Friday, 30 January 2015

the waiting game

If your mem'ry serves you well,
You'll remember you're the one
That called on me to call on them
To get your favours done.
And after ev'ry plan had failed
And there was nothing more to tell,
You knew that we would meet again,
If your mem'ry serves you well. 

I know exactly what I was doing on Friday the fifth of November 1971. Whilst the neighbours and everyone else in Stevenage were lighting up the sky with Standard Fireworks, my mate Andy and I were ensconced in my room with the lights low and the music high. There was, no doubt, a joss stick burning sending wafts of incense into the atmosphere and a single candle for sure to allow us to see enough to change the album on the turntable and to see our glasses of Spanish Graves. The wine was dreadful but at 48 pence a bottle, cheap enough to create a buzz. Even at fifteen we were so sophisticated (!).

The music that night was Pawn Hearts by Van der Graaf Generator and Nursery Cryme by Genesis. I know all this to be true. The internet would have it otherwise but I don't trust other people's memories. The internet - well, Google - would have it that this situation could not have arisen as the release dates of the Genesis album was a week or so later and the VdGG one back in October. However, I believe both albums were released on that very day, Guy Fawke's Night 5/11/71.

Don't worry, I'm not writing about Prog Rock here. I'm reacting really to an article in this Tuesday's Independent.

The article starts with the idea of the "excitement of fans queuing outside record shops to get their hands on the latest release" and also mentions this "in the face of today's instant gratification of digital downloads".  I don't think on that Friday back in November 1971 I had to queue for very long in W H Smiths to buy them both. There may have been some teenybopper in front of me buying T. Rex's Jeepster I suppose. To be honest I don't think I've ever queued outside a record shop waiting for it to open. Pubs, yes. However, the point is about the excitement.

On the same day I read the article I had heard comments about impatience and waiting on Today on Radio 4. Unfortunately, the article quoted was from the Daily Mail so I hesitate to offend you, gentle reader, but if you really want to read it it's here. In the way my mind works these two articles connected and it got me thinking of whether anybody ever waits impatiently for anything nowadays in this time of "instant gratification". With many albums now, if you bother to buy them from Amazon, you don't have to wait to listen to them because you can "rip" them immediately on purchase. Unless it's on pre-order of course. But then that means waiting doesn't it?

I did a little survey of some sixth formers on Wednesday to test this out. The results were interesting. Several of this small select group of Film Studies students listen to the radio and watch tv live - by that I mean they don't all listen on catch-up. They like to know about future film releases and admitted to being impatient about long release times but none of them particularly cared much about music. They wouldn't be impatient waiting for a new release as music is just there. They tend to find it on youTube or Spotify and don't have any artists that they really care about. Obviously this surprised me.

Meanwhile, back on fifth of November 1971, I would have been desperate for the end of school bell to go so I could rush over to town to get my albums. I would have read about their imminent releases a few weeks before and would have been staring at my Timex watch to tell me that it's time to go. I would have bounded out of the Art room or whatever classroom I was in having arranged previously with Andy to come round after tea. No phones or email of course back then. I can imagine the excitement still. After scraping together our change to afford the all-important 48p and a quick visit to Unwins in the Old Town we'd have settled in for our night's dark entertainment listening to Mr Hammill screaming about lemmings and lighthouse keepers. Another reason I remember that night is because a day or so later I wrote a song based on the idea of two people hiding in a room whilst war breaks out in the streets. I'd probably just read 1984 or something intelligent like that. The first line was "They're fighting in the streets" but the rest of the song has, mercifully, disappeared along with the trails of smoke and star-bursts of Mr Standard's finest rockets. About as memorable I guess.

I love the idea that artists are celebrating their new releases with parties. I'd been aware that P J Harvey had recorded her album in front of an audience - I think Fairport Convention did that for some of Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977) - at Somerset House. In the Unthanks article they say, "We're going to stick a spotlight on a turntable in the middle of the room and hope that people will close their eyes and enjoy". I'm sure they will. Hopefully they'll light a few joss sticks and perhaps serve some slightly warm crappy Spanish wine just to keep the ambience right.

Perhaps someone can let off fireworks outside as well. Mind you people will do that for the drop of a hat nowadays. Anyway, just in case you couldn't get to the Unthanks party, here they are.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

musical box

I know it's true, oh so true,
'cause I saw it on tv

The Welsh have a word hiraeth which translates loosely to a "homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed". In Wikipedia it is defined as "a longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness an earnest desire" for Wales really but you can see its usefulness as a term. As with most words we borrow from other languages it'll be used wrongly anyway so I'm happy to misuse it. I think of it as a way of thinking about the past and its pull. There's a great piece here about it.

There are loads of people around who do not have much yearning for the past and don't grieve over lost opportunities and that's a good thing really. Many artists, writers and other creative types do, however, have such a pull and it can lead to quite emotionally charged music for one thing. I've been accused often of being a bit of a nostalgic chap (or "wallowing in self-loathing for missed opportunities" - is there a word in any language for that?) so its appeal as a concept for me is obvious.

My last post mentioned a current project of writing and recording songs that use the sounds of 1960s and '70s organs and along with this is the sound of acoustic 12 string guitars. Some readers may guess what's coming. Because of this I have been exploring some old favourite songs. My youth and early listening experiences were steeped in what is known as Prog Rock, yer 'onour. I'm not going to make any apologies for that as we all have to start somewhere. I've mentioned more about this recently in my post about Alan Hull. Once I discovered folk, Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder all that changed but occasionally certain sounds suggest themselves and there is a need to go back and search them out. It was such a search that has led me to the here and now where I have a feeling of disappointment with some past opportunities - and not my own I hasten to add. A sort of hiraeth for other people's lost opportunities.

Having grown up in those exciting times long before MTV and 24 hour musical assault, it was wonderful to get the opportunity to watch bands playing on tv. Bands started regularly appearing on programmes like The Old Grey Whistle Test and we sort of got a chance to see what these guys - it was mostly guys - were doing. Or did we? For musicians it must have been a real boon. In those days there weren't many guides to playing instruments like the ridiculous amount that's available nowadays. This obviously led to many youngsters experimenting and making lots of wonderful serendipitous mistakes that meant there was a huge spike in creativity. However, for a non-musician like myself it was often a disappointing missed opportunity.

Let me clarify a few things here. I don't consider myself as a musician. I play various guitars and mess about writing songs occasionally but I know that I have never practised enough or have the talent many of my friends do. I am happy with that (cf above re the wallowing in self-loathing point). Honest. Also, I left a question dangling above and that's the point here. Did we really get a chance to see what all these creative types were doing? Maybe there was enough for genuinely talented musicians to figure stuff out but I seem to remember finding the experience constantly frustrating.

The reason I found it all so frustrating is illustrated here. Why did the producers, directors and artists all collude in this wasted opportunity? Was it because the artists themselves didn't want anyone to know how or what they were playing? Or was it because the programme makers didn't understand that there were hundreds - possibly thousands - of young wannabe musos out there trying to figure out how to play their favourite songs? Watching what the guitarist was doing with his picking hand was interesting up to a point but seeing a plectrum being wiggled or a spidery hand clawing at the strings wasn't that educational. In the case of all these talented musicians, their left hand may have known what the right hand was doing but I bloody well didn't! I wanted to know what string, fret and finger was doing what on the pointy end of the damned thing.

On top of frustrating myself and countless other less talented guessers out there in the new emergent musical tv land, they also kept putting photos of the band on or pictures of the cover as in the following European tv programme from 1972 (Dutch possibly). Whenever the band goes into a solo the producers put a mosaic picture of the cover of their latest opus over the screen or a close up of the singer's face during the bits when he's not singing. I mentioned this point in my last post I know but here I have found a perfect example of what I mean.

Those of a nervous disposition and a fear of acoustic 12 string guitars, mellotrons and badly played flutes should check this out with the sound switched off. No fox's heads or Ossie Clark red dresses were worn during the making of this programme.

So, there we are. I've indulged a little bit of hireath, found a good example to use and brought it all in well under a thousand words. I wish you all a good day.

Friday, 9 January 2015

and Venus was her name

A goddess on a mountain top
burning like a flame
summit of beauty and love
and Venus was her name

Bands that only ever have one major hit are called "One Hit Wonders" although often they may be bands that have been around for years and probably survived long after the one hit fans have lost interest. The early 1970s were a particular era for this kind of thing - Matthews Southern Comfort had a number one with Woodstock and Gordon Huntley's beautiful hovering pedal steel guitar still brings pleasure. Another band considered One Hit Wonders were the Dutch group Shocking Blue (actually The Shocking Blue). Maybe in our American/Anglo-centric way that as they were a European band they were simply instantly forgotten about. In truth they had been formed in 1967 and split for the first time in 1974. They had  many hits in Europe selling some 13.5 million discs by 1973. Their one and only hit was Venus which got to No 1 in the USA but not in the UK or the Netherlands. Looking at the list of singles and albums on Wikipedia shows that they were a hard working and established band. Whilst having reformed a few times since their heydays, they can't now as the lead singer Mariska Veres sadly died back in 2006.

The Shocking Blue were formed by guitarist/songwriter Robbie van Leeuwen who evidently also played sitar. I'm not sure if that's a real one or the wonderful electric sitar which is a totally different beast. Anyway, I'm no expert on the band but there's plenty of information out there in cyberspace for interested parties.

Venus was released towards the end of 1969 but as it stayed in the UK charts for some thirteen  weeks it is considered a 1970 hit. Seeing them on Top of the Pops must have raised a few temperatures and Miss Veres certainly fuelled my thirteen year old imagination. But it was the sound of the single that stays with me.

Opening with a B7 suspended 4th chord taken directly from the Who's Pinball Wizard the simple E minor to A major rhythm chugs away whilst Miss Veres tells us of a mountain goddess whose weapons are "her crystal eyes" who "makes every man mad". The opening words were written as "A goddness"evidently and she sang it like that as she didn't speak English at the time so learnt it phonetically. Most people don't notice it. In the video below van Leeuwen plays a telecaster but in the official one he plays a semi-electric double horned guitar that could be a Hagstrom. That would probably be the guitar used on the actual track as it has more of a semi-electric sound. Also, frustratingly, in the video during the guitar solo the camera focuses on the drummer which seems to have been typical in the seventies. The Old Grey Whistle Test seemed to have a habit of doing that. Maybe it was agreed so nobody could work out what the guitarists were doing. Bloody frustrating.

The backing is simply electric and bass guitars and drums with a few lead licks thrown in. There is also an organ in the mix which could be a Vox Continental but I don't really know much about keyboards. The organ was played by a guest musician, one Rick van der Linden who also died in 2006. The lyrics were fairly ridiculous and not just because van Leeuwen always wrote in his second language - most pop lyrics are ridiculous. Still, she's got, yeah baby, she's got it. I'm sure many young men - and their dads - weren't really too bothered what the lovely Mariska was singing to be honest.

The guitar solo is nice and economical and has a lovely sound - quite possibly played on a telecaster. It's got a rolling, slidey country feel to it. The band had been formed as a Dutch version of West Coast groups like Jefferson Airplane but the solo didn't meander at all. When I posted a link to the video on Twitter I wrote that it's a "perfect pop song and beautifully constructed" and that's exactly what it is. An unusual opening - familiar because it reminds us of the Who - followed by a verse and a chorus (well, refrain), memorable guitar solo, second verse and refrain, a Middle Eight of "Aahs" and a few more choruses and a repeat of the opening. It's also got a little single note riff that features a couple of times. The solo starts up again but is quickly faded out. It has memorable words and you can dance to it (probably back in the day everyone did the "Bat-dance" a la Adam West's Batman in the 60's tv show). That's what I call a perfectly crafted piece of pop.

I have recently been analysing some old singles and album tracks. I say 'analysing' as it seems the most suitable word. I've been looking back not necessarily for any nostalgic reason but because I'm planning to record some songs using my latest toy. The Electro-Harmonix B9 Organ Machine is a pedal that simulates various 60s and 70s classic organs such as a Hammond. It genuinely sounds like them. Now, I've never been able to play piano as I could never get my head around playing chords and learning to read music so this is a revelation to me. By playing a guitar through this wonderful device and using reverb, I'm suddenly Rick Wakeman*. Mrs Dave came into the back room the other day and said it sounds like we've actually got a Hammond organ in the house. The cathedral organ simulation is unbelievable! Anyway, because of this device I've started to look back at some classic songs and their construction. John Fogerty certainly constructed the early Creedence Clearwater Revival songs to the point that he drew diagrams of how he wanted them to sound. I won't be doing that but it's great to listen carefully especially on headphones to these mini masterpieces.

Okay, here's the video. Enjoy.

*Evidently in Japan he was announced in print as "Rock Wankman".