Last week I launched a Facebook group dedicated to the memory of Alice Ormsby-Gore (1952-95). Alice was the youngest daughter of the fifth Lord Harlech, David Ormsby-Gore who served as British Ambassador to Washington in the early 1960s and a close friend of John F. Kennedy. She came into my awareness initially through my knowledge of the life of Marc Bolan, especially from 2015 when I was drawn into researching his musical life in more detail. For a brief period from mid-1969 to 1971 Alice was a friend of Marc’s wife June Child, and was a partner for Eric Clapton until 1974. Alice, Marc and June were captured together in a delightful group of photos taken in 1969 by Marc’s friend and official Tyrannosaurus Rex photographer Peter Sanders. (You can see these images on the FB group page). Music was very important to Alice on many levels. In 2019 I found myself pulled deeper into Alice’s own story which is almost unbearably tragic. From that came a desire to at least remember that life in some form. By the end of 2019 I had a rough 15,000 word biography sketch which I’ve used to update and expand her wikipedia page. I hope the new FB group will provide a place where people can place memories or further information.
The reel thing
A week ago I had a memorable day at the offices of a music publisher in London. It was the research I’ve been doing on Marc Bolan (T Rex) which took me there. I was permitted to have a look at the company’s library of tapes.
For an hour and more I handled the original multi-track reels on which Marc Bolan recorded his songs 45 years ago and garnered some useful information about the recordings from the notes written on the back of the boxes. I have in the past heard people say how magical it is to hold the original tape of a celebrated song and have never considered whether I might find it so also. But I confess I did.
It was both thrilling and moving to hold these tapes whose magnetized iron oxide was imprinted by the sounds of guitars and voices and strings and percussion as a song was captured for the very first time. Thrilling because one feels very close to the musical event. Moving because the tape boxes are worn and battered, and some of them may not be played ever again (they have to some degree been digitized and are probably unplaybale without baking), and the person who wrote those songs left this life in 1977. I stood in front of the metal shelves that hold rows of boxes, reflecting on the fact that this was a significant part of a life’s work.
I was also able to listen to some CD backup copies of different takes and mixes. It was quite a day.
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 …
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:
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:
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 …!
Coming Up For Air
Hello to all – I hope you’ve been having a great summer. It must be about two months since I last posted. Alll my time was taken up on the Oxford Experience summer school at Christ Church College, Oxford. I delivered six week-long courses – three of which were on music – two evening lectures, and a musical performance with my good friend and singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. As of last Saturday life begins to return to normal and I try to pick up the threads …
There have been a couple of musical highlights worth mentioning. Albion Records have issued another CD of previously unrecorded Vaughan Williams titled ‘The Solent’. I heard this beautiful 11 minute piece for orchestra at its world premiere performance back in May at the English Music Festival and was captivated immediately. It is one of three Impressions for Orchestra which Vaughan Williams composed in the first decade of the C20th, along with ‘Burley Heath’ (which is also a delight) and ‘Harnham Down’. ‘The Solent’ has a special place in Vaughan Williams’ early music because one of its melodies was incorporated in his Ninth Symphony of 1957-68. You can find more information about this and other releases on the RVW Society website.
A constant companion of the past two months has been a CPO disc of Symphonies 2 and 3 by the Swedish composer Dag Wiren (1905-86). Both symphonies are written in a very accessible tonal style with very attractive progressions and themes. The repetition and development of the themes is unusually clear and so a good listen for people not familiar with the symphonic repertoire. There is also a CPO disc of his 4th and 5th symphonies but their idiom is more challenging.
I also found in a charity shop a Chandos CD of choral music by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975). Bliss was quite a well-known figure on the British music scene during the interwar period. I am very fond of his ‘Colour Symphony’ and ‘Music For Strings’ which I think is one of the outstanding works for orchestral strings in the British C20th tradition. So far for me the stand-out track on this choral CD is a setting of part of the closing lines of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. It also has settings of poems by G M Hopkins.
Naxos has released some interesting early recordings of the Sibelius symphonies from the 1930s in their historical series. There is also a recording from 1940 of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring. I’d like to get to hear these.
In the rock field I was interested to read about the forthcoming 6-CD box set of Marc Bolan / T.Rex recordings for the BBC. This set supercedes the 3-CD Bolan at the Beeb of a few years ago. This new collection will only really be of interest to serious Bolan fans, though there will be a 2-CD version. The problem with the recordings he did for the BBC after 1970 (i.e. once T Rex started having hits) is that they are often not much more than recycled backing tracks from the original versions, sometimes with a few overdubs missing, sometimes with a new lead vocal. I would like at some point to write something about the plethora of T Rex alternate versions and so-called ‘out-takes’ which have come out in recent years.
Still no word on those promised Led Zeppelin remasters …
A recent guitar lesson experience reminded me of the existence of the partial capo. This is a capo that instead of holding down all the strings at a single fret permits the player to select a combination of strings. This enables the player to, say, put a capo at the second fret but only make it hold down strings 1-5, 6 remaining unaffected by the capo. This approximates drop-D tuning but without changing the pitch of the sixth string. This means a G chord has the bass note G exactly where you would expect it – third fret – not the fifth fret as happens with drop D tuning. My partial capo is a relatively crude elasticated device from a few years ago, but there must be more sophisticated models on the market by now.
My next work project will be the completion of a new songwriting book for Backbeat books. It will appear in 2014. I am also thinking about a Christmas single release and an album of songs to follow Atlantic Canticles.
I’ll sign off by sending good wishes to the young guy from the Orange County Youth Orchestra with whom I jammed two impromptu guitar / violin duets yesterday in Blackwells Music Shop in Oxford. That was fun, and reminded me how lucky we are as musicians to be able to share the wonderful world of music.
Anyone who had a harp … guitar
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing American guitarist John Doan. John is one of the world’s leading exponents of the harp guitar. He’s been studying and playing it since the mid-1980s. We first met in the late 1990s when he was touring in the UK. The main focus of our talk was the signature harp guitar which John is involved with that will be available (for about $1500) in 2013. This is the first such affordable instrument – previously you would have to have one hand-made. Simply put, the harp guitar is a six-string guitar with an additional set of sub-bass strings and ‘super-trebles’ which extend the range of the guitar in both directions. If you search youtube for ‘john doan harp guitar’ you’ll be able to watch him play. It’s an impressive sound. It’s always great to talk to John because his thinking about the guitar is always subservient to his musical commitment (not always the case with guitarists). The short version of the interview will be available on guitarcoach, the download for the iPad. I hope to publish a longer version elsewhere.
I had a couple of concert experiences last weekend. I saw John Williams and John Etheridge play in the Sheldonian Theatre. A day or so later I saw the Led Zeppelin Celebration Day film on the big screen. Whatever one thinks of the band’s performance, this has to be one of the best ever shot rock concerts. If you like Zeppelin you have to see this.
I’ve recently been reading Pink Moon, a book of miscellaneous writings about Nick Drake which is enjoyable. If you don’t know Nick Drake’s music go and order Five Leaves Left or Bryter Later from somewhere. I’ve also read Leslie Ann-Jones’ new biography of Marc Bolan which, despite having some new information (especially through some new interviews) is poorly written and unsophisticated. It is also amazingly uninterested and uninformed about the actualities of Bolan’s music. I can’t see the point of writing biographies talking about musicians if you’re not going to talk about the music. There are more lines in the book about the 1966 World Cup Final or the JFK assassination or personal stuff than Beard of Stars! The book doesn’t even tell you what songs are on each release.
On the personal front, I think I have a green light now for the next songwriting book, although it seems it won’t appear until 2014. I’ve also written a number of acoustic guitar instrumentals which will go toward an album of such.
I’ve acquired a few more symphonies and enjoyed them very much. In addition to still investigating different recordings of Nielsen, I’ve been delighted to hear the Finnish composer Merikanto 3, along with George Lloyd 8, Riisager 1, Atterberg 6 in another recording, and Tubin 2 – one of those symphonies which is brash and noisy with a sublime pay-off at the end which makes it all worth it. There’s also a very pleasing disc of minor Vaughan Williams on Dutton Epoch called Early and Late Works.
Play Great Guitar
I have just heard that there is a Kindle edition of my book Play Great Guitar published by Infinite Ideas. There is a discount on it at the moment. It is suitable for beginners and people who have a couple of years’ experience on guitar. Their website is http://www.infideas.com.
Since I last blogged I’ve had tentative discussions about another book in my Backbeat songwriting series, which would appear in 2013. I’ve been working on another writing project not to do with songwriting and making good progress with that.
I have a short article in the Music You Might Like series in the new edition of the journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.
Talking of books I can recommend record producer Tony Visconti’s biography Bolan, Bowie and the Brooklyn Boy.
On the creative front I’ve revised two scores for string orchestra – ‘From Cornish Springs’ and ‘The High Oaks’ – and have worked on generating new audio for them. I’m now ready to write the strings for Kate Bush’s next album … should she need me. 😉
I was also writing some acoustic guitar instrumentals, but that project has got pushed out for lack of time.
Since I last wrote the acoustic player Bert Jansch has died. I interviewed him back in the 1990s around the time of the release of Crimson Moon. I always found his music a little on the dour side; much preferring the brighter, more mercurial John Renbourn for folk-baroque British guitar.
I was intrigued to discover recently that the unfinished second symphony of E. J. Moeran has been completed and recorded on the Dutton Epoch label. First listens suggest it was a worthwhile thing to do. Unfinished symphonies are an interesting topic. Moeran’s first symphony (Symphony in G) from the late 1930s (I think) is a very enjoyable piece. There’s a good recording on Naxos. It owes something to Sibelius, who was dominating the world of the symphony in the 1930s and 1940s, but not to the point of it spoiling Moeran’s music.