibility of a large new audience. Heyday combined the strengths evidenced on their prior three albums–sharp songwriting, a psychedelic edge, extreme charisma–and focused everything into neat little packets of accessibility. Strings and horns subtly garnished a few tracks, a baroque keyboard surfaced once or twice, and loud, proud guitars drove every song deep into memory. There were no missteps whatsoever.

To certain critics, the music of Heyday seemed divinely inspired, and in a purely critical sense, it was. A casual conversation this writer had with the band at the time still lingers: Sitting at a bar discussing favorite records, Church members Kilbey, Willson-Piper and Koppes reeled off a dazzling rogues gallery of artists including Love, Tomorrow, Big Star, Arthur Lee, Television, the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song,” John Cale, Can, Amon Duul II, the Raspberries, the Pretty Things, Cockney Rebel, Be-Bop Deluxe, the Only Ones, and…essentially,  everything  good by anyone good.  That the music of Heyday reflects those influences, but never directly emulates a single one, partly explains why their music resonated so deeply for some.

With 1988’s American success of “Under The Milky Way”–which took follow-up Arista album Starfish to gold status, finally–the band began a downhill slide from which they have never fully recovered. Though they continue to soldier on, still showing occasional glimmers of greatness, one is left remembering exchanges that took place at a small American bar just months before Heyday was recorded. Remarked main songwriter Steve Kilbey about the likes of Alex Chilton and Arthur Lee: “I think all those guys like were just sort of random geniuses that for two albums, say, were really inspired. And then, whatever it was just moved on, and left them not knowing what they were doing.”

Further listening:  Of Skins And Hearts (1981), Séance (1984)

Entry for August 19, 2005

August 19, 2005

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown

Polydor 833-736-2 TK

Tracks: Prelude–Nightmare/Fanfare–Fire Poem/Fire (S) /Come & Buy/Time/Confusion/I Put A Spell On You/Spontaneous Apple Creation/Rest Cure/Money/Child Of My Kingdom

CDAdditions: Prelude–Nightmare/Fanfare–Fire Poem/Fire (S) /Come & Buy/Time/Confusion (mono versions) (58:01)

Released: 1968. Chart peak  #7 (US).

Personnel: Arthur Brown (voc), Vincent Crane (kybd), Drachen Theaker (dr).Producer: Kit Lambert Associate Producer: Pete Townshend.

* Eye-opening debut album by the Godfather of theatrical rock–if not Hellfire itself. Following “Fire”‘s chart success, band implodes, later to spawn Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The international success of “Fire” in 1968, and the colorful performance style of its lead vocalist–“colorful” being a massive understatement considering that we’re discussing a man prone to wearing flaming headdresses–has tended to obscure the actual quality of the album which contains it. Regardless of which version one purchased–mono or the superior stereo, both mixes available on the same 1991 CD reissue–one was getting close to a fully-formed conceptual suite, unusually advanced stuff for its time, with nary a tad of sonic filler.

While Brown’s partial stylistic forefather was clearly coffin-crawler Screaming Jay Hawkins, whose “I Put A Spell On You” gets fitting contextual treatment herein, one could also hear a trace of Tom Jones-style nightclub yelping–which, when combined with organist Vincent Crane’s superb arrangements and melodic beds, offered a distinctly different pop take than the norm.  Brown’s basic shtick borrowed from all the best sources: colorful showmanship, Hawkins and James Brown covers, and , always a laugh, subject matter generally alternating between hell and insanity. Though this band would implode well before it really deserved to–Crane and touring drummer Carl Palmer went off to form the markedly inferior Atomic Rooster, and Brown’s eventual follow-up Kingdom Come sorely lacked Crane’s vital input–it at least left a classic album in its wake.

On a personal note, I am reminded of the one occasion I saw The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown in performance, at a 1968 pop festival in Miami. My 15-year-old eyes opened widely in amazement as the lanky Brown, with microphone in hand, climbed the stage scaffolding as his band madly riffed below him, unzipped his pants, then proudly declared: “I give you Americans…(significant pause)…my cock!” Fourteen years and at least two art-rock bands later, the newly-recruited drummer who’d been onstage at that moment laughed at the memory. “I didn’t see him actually expose himself,” said Carl Palmer, “but he did it quite a lot.”  One can only hope Brown wasn’t singing “Come And Buy” on those various occasions.

Further listening:  Galactic Zoo Dossier (Kingdom Come album, 1972), Atomic Rooster (Atomic Rooster album, 1970)

Entry for August 18, 2005

August 18, 2005

Montage

Montage

Laurie SLP 2049

(Sundazed CD reissue, 2001)

Tracks: I Shall Call Her Mary/She’s Alone/Grand Pianist/Men Are Building Sand/Desiree/The Song Is Love/Tinsel And Ivy/An Audience With Miss Priscilla Gray/My Love/Wake Up, Jimmy (Something’s Happening Outside)

Recorded: Allegro Sound Studios, 1968.

Released: 1969. Chart peak: na (US)

Personnel: Bob Steurer (voc), Vance Chapman (voc, dr), Mike Smyth (gtr, voc), Lance Cornelius (bs, voc), Mike Brown (kybd, vocal arrangements) Engineer: Bruce Staple. Producer: Mike Brown.

*Rare side project by Left Banke pop genius offers offers same glimmer of talent that powered “Walk Away Renee” 

Just one of too few documents displaying the talents of Michael Brown, the former prodigy who placed the Left Banke in the pantheon of ’60s pop greats, this brief but fascinating record carries on the melodic tradition of the pianist/writer’s former band. Though officially not a member of this young quartet, producer Brown dominates every aspect of this album–providing vocal arrangements, all keyboards, and, most importantly, the songwriting. In some ways more of a sequel to the Left Banke’s glorious 1967 debut LP than was 1969’s Left Bank Too–which barely featured the departed Brown, but was nonetheless excellent–Montage is a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

The chronology is confusing. The on-again/off-again relationship that haunted Brown and his former group at one point resulted in two bands functioning  under the same Left Banke name; following an attempt at a reconciliation by the two parties, resulting in the superb 1967 single “Desiree,” Brown left again and “discovered” the four-piece Montage. Conveniently, the latter band re-recorded “Desiree” and produced it in album form first; a month later, the Left Banke’s original version showed up on the long-delayed Left Banke Too, which aside from “In The Morning Light” (recorded at the earlier reconciliation session) otherwise lacked Browne’s input entirely.

Sharing writing credits with Bert Sommer and Tom Feher on the Montage album, Brown utilized many of the same classical motifs that peppered his Left Banke repertoire. Standout tracks “I Shall Call Her Mary,” “She’s Alone” and “Men Are Building Sand” are particularly impressive, but nothing fails to please overall. It should be pointed out, however, that for all their vocal prowess, no one in the Montage boasted as distinctive a voice as Left Banke singer Steve Martin’s.  By the end of ’69, Brown had again reunited with Martin in the studio for the final Left Banke single (“Myrah”);  a year or so later, a near-fully reconstituted band recorded “Love Songs In The Night,” soon released solely credited to Steve Martin. In fact, that track can be found on the 1972 soundtrack to Ultra Violet’s Hot Parts–right alongside two Montage tracks. Quoth the liner notes: “The ill-fated Montage were a group discovered by Michael Brown. The coming together of these fine voices held great magic and potential, but the promise was never fulfilled.” And that, as usual, is the way it goes.

Further listening:  There’s Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969 (Left Banke compilation, 1992)

Entry for August 17, 2005

August 17, 2005

NRBQ

NRBQ

CBS 63653

Tracks: C’mon Everybody (S)/Rocket Number 9/Kentucky Slop Song/Ida/C’Mon If You’re Comin’/You Can’t Hide/I Didn’t Know Myself/Stomp (S)/Fergie’s Prayer/Mama Get Down Those Rock And Roll Shoes/Hymn Number 5/Hey! Baby/Liza Jane/Stay With Me

Recorded: Record Plant NY, December 1968. 

Released: 1969. Chart Peak: 162 (US)

Personnel: Frank Gadler (voc), Steve Ferguson (gtr, voc), Jody St. Nicholas (bs, voc), G.T Staley (perc), Terry Adams (kybd, harmonica, recorder, voc), Donn Adams (trombone). Engineer: Ed Kramer  Producer: Frank Scinlaro & NRBQ

*The eclectic debut album by America‘s long-lived, much-loved “best kept secret”–still going strong three decades on.

Remarkable then and even more remarkable in hindsight: A rock ‘n’ roll album alternating colorful original material with covers of Eddie Cochran, Carla Bley, Bruce Channel, Brownie Terry & Sonny McGee and, lest we forget, one Sun Ra. If not all in a day’s work, certainly all in one live set’s–for this startlingly prescient recording debut documents one of America’s finest band’s modus operandi since Day One.

Recorded at New York’s Record Plant even before the New Rhythm & Blues Quintet had officially been inked to Columbia Records by its then prez Clive Davis, NRBQ sounded so much like nobody else that the inevitable occurred. New York Times writer Mike Jahn called them the next Fab Five. “NRBQ is the first group to play magic music since the Beatles grew up,” quoth he on this album’s back jacket, high praise that would linger long enough to bite the group on its collective buttocks. “I don’t know what all the fuss was,” keyboardist Terry Adams would recount to this writer some 12 years later, “somebody just made a big deal out of it. Nah, at the time the word ‘hype’ just came out, and people were dying for a chance to use it.”

Such allegations seem laughable now, as Album Number One by Miami’s finest-ever rock ‘n’ roll band sounds stunningly mature when compared to the work of such “unhyped” contemporaries as Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly. Boasting a powerful original lineup including lead singer Frankie Gadler and remarkable guitarist/songwriter Steve Ferguson (both to soon depart), NRBQ were among the very first rock bands to “get” it–to take all forms of American music, listen intently, synthesize all they heard, and produce something that sounds completely original even today. 

And how did they come to introduce the work of Sun Ra to a baby-faced pop audience?  “First thing I did when I got to New York, beside call Thelonious Monk, was go hear Sun Ra,” Adams later remembered. “I had to. He used to play every Monday night to about 12 or 15 people. And he invited me to his house, and I went, and he gave me a single–`Rocket Number 9.’ He looked at me and said, ‘This is especially for you.’ And I took it home and I said, “He’s right, this is especially for me.” And that song is the first song we ever played under the name NRBQ.”

Further listening: At Yankee Stadium (1978), Peek-A-Boo: The Best Of NRBQ 1969-1989 (1990)

Entry for August 16, 2005

August 16, 2005

Murray Head

Nigel Lived

CBS 65503

Head Case GAH106 (CD reissue)

Tracks: Pacing On The Station/Big City/Bed & Breakfast/The Party/Ruthie/City Scurry/When You Wake Up In The Morning/Why Do We Have To Hurt Our Heads/Pity The Poor Consumer/Dole/Nigel, Nigel/Miss Illusion/Religion/Junk (49:28)

Recorded:  Olympic & Island Studios, June 25-July 30, 1972.

Released: 1973. Chart Peak: na (UK) na (US).

Personnel: Murray Head (voc, gtr), Mark Warner (gtr), Clive Chaman (bs), Cozy Powell (drm), Peter Robinson (kybd), Chris Mercer (sax), Tony Coe (sax, clarinet), Jimmy Hastings (sax), Tommy Whittle (sax), Jim Chester (sax), Henry Lowther (trumpet), Chris Neil (harmonica), Graham Preskett (mandolin, violin), Sue & Sonny (bckg voc), Kay Garner (bckg voc), Barry DeSouza (Congas), Spike Heatley (double bs), Ray Cooper (perc), John Donnelly (fluegelhorn), Dave Charman (trombone), James Harpham (contra-bass recorder), Philip Chen (bs), Glenn LeFleur (drm), Frank Ricotti (congas),  Michael Giles (drm, perc), Peter Giles (bs),  Dave Wintour (bs), Fiachra Trench (piano, organ), Skaila Kanga (electric harp), Chris Karam (tablas). Engineer: Phil Brown. Producer: Joe Wissert.

*Actor/singer crafts stunningly thorough, comprehensive concept album telling profound story of one man’s personal disintegration. No one buys it.

Though the world was not exactly clamoring for a brand new concept album in 1973, actor and one-time Immediate Records artist Murray Head delivered a relative doozy in Nigel Lived.  Recorded in little over a month during the previous summer, the ambitious set chronicled the decline and fall of a happy-go-lucky country boy who moved to London and watched his life methodically get flushed down the toilet.  Beginning on an upbeat and hopeful note–career success, sex, love, money–the tale soon moved into a mode where song titles alone told the tale: “Dole,” “Religion,” and the inevitable climax, “Junk,” wound things up on a suitably grim note.

Head–who most people knew as the voice of Judas in the massive smash Jesus Christ Superstar, or for his stints in the London cast of Hair and the films The Family Way and Sunday, Bloody Sunday–was not on the shortlist of candidates expected to deliver such an astute and affecting work, and Nigel escaped mass attention.  Which was a shame.  In many ways thematically paralleling Lou Reed’s acclaimed Berlin, released the same year, Nigel was probably the more complete–and harrowing–package. Boosted by a superb musical cast, with guitarist Warner and former Quatermass keyboardist Robinson especially shining, the album bore a wealth of musical styles but was clearly unified by Head’s marvelous songs and voice.

Even more remarkable, in a way, was the package Head prepared for Nigel. From its outside cover, depicting a phrenological chart (appropriate for a man with the surname “Head”; one wonders what might’ve happened had his mother named him Richard), to the multi-page insert containing a libretto and frighteningly convincing diary entries by the rapidly deteriorating “Nigel” (all penned by Head), this album seemed an absolute labor of love through and through.

Head would return with another less conceptual set via 1975’s excellent Say It Ain’t So, and continue making records through the coming decades (“big in France” alert); additionally, he’d score a  huge worldwide hit in 1985 with “One Night In Bangkok” from Chess. Had Nigel Lived been received with the same enthusiasm with which it had been prepared, Head’s career might’ve taken a different turn entirely. But, sadly, Nigel died.

Further listening: Say It Ain’t So (1975), Between Us (1979)