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Badges, Swans, Drakes and Parks

I noted the death of former Cream bassist Jack Bruce a few days ago. I met him twice – once for an interview and once informally at a Gibson guitar launch in London. I enjoyed our conversations. I was never a particular fan of Cream, though I like Disraeli Gears and seeing the film of their farewell gig when I was a teenager was memorable. If I think of Jack Bruce the first line of music that comes to mind is the opening of ‘Badge’, a wonderful song that achieves a lot in less than three minutes. Swans in the park …

Someone else connected with swans is Marc Bolan, whose first big hit was ‘Ride A White Swan’. I’ve been compiling some information about him and some new research. I hope to get at least a couple of magazine articles from this and possibly a book.  It is sad that so many people involved in his story are no longer with us. It is such a pity that his wife June did not write a rock wife memoir  because she would have had many insights. I discovered this morning that June had a hand in putting Eric Clapton into John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and she also worked for a time with the management company who handled Pink Floyd in their early days.

I duly bought the remastered double CDs of Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy. The casual listener is unlikely to be impressed with the alternate mixes which are on the companion discs, but being familiar with the music I think they are good and at times exciting in their raw state. Led Zep ought to be heard raw and not too polished. The stand-out is probably the alternate mix of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (note, alternate mix, not a different take) which was surprisingly affecting.

A number of interesting secondhand CDs have come my way recently, which I’m slowly working my through. They include Shostakovich 5 and 9 (do yourself a favour and listen to the slow mvt of no.5), a disc of Bohemian string music by Martinu, Dvorak and Janacek, Dvorak’s Quintets for strings, Schnittke piano concertos, Nielsen 4 & 5, an obscure Canadian disc of string music including Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and some Villa-Lobos string quartets.

November will see the 40th anniversary of the death of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. His sister has prepared a new biography and there may be a few new recordings emerging.

I should mention I’m now on Facebook. And Songs and Solos should now be out in all good bookshops.

October news and a songwriting guitar tip

Hello everyone. Since I last wrote I’ve been easing back into guitar teaching and thinking about my next project. I’ve been doing some writing and research on Marc Bolan of T.Rex. Over the years I’ve written a number of magazine articles on him, notably two big features in Guitarist and one in Shindig!  I also wrote the entry on Marc Bolan in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Part of this research is about his equipment, and the origin of his fabled orange Gibson Les Paul. I’m hoping this might culminate in a book; if not, I shall use the material as a magazine article and possibly add a page on my website summarizing some of the information. I’ve been thinking about the music he made before he became a regular fixture on Top of the Pops and making a case for it. The world needs more innocence and enchantment.

And by the way, here’s a musical curiosity. One of his most well-known songs is ‘Get It On’. Most people think it uses the chords of E, G and A on the chorus.  Actually, it’s E, G and A minor. (He used almost the same chords for the chorus of ‘Planet Queen’ which follows ‘Get It On’ on the album Electric Warrior).

Otherwise, I’ve been looking forward to the remastered Led Zeppelin IV and House of the Holy which will be released at the end of the month. (Dave Lewis’ Zep magazine Tight But Loose has a Jimmy Page Interview coming up in the next issue – you can find details at his website). I had a listen to some of the Queen Live at the Rainbow 1974 album which has an excellent performance of ‘Now I’m Here’ .

On the classical front I’ve been listening to a famous 40 minute piece by the American composer John Adams called Harmonielehre (1985) which is full of thrilling textures and movement, with a slow movement which has beautiful lyrical moments. It’s on a Chandos CD/SACD with his Dr Atomic Symphony.

Whether composing or songwriting it is always a good idea to be alert to the potential of happy accidents and the unintended. Here’s an example. Back in January I found a beaten-up acoustic guitar in a secondhand shop in the town where I was having a holiday. It was only £30 so I bought it. When I checked its pitch I found that it was detuned by a minor third so the open strings were C#F#B E G#C# – quite low! I also found that there was a problem with the nut, so that the top string was sounding the same note as the first fret. If the guitar had been in standard tuning EADGBE this means it would have been EADGBF. A capo at the first fret removes the problem, and a capo at the third fret takes the guitar back to standard pitch.

I picked up the guitar in an idle moment and decided to go with this rogue top string. Since it was sounding as a D instead of a C# I decided to write a chord progression In D and just accomodate that top string as I could. This meant using the shapes that go in the key of F. The result was a very expressive chord progression which is the basis for a short song. Happy accidents …

A trip to Abbey Road

To allude to the famous opening sentence of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Abbey Road.’ Except it wasn’t a dream.

I was in attendance for a Mojo magazine press launch of the new vinyl box-set of the remastered Beatles in mono, thanks to the kindness of a Dutch friend (thank you Arjan!). The 14-LP box-set is released on Sept 9. It includes the band’s first 10 albums and a three-record set of non-LP singles and B-sides entitled ‘Mono Masters’. It includes a 108-page hardback book.

Having arrived at Baker Street in the late afternoon, I walked north toward St John’s Wood, passing the Beatles and the Rock and Roll memorabilia shops (they’re opposite each other on north Baker Street) which are worth a visit if you’re in the area. Inside the latter my eye was caught by a platinum disc and LP cover for T.Rex’s 1972 album The Slider hanging on the wall. Five seconds later, still looking at The Slider, I heard Roger Daltrey on the shop’s sound system sing the line ‘But I drink myself blind to the sound of old T Rex’ – how’s that for a synchronicity!

Arriving at one end of Abbey Road you see the famous zebra crossing. People halt the traffic repeatedly all day and everyday, having their photos taken imitating the Abbey Road album sleeve photo (this bit of London was a lot quieter in 1969). Others sit on various walls on both sides of the street. Abbey Road Studios is a surprisingly small detached building from the outside, set back from the road with a small car park. The entire length of its front wall is covered in multi-coloured Beatles graffiti.

At 6.15pm I’m walking up the steps into Abbey Road. In my mind’s eye I think of the many photos I’ve seen of members of the Beatles standing on these steps. There’s a warm yellow light in the entrance foyer, turning right into reception. On the walls are many black and white photos of famous artists who recorded here, both popular and classical (on the staircase down to the lower floor I spot Sir John Barbirolli and Herbert von Karajan). There are black-suited security men about every 12 feet along each corridor of the route we’re directed along. It seems remarkably small. Downstairs I enter a large room with a high ceiling and a dim red light. It is hot and brimming with people, many of whom are already sitting on the 100 or so chairs that have been crammed in. I didn’t see any identification on the door coming in, but looking around it becomes clear to me that I’m sitting in Studio 2, the room where the Beatles did so much of their recording. To my right is the staircase that runs along the wall up to the glass-fronted control room on the back wall behind and above.

At 6.30 the playback session starts, chaired by Mark Ellen, who interviews a panel of four, including Ken Scott who engineered sessions for the Beatles. The conversation is punctuated by playback from the new vinyl mono masters on a sound system which is said to be worth over a quarter of a million. Since the tracks are mono it doesn’t matter where you sit in relation to the speaker arrays. In the course of the event we hear mono versions of ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Sgt Pepper Reprise / Day in the Life’, ‘Boys’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Love Me Do’, and ‘Norwegian Wood’. At times it’s too loud, and at times the mix is off (‘Norwegian Wood’ was ruined by the bass being far too loud). I also feel that sometimes the expensive equipment and the remastering expose the roughness of some of the original recordings (I wonder what a good symphony orchestra recording from the 1960s would sound like with this set-up). As for mono, while I accept the historical argument (this is how the Beatles wanted to be heard up to 1968) and also the fact that some of the mono mixes have different musical content to the stereo, I’m not personally persuaded that I need them. And I don’t have a functioning turntable at present, sadly.

However, hearing the Beatles at high volume in their home studio was a powerful reminder that they could be more of a rock band – even in the early years – than one might think. If you are used to hearing them at low levels without the bass and drums coming out properly, it is easy to not feel the vibrant energy which was theirs and helped them become so successful in the early 1960s. As the slinky beat of ‘You Can’t Do That’ throbbed in Studio 2, I found myself thinking how intoxicating and exciting this must have sounded in 1964. The other highlight for me was hearing ‘Love Me Do’ which it was pointed out had been recorded on September 4, 1962 – i.e. 52 years ago to the day in this very space. I tried to empty the room of everyone else and picture the Fab Four standing on the wooden floor, with amps on chairs, mikes, baffles, clustered round a microphone, the primitive two-chord vamp of their first hit bouncing off the walls, soon to escape into the world. I thought of how year after year they spent hours and hours in this space, tuning guitars, getting hoarse, bounding up and down the stairs to the control room to hear a take, songs taking shape and then being committed to tape, and then through radios and vinyl becoming part of the memories, feelings, lives of millions of people. That’s magic.

By 8.00pm I was walking down the steps, leaving one of the magical places of recorded music, remembering the graffiti at the bus stop in Oxford that afternoon, where someone had carved the phrase ‘Mean Mr Mustard’.

More information on the mono remasters and the event at this links:

http://forums.naimaudio.com/topic/naim-focal-mojo-beatles-mono-playback-at-abbey-road

http://www.mojo4music.com/16173/the-beatles-in-mono-live/

http://www.mojo4music.com/13343/inside-abbey-road-beatles-engineer-ken-scott/

http://www.thebeatles.com/news/beatles-get-back-mono

New music posted

This is just to let you know I’ve posted a new, revised version of the first movement of my piano piece ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ and an extract from the third movement ‘Three Thousand Miles Behind Us’ at http://www.soundcloud.com. If you go to the site and search on my name they should appear on the list.

 

Post-Oxford Experience

Greetings and hope everyone is well. Sorry to say my blog has been quiet for a time as I’ve been busy teaching on the Oxford Experience summer school. Of the four week-long courses I delivered, two were concerned with music: ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and ‘Scandal in Paris: Stravinsky, Modernism and the Rite of Spring’. In addition I gave an evening talk about the animated version of the Rite created by Stephen Malinowski, two other lectures on British popular music, and a 50-minute set of songs performed with my friend Oxford-based singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. This proved very popular and it is probable we’ll do at least two or three performances next year.

For the gig I used a Roland 30-watt acoustic guitar amp which is a pleasing and compact unit. I’ve been playing it at home. Its reverb helps fill out the acoustic guitar sound if you’re playing in a carpeted, acoustically dead room. Very inspiring, and I’m tempted to get one myself.

These past two weeks I’ve been taking a holiday. But there has been time the past couple of days to revise the four-movement piano piece I mentioned a couple of months ago. I will soon be able to make a new recording of it and put it up on soundcloud. It is striking what six weeks away from a creative project does to freshen your perspective on what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.

I have various creative projects awaiting my attention. It is a question of deciding which one to go with next, and which will fit in with work commitments, such as revising my book Chord Master.

Mention of Stravinsky’s Rite means I should add that a recent CD purchase was a Stravinsky disc recorded by Les Siecles Live (on Harmonia Mundi) which tried to recreate the sound of the Rite and Petrushka by re-assembling the earliest states of the score (i.e.1911, 1913) with period instruments. The results are most enjoyable. I’ve also been listening to  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Chandos SACD of Ravel’s two piano concertos. The slow movement of the Concerto in G is a wonderful fusion of deep emotion elegantly recollected.

Uncut magazine has had some interesting articles in its recent issues. There was a revealing piece on Robert Plant who releases a new album next week which promises to be something out of the ordinary. The current issue has a good Nick Drake article. A book that has come to my attention is David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’ which focuses on popular music in 1970. That is a year which has always interested me – partly for obvious reasons of transition between one era and another, but also as a time when some 60s music came to maturity. I’m thinking in particular of Motown’s releases that year which are amazing.

And talking of amazing …. meanwhile in London Kate Bush has returned to live performance – something many thought unlikely to happen. The broader media coverage has been in part a melancholy warning of the injustice of a songwriter / performer getting trapped by a single song / image. In her case ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), which has tended to obscure her later achievements (see my earlier blog about Kate’s last album).

‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ p.s.

It seems that the link I posted yesterday has not taken everyone to the right place on http://www.soundcloud.com. Apologies if you’ve had trouble finding ‘On The Edge’. The link works for me, some have had trouble – though they all report different things. If you go to http://www.soundcloud.com and search on my name and then scroll down the 19 results you’ll find it – once all 19 of my pieces / songs are listed on the screen.  I hope this helps.

New music

Today I’ve posted a new piece of music on soundcloud. The link is

https://soundcloud.com/#rikky-1-2/on-the-edge

You may need to copy and paste it into your browser.

‘On The Edge’ is the first movement of a piano suite titled ‘John Kennedy at Coos Bay’ which I’ve been working on for about five weeks (when work has allowed). As I mentioned in the previous blog, it began with a single chord – Olivier Messiaen’s ‘chord of resonance’ – which I then composed out in various ways until inspiration took over. After working on it for a week the music took on an identity / title by connecting with my awareness of some famous photographs of JFK taken by Jacques Lowe in Oregon in 1959 (you can see them on Jacque Lowe’s website and they were reproduced in the book edited by his daughter which was published last year for the 50th anniversary. The music goes through many moods over the 7.40 minutes. I hope you’ll give it a listen and enjoy it. Composing it has been a memorable experience, if at times fraught as I’ve had to keep challenging myself not to settle when there were still improvements to make.

I hope to release this with the three other movements on a CD of piano music.

Getting the Led Out

Term-time in Oxford has left little opportunity for much else recently, though I have enjoyed sharing the music of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams with students. I’ve also been pleased to start to get a grip as a listener on Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra which is quite a tough work (an SACD on Chandos).

A listen to French composer Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quartet for the End of Time led me to his ‘chord of resonance’ (C E G Bb D F# G# B) which I used as the basis for a new piano piece. It has three parts and lasts about 14 minutes. I hope to add it to the Black Purple Blue piano pieces I sketched in January and release the music as a CD.

Led Zeppelin have been much in the news recently. A few weeks ago a story spread on the web that they were going to be subjected to a law-suit directed at ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on the grounds of plagiarism from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’. I wrote about this several years ago in an extended essay on ‘Stairway’ for Dave Lewis’ Tight But Loose magazine. Revisiting the story I incline even more strongly now in the negative – that the alleged borrowing has no real substance. But already I have encountered the idea which has spread that this law-suit has caused the delay of the release of the remastered Led Zeppelin IV. I’m pretty sure there is nothing in this at all and the release schedule was planned a long time ago.

As for the remastered albums (Led Zeppelin I-III) from the bits I’ve had a listen to I can say the CD versions certainly sound impressive, and anyone who has never owned these albums can certainly buy with confidence. The deluxe versions come with an additional disc of either live versions (in the case of the debut album) or studio alternate mixes, or one or two previously unreleased songs or covers. These make interesting listening, but are not compelling for the casual listener.

Listening to the band’s debut album the other morning, released in January 1969 and recorded in October 1968, it’s striking how much of a 1960s album it is, with clear reference points to a lot of 60s rock styles. This is not a criticism. I mention it because Zeppelin are generally thought of as a Seventies band. The arrangements on the first album have many fascinating and inventive details which are a joy to pick up. John Paul Jones’ organ intro for ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ always strikes me as the aural equivalent of summer sunlight bursting through opened curtains, a sharp contrast to the subterranean murk of ‘Dazed and Confused’ (which, if you’re familiar with their 27 minute live versions, seems to positively zip by here). ‘Your Time’ of course kicked off the second side of the vinyl.

The additional CDs demonstrate that Zeppelin were not the most prolific of creative teams in terms of quantity of material. This sounds a strange thing to say of a band that released five classic rock albums in as many years from 1969-1973, and it should also be remembered that they spent a huge amount of time on the road. Clearly there is almost nothing left over in the vaults. Also factor in the cover versions and various blues borrowings and this aspect increases. But it must also be said that whenever you play a Zeppelin borrowing next to its original the degree of transformation of that material is always staggering. For this, they can be forgiven much.

It will be very interesting to see what Jimmy Page has in store for the next three releases, and hopefully he will expand Coda to include the various odd things which do belong with I, II and III that have been omitted so far (like ‘Hey Hey What Can I Do’)

Update on the next book

In recent weeks I have been busy checking the proofs of the next songwriting book, Songs and Solos. It has now gone to the printers and will be published in September. It runs to about 250 pages with an 84 track CD so it is a pretty hefty book – it never seems quite like that when I’m writing them, but it does at proofing stage. As I mentioned before, the next book to be revised into a new edition will be Chord Master. I’m looking to expand the amount of audio that comes with that book.

I spent two days at the London Book Fair at Earl’s Court in April, talking to various publishers about several book projects. I’ve also been doing a little research on Marc Bolan’s famous Les Paul. I hope at some point to do some writing about that and about his guitar-playing in general. Some articles I published have already been put up on line. You can read one of them here which was originally published in a fanzine Rumblings:

http://www.marcbolanmusic.com/guitars.aspx

I’ve completed work on an entry about film composer John Barry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

In Oxford the summer term has just started, so I have teaching to do that will curtail my musical activity. But it does include Vaughan Williams and Sibelius and Stravinsky – and I’m always happy to talk about those three great composers.

Mentioning Stravinsky reminds me that I blogged last year about Stephen Malinowski and Jay Bacal’s amazing animated version of The Rite of Spring. I recently discovered that there is now a high quality version which you can buy for only $1! So get this bargain and forget about the youtube version. The link is:

http://www.musanim.com/rite

Last week I watched the Stone Roses film Made of Stone and was amused when at the 46 min mark a fan standing outside their comeback gig in Warrington held up a chord songbook for the band – which happened to be the work of yours truly. As Morrissey once sang, fame, fame, fatal fame …!

 

Four and six other strings

I’ve recently been listening to a Chandos CD by the Bekova Sisters of chamber music by the C20th Czech compoer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). It was a fortuitous discovery in a secondhand shop. I know Martinu mainly for his symphonies, of which the last – no.6 – is a firm favourite – wildly fantastical. Several movements open with what sounds like a murmuring of insects, and have passages of rising scales that remind me of gas bubbling from a molten landscape. There is also a syncopated theme that sounds as though it has escaped from some Western like The Magnificant Seven and a beautiful short chorale that closes the symphony. I don’t listen to much chamber music, but Martinu’s name tempted me, and I’m glad it did, because this CD has much to please the ear, especially with Martinu’s colourful harmony. It contains two piano trios, as well as music for cello and piano, or violin and piano.

Though I may not listen to much chamber music, I love writing it, and I found time these past six weeks to fit in some composing which produced a second string quartet of about 22 minutes and a string sextet of about 20 minutes. Writing the sextet was an insight into why this form has never been as popular with composers as the string quartet. To the quartet’s two violins, one viola and one cello you have to add two extra instruments.

A line-up of three violins, two violas and a cello runs the risk of sounding top-heavy; the combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos runs the risk of being bottom-heavy. In the former the third violin, viola and cello will each be pushed a little toward the lower parts of their ranges to anchor and spread the music out. In the latter combination you need to do the reverse and make sure the first viola doesn’t come too low. It was this 2+2+2 line-up that I chose. One immediate advantage of the string sextet is that it makes possible five or six-note chords without the players having to use double-stopping (where two notes are held down at once) – so one can work in extended harmony.

The composing reminded me of something important about creativity which relates to songwriting on the guitar. Very recently one of my guitar students complained that when he tried to put chords together it sounded like things he had already heard or wasn’t inspiring. I reassured him on the first point by saying (and this will be discussed in a future songwriting book) that there is an important sense in which you have to operate as though when you play a G chord on the guitar it is as if no-one has ever done it before. But what I have also understood is that when people writing on guitar listlessly strum round the chords they know, trying to write a song and feeling that nothing is happening, some of the reason is because until each chord has a defined voicing, duration, tempo, timbre, etc it lacks  the energy that may inspire the music.

When I sat down to write the second string quartet I had no musical ideas at all. I chose a key, a time signature, a tempo, and wrote four bars of a generic introductory gesture to set up the arrival of the home key chord, E minor. I then laid out a highly rhythmic E minor chord idea. Within about six bars I had an idea with sufficient creative energy to set me off. Working with notation has the effect of forcing you to make choices about how the chords / melody is to be played that side-step the problem that arises strumming chords on guitar. For songwriting guitarists an equivalent technique would be to work with a drum machine or loop.

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