“There Is No Prog, There Is Only Zeuhl”-The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of Redux: Unraveling Magma

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Magma. Just the word itself is intimidating. Part rock, part liquid, thousands of degrees in temperature. It can be easily outrun but is able to eat whole roads and towns. It can light the ocean on fire. Not a bad band name for what that can conjure up. And honestly, some of that is not a bad reference point. In a continuing series of ‘the best bands you have never heard of, the monumental French band Magma is next up for unraveling.

When I first encountered Magma in freshman year of college, I was thoroughly intimidated. I was beginning to be drawn to weird bands-Genesis, Yes and King Crimson first, then Gong, Van der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind later. My main source for these bands was the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, a late 70’s publication by Harmony (and highly recommended)

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This book was my best friend and my bible when I was seventeen. I devoured it from cover to cover voraciously. It taught me the wonders of many strange things: Hawkwind, Gong, Gryphon, Can, Henry Cow, Kraftwerk, Mike Oldfield, Caravan, Soft Machine, Amon Duul II, Gentle Giant, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis-a whole world of European rock music that was decidedly strange and were offshoots into territory unlike anything I had ever heard of, some quite unlike rock at all. For a boy weaned on Blue Oyster Cult, Kiss, Boston, Yes, Rush and Derringer, this was mighty unfamiliar territory. One band stood out from the rest: Magma. According to the Encyclopedia, Magma was an early 70’s French progressive band that had essentially created their own form of music. They had planned a ten lp cycle describing colonists in space returning to earth and being viewed as alien conquerors that was to be called Theusz Hamtaahk. To further muddy the waters, the band (or more correctly founder Christian Vander) had created a brand new language to accompany this decidedly weird weltanschauung. The much maligned Rolling Stone Record Guide took Magma to task with one star reviews and described them as “Deep Purple undergoing a bout of colitis’. In retrospect, a more accurate smartass review would be closer to “Electric Flag and Coltrane attend a mid 1930’s Nuremburg rally”.  The language the band speaks, (all of the songs are sung in it), and have given themselves new names in, is called Kobaian. It has a decidedly Germanic guttural feel to it, alien and threatening. Horns and chanting are predominant, and although there is guitar, it lives mostly in the background. Drums and bass (sometimes two bassists) are essentially the lead instruments.

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I ventured into my college town to see if I could locate any Magma albums. I received either blank stares or astonished  splutters- a wee 17 year old chap asking for Magma albums? I located Attahk (a good place to start)  in a cutout bin of a tiny record shop and brought it home. The first thing I noticed was the names of the band members: Klötz Zaspïaahk, Stündëhr, Dë Wëlëss, Kahal Negümüraaht,  Stöht Ürgon, Wurd Gorgo…decidedly strange. Then the band member photos: each one was a skull x-ray. This was definitely a band cut from different cloth. Even their logo was mystically strange and compelling. Magma Live on the Tomato label was the only thing left in print in America (and is another great starting point for newcomers) was put on special order at another store, and took about six months to materialize. This double album, recorded live in France, captures Magma at the height of their powers in mid 1975. Vocalist Klaus Blasquiz wails away in falsetto Kobaian, Janick Top (the only co-composer in the history of the band) blasts away on bass, while from behind the kit, Christian Vander intones some pretty heavy bass chanting to keep the gravitas solid. Here is a snippet of mid 70s Magma, with Klaus as lead vocalist, from their masterpiece Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh:

I became the only Magma fiend in my circle of friends and slowly accumulated all of their LPs in a five year period. Then, the more difficult task of acquiring the CDs came next. Emissaries were sent to Paris to nail down some essential and elusive titles. (As an aside-my second trip to the UK,  I spotted a Mini with a three foot Magma logo painted on the drivers door. I instantly set off in hot pursuit on foot chasing the car, but it eluded me at the second light. What I would have actually done had I caught the car was not really thought out. In the late 70’s, there was a rumor that an article in Playboy said that the headquarters of the US Magma fan club was located at UMass. In the early 80’s, I got off on the wrong floor in Sylvan, and as the elevator doors opened, I was greeted with a seven foot tall Magma logo. Holy shit! It was true!)

The years went on, and Magma remained mostly a European and French area gigging band. The band went through many lineup changes (over 50 by the late 90’s) and had some influential personages float through the band- Pierre Moerlen (Gong), Francis Moze (Gong),  Patrick Gauthier (Heldon), Daniel Denis (Univers Zero), Brian Godding (UK sessions, Kevin Coyne), Sometimes there were horns, sometimes no horns. Sometimes a powerful guitarist (Claude Olmos) and sometimes no guitar at all (Attahk, Udu Wudu). But through it all, they still maintained a fairly consistent and iconoclastic sound, easily identifiable. Below is a segment from 2005 that shows that 35 years into their career, the band can still bend reality and dimensions:

The band returned to the States in 2003 for Nearfest, and some sporadic shows exposed them to a new audience. I trekked down to Brooklyn in 2007 to a small low ceilinged club. Three female vocalists chanted ancient Kobaian hymns in perfect harmony, crystalline voices supported by the superb drumming of Vander. Part Elvin Jones, part teutonic ritual rhythms-the low ceiling seemed to lift to cathedral heights. My friend said “I get it! This is like opera as rock n roll.” She was exactly right-Magma’s music is a fusion of opera, rock, jazz, classical and a touch of the unknown. No band can touch so many points in one evening. In addition, Magma can also conjure up some moments that are very hard to describe-drums and incantations are chanted creating some very large group hallucinatory experience.

I gathered up a small posse to see them on a short US tour this year (2015). The band delivered two hours of magic-Kohntakorsz, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (all forty minutes of it) and Slag Tanz comprised the set. Zombies was the encore. It was a completely devastating and powerful performance, and the packed house was silently stunned at the end. After the show, I watched folks trek upstairs to the backstage room. I took a chance and followed a group of Parisian musicians who were friends with the band and latched on to them into the room. Waiting patiently until they were done, I spoke in halting French to Christian Vander. He was a genuine presence in the room, like Hendrix or Townshend, this guy had created works of music so singularly unique and powerful that I was a bit in awe. He was affable and friendly, signed a CD, graciously listened to my terrible French, and gave me a huge hug. I have never experienced anything in my life like a Magma show. It transcends just a concert into some weird uncharted territory.

In the long run, Magma is so much more than a band. It is closer to a pre Christian pagan ritual-flames reach to the stars, drums thunder polyrhythms that induce trance like states and reality melts away. What is revealed is some inner truth. Part dark, part light but the world is stripped bare for all to see: Zeuhl (which supposedly means celestial in Kobaian) is at the core and pervades all. Much like the Egyptian philosophical idea of “as above, so below”, Magma’s music mirrors the vastness of a universe little understood by humanity, and throws it into the blender of human frailty and the horrors of human cruelty. Somewhere in there lies the superman, ubermensch, that flows through Teutonic mythologies, an ability to synthesize the elements and rise above it all. For all its militaristic underpinnings, Magma is essentially a spiritual release for the human soul, pretty heady stuff for a prog rock band. Their success depends on how far you are willing to immerse yourself into this world and surrender. Let the Kobaian language flow over and through you, let the magical rhythmic pulses of days gone by produce an altered state of reality. Then? You might be able to see over the edge, and glimpse another plane of existence. That is something no band in the history of rock music has been capable of doing at such a level. And the fact that in 2015, they are still capable of doing this live in concert is a testament to an unrecognized musical genius. Christian Vander says he doesn’t really compose so much as go into trances and let the music flow through him. This statement I do believe, for the musical output of Magma is truly otherworldly. Do yourself a favor, and take a dip into another dimension. No rock band can do that anymore.

The Demonization of Nik Turner-Hawkwind, Hawknerdz and the Flame Wars of 2014-2015

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Not since Martin Luther nailed up some truths on an imposing church door has there been such a troubling schism in a monolithic religious organization. Pastoral and visionary, this highly bonded group have worshipped at the altar of the band Hawkwind for nigh on five distinct decades. But what could cause such a rift in this pacifist (minus the home made lager) and like minded group? Nik Turner. Just saying that name in certain circles is a call for public hangings, vitriol, character assassinations and general flame wars. Why does this septuagenarian gentleman get singled out so consistently and what is his publicly offensive crime? Only one thing-playing Hawkwind music. So why do some UK fans get such a bug in their butts about Nik?
The Backstory
Nik was a founding member of the seminal space rock band Hawkwind in 1969. Co founder Dave Brock and Nik pretty much created space rock (Edgar Froese may disagree). To be truthful, several other key components rotated through Hawkwind from the key years of 1969-1976: Lemmy (Motorhead), Robert Calvert, Simon House, the dual electronic maelstroms of DikMik and Del Dettmar. But the foundation sound and vision came from these two twins of space rock-Dave Brock and Nik Turner. Dave was the sound and Nik was the voice, and both came from beyond the edge of the cosmos. Hawkwind came slowly through unending waves of music press criticism, shrugged their shoulders and set the controls for the unknown. One of the few bands to remain mostly relevant throughout their 46 year history, their iconoclast view ended up being correct. Pink Floyd? Gone. Tangerine Dream? Gone. They are name checked by hundreds of known and unknown bands across the planet. Hawkwind showed the early critics who was correct.
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The Trouble With Nik
Nik began to have some trouble in the band in the mid 70’s. Dave had sacked more than a few (although it is reported that Nik was tabbed to sack Lemmy on their 1975 tour for getting caught with speed crossing the Canadian border) and the band line up had become fluid. The last one on the chopping block was Nik. He was sent to the wilderness in 1976. This set off a film worthy love/hate relationship between these two stewards of spaceship Hawkwind that has lasted until this day. Like some lingering diseases, the disorder occasionally went dormant (Nik rejoined the band full time in 1983, saving them from their formulaic metal bent and getting them back towards a festival and space rock track) and reconciliations were offered. Nik was shown the door again in 1985, ostensibly for being a stage hog (partly true). Although some debated their likes and dislikes of 15 years of Hawkwind, everyone agreed that this was not only THE band, it was their band. Reunions in the millennium included many former members, and the Hawkwind family was one huge extended clan.
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Enter the Hawknerdz

Something started to go wrong recently. In 2013, posts on Amazon and Yahoo groups indicated a new breed had arisen–the self appointed Hawkwind police. They trolled the internet looking for mentions of Nik Turner, gathered the troops, and attacked. Where this new strain had come from was a mystery for a while. Somewhere in 2014, something happened on the UK Hawkwind fan site. Known amongst themselves as Hawkwnerdz, the site began to show some troubling signs. ‘Wanted For Treason” and other nasty threats were posted over pictures of Nik Turner. Beheadings, Hangings, stonings were all mentioned. What the hell were these people talking about? Most of the folks on this site are straight shooting music fans, unwilling to be drawn into political discussions of the “schism”. But moderators either tacitly or actively approved of this misbehavior. Posts by members of the band fueled the fires and opinions got very heated. A strong cadre of members were increasingly vociferous about their opinions of Nik Turner. And in sharing these opinions, they were not shy. Like a child in a divorce, they were told to take sides, and poisoned by…..someone. They took to the web (mostly friend face) and screamed the mantra “Nik Turner is the devil!” They started a flame war that was single minded: destroy anyone who disagreed with the party line. You like Nik Turner? You are banned from the site. Did you have your own site? (Nik Turner’s main friend face site and the Hawkwind North America/Canada site are good examples) We show up and attack. When faced with logic or asked questions logically-they descended into name calling, attacks and bans. This happened on the UK site where many US fans questioning the double cancellation were just muted and sent away. They orchestrated a concerted effort to suppress and censor any information on the internet about the Hawkwind failed tour, and shifted all blame on Nik, by any means possible. “They had questioned the integrity of the band”. Why would they say this? Why would they intentionally divide a fan base that was such a global family? That some on the UK site were bothered by US fans complaining about losing two rounds of hotels and flights to go to unplayed shows-and offered a “who cares, they’re playing ten times this fall” attitude only added to an already forming rift.
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The Non Tour Saga and the Blaming of Nik
Although this is detailed here earlier, a quick recap: Hawkwind had a tour of America booked in fall 2013. Three days before the tour was to commence, they canceled the whole thing. The reason? Dave Brock had been stricken ill over stress by the fact that Nik was suing to use the Hawkwind name in America, and was unable to tour. Whether this was the idea of Nik or Cleopatra Records is to be determined. But given this excuse, people were sad and regrouped. Online,the complaints were solidified. It was stressed that a concurrent tour as Nik Turner’s Hawkwind would be confusing to prospective fans. Ignoring the fact that all US (and Canadian) fans know the difference, and would attend both bands no matter what, the claim of a single Hawkwind was a rallying cry to many UK fans. A larger problem developed in the spring. The rescheduled tour in 2014 was once again canceled two weeks before it began with the band citing some fairly implausible excuses-they had nowhere to sleep (tour buses are where bands sleep), they had no food plans (venues feed bands), promoters would not put up the cash (they had done enough in October to satisfy the band), renting a back line would be expensive (many US tours from 1990 to 1997 prove they know this isn’t a problem). When mentioning visas and airfare, the explanation gets into a twilight zone of logic. People started to doubt this story, and by proxy, the October story. (Hawkwind had gone on a short UK tour near the proposed US tour dates in October). Was there something else out there that kept them from coming? Nik? Certainly not a real excuse. (All of Nik Turner’s shows in cities that Hawkwind were scheduled to play were after Hawkwind had done a show, precluding any supposed confusion). Another troubling question was: Were Hawkwind legally prevented from coming to North America by the legal kerfuffle? This would go a loooong way to explaining the fairly unconvincing and contradictory claims regarding the spring 2014 tour. The fact that they couldn’t legally come would explain not touring and not telling anyone at the same time. ( a good article that chronicles this and quotes the reasons from Hawkwind’s main website can be read here )
What’s In A Name?
Now let’s set some history straight. Two Hawkwinds? Is that possible? A quick perusal of rock history can show us some things. Multiple Wishbone Ash, Queensryche, Foghat units populate a dwindling rock god gene pool. Steve Hackett’s Genesis just toured. Collins, Banks and Rutheford toured in 2007, are planning a tour now, and own the name-no problem. Hawkwind’s space rock contemporaries, Gong are an even better example. Gong, Paragong, New York Gong, Gnog, Gong Maison, Mother Gong, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong? For better or worse, this band of UK and French stoners managed to get along and share…after all, wasn’t that the vibe of the sixties? Free shows and Portobello Road communes were the order of the day. Money? That’s for fat cats, the man, the establishment. Although it is sure that the Gong family squabbled about many things PHP, they never took their family fights public, and gave the illusion of getting along. And so did their fans.
Not the End But a Denouement
How this will play out isn’t easy to predict. As noted before, the band of Hawkwind fans was one of the strongest and longest lived underground and nearly religious cadres in rock behind Deadheads. But this divide in the following weakens a group that has never seen strife as fans. Nik Turner’s Hawkwind and Hawkwind? US fans don’t care. Bring ’em both. This US refusal to recognize any conflict drew vociferous attacks via the UK. The Hawknerdz are partially guilty of inciting this schism in a fan base that was solid for decades. Not reining in wayward factions and tolerating or encouraging childlike internet behavior has gone a long way to creating ill will that never existed before. This campaign seems to have the quiet backing of the official band as well. Airing of dirty laundry in public is not a smart way to solve problems. There is no evidence of squabbling between Hawkwind factions, hell there were no Hawkwind factions before this recent flame war started. They have advised to be patient and wait until the legal battle is settled, yet actively promote a squabble over a conflict, a conflict between two band members, not fans. This is irresponsible, and uses age old smear and censorship tactics, spreading the hate that they gleefully accuse folks who honestly voice any opposing opinions of, and silencing and deleting whenever possible. But this article is not intended to be an apology for Nik Turner, it is a plea for reconciliation, and to get everyone back together, fans (and band members). Some will disagree.  I know that few of the hardened hatchet men will be moved by this message, but I feel sorry for them. “Cutting off one’s nose to spite their face” comes to mind as these people miss out on some amazing music to fight a battle, a battle that is not even theirs to fight. If a band splits, then either a limb dies off, or it roots and regrows. The obvious solution is to get the original band back together. But this is not always possible. So when a long lived band has two incarnations, it actually is double the fun for the crowd. Two Hawkwinds? Two Hawkwinds touring America at once? Hallelujah! Two space rock gods fighting-not something that has any winners. Two 70 year old guys fighting over a band name? It makes one shake a head and think…”why can’t stoner grandpas just get along?”

For verification of any of the above, the sources are the closed groups of Hawkwind UK fans, Hawkwind US/Canada, and the Nik Turner group, all friend face locations.

King Crimson and Robert Fripp in 2015-Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years

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The fact that there is even a King Crimson in 2015 is beyond any doubt incredible. Hell, the reunion in 1981 was fairly improbable, as was the reformation in 1994. But the action around the band in the last six months-full US tour, box set of unreleased material going back to 1969, live album on Cd and vinyl of the 2014 tour? It beggars description that this is happening currently, and is astonishingly well planned and executed. Why such a level of surprise? The main reason is Robert Fripp. As noted in the title, he is batshit crazy. A genius? Certainly. One of the most influential rock musicians of the last fifty years? Absolutely. But behind the thin veil of normalcy, Fripp  bubbles away like the crazy friend you had in middle school, who when you meet again at a class reunion decades later has gone from eccentric to just plain weird. Of course your friend from middle school didn’t tour the world several times over and play some of the most cutting edge music to thousands of fans each night. That is why Fripp has been able to glide through mostly unquestioned by the masses. Before we begin, a quick recap of some of the more notable ‘eccentricites’

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Now don’t get me wrong, nobody is perfect. Everyone has their own little quirks. And to his credit, Fripp has been quite forthcoming on his own shortcomings. What can be annoying is when Fripp imposes his quirks upon you, and leaves you no choice except get on board or leave. Cracks in the facade could be traced back to the origins of the band, but the real damage appeared in the 1974 tour. Even his own tour diary leading up to the final show in Central Park June 1974, Fripp admits that he is alienated in his own band, and now eats his meals alone while the rest of the band eats at a table across the restaurant. The hints he drops in his diary indicates this is pretty much a result of his increasingly strange and borderline OCD behavior. Fracture on Starless and Bible Black is a nice sonic picture and strong hint of the paranoia and disintegrating hold on reality for a character that appears anonymous but is more likely autobiographical.  King Crimson in 1974 was not a waning proposition but an increasingly powerful one. The album Red, the final one of this lineup, contained newly returned founding member Ian McDonald, composer and co-writer of all five songs on the landmark debut album, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King. Marc Charig, a cornet player from the albums Lizard and Islands had returned as well. It seemed as if all the eras of King Crimson were folding together, and the result was a stunning masterpiece of hypnotic heaviness, a proto metal progressive album, the first of its kind. But suddenly, the band was no more. Fripp had decided to break the band up. Not only was the rock world stunned and angered, the band members were even more upset. Drummer Bill Bruford was informed of the band’s just announced demise during an interview with a journalist and wept openly at the news. Extreme? Not really. This was a band that had scaled the heights of rock music, and pushed boundaries further and further, literally redefining genres with each song. Bruford wasn’t the only one in tears. No good reasons for breaking the band up were offered, and even those close to the band thought it was inexplicable. But then some information snuck out. Fripp had perhaps fled  to Dorset on an extended spiritual retreat. Later, stories circulated that his then current girlfriend, a practicing witch, had convinced him that the world was going to end soon, and they retreated to an island to wait for the end and go out in style. This would seem to be something that would actually break the band up. Why tour and work when you could relax in luxury and meditate on the end of humanity? Luckily the witch was off by at least five decades in her prediction, but at least this one is understandable, if  not easily explainable.

To come closer to the current times-Fripp on a solo tour hit my town in 1998. He was dreadfully put out by flash photography. He had been known to bail on shows on this tour if one flash went off in the crowd. At this show, a single flash in the balcony 30 minutes in caused him to slowly turn his gear off, and exit the stage without a word. He had to be coaxed back. (At a Projekct 2 show in town the same year, a friend saw him eating alone in a huge restaurant window. He took a large flash photo that lit up the window like a movie screen. Fripp may have lost five years of life in that moment).  In 2012, Fripp threw a large online tantrum and said he was quitting the music business over the way labels have handled the Crimson catalogue. While some of his points are valid, he signed contracts in a music business that operated in a certain fashion. He was well aware of what he was getting into . But in the new millenium, large diatribes would appear online and even in the fanclub live cds booklets excorciating the major labels as devils. Some agreed, most were embarrassed for him. Fripp can certainly turn a phrase when he’s got his dander up, and these intractable tracts are highly recommended to read at least once.

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Now back to current times. Apparently unconcerned he promised to quit the music business altogether forever, Fripp reformed King Crimson. This was pretty astounding, as the band had run its course by 2009, and was repeating themes created in 1981 with Adrian Belew for the past few decades. Whenever Crimson feels stale, it’s time for a change. Everyone expected that was it for the band when he folded up shop at the end of the  2008 tour. A revamped line up raised some eyebrows as it was noted that Belew wouldn’t be part of this incarnation.The tour was preceded by the Elements box, sold only at shows and the Crimson website. I was expecting it to be a primer for new fans, and was astounded to find two cds of previously unreleased material. Some of the stuff was insanely rare-Greg Lake singing Cadence and Cascade? Fripp assured us that this never happened, yet here it is in all its delicate beauty. Eight of the fifteen tracks on the first disc are songs proper, the remaining seven are snippets and snapshots of rejected guitar solos and such. The first disc contains only material from the 69-74 version of Crimson, barring the interspersed tracks of the 2014 rehearsals, five ‘songs’ totaling six minutes-a bit light on what they could have offered to preview this line up. Cirkus from 1971 is a genuine treasure. Disc 2 is the modern era Crimson-1981 to the current day. The prize on this disc is a recording of Manhattan (later known as Neurotica). It is a vivid picture of someone standing in NYC surrounded by the hustle and bustle of sirens, horns and cacophony that bring them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. I had witnessed this played live in 1982 and felt the original had been completely stripped of its power in the final lp version and lamented the loss of the original–but now overjoyed at its return. Another treasure is the band in rehearsals working on a particularly complex part of music and not quite getting it right. Belew exclaims “this shit is hard!” at the end. A nice insight to what the band goes through to get to their seamless endpoints. The set is only marred by the inclusion of two songs from the dreadfully soporific and mostly unlistenable Scarcity of Miracles, an album that preceded the reunion and brought Jakko Jakszyk into the Crim fold.

 

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This brings us to the fall tour of 2014. Although I have been a die hard Crimson fan since the late 70’s, somehow I didn’t have many high hopes for this tour. The Scarcity of Miracles had a paucity of ideas, and if this was a preview of the new direction–then it was time to bury the carcass and be done with it. I went to the fourth show of the tour, and hadn’t looked at the set list. The band lineup was an augmented version of scarcity-Fripp, Mel Collins (from the Islands days) on sax, Jakko on guitar and vocals, Tony Levin returning once again on bass, and then….three drummers? Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison lined up front and center across the stage-band behind on risers. Mastelotto had been Crimson’s drummer since 1994 (he started in the MTV staple band Mr. Mister) and Harrison had been in Crimson for a cup of coffee in 2008. He has been Porcupine Tree’s drummer since 2002. Rieflin seemed an odd choice-Ministry, Pigface, Nine Inch Nails, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM were his staple gigs-but a long term stint in REM showed him to be versatile at least. In concert, Bill was a wise choice-professorly in demeanor, and subtle in execution.

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The evening opened with a cringe-worthy nod to Robert’s obsession…bootleg recording and photography. In a recorded skit between him and the other members of the band, they danced around the concept of ‘being in the moment’ to discourage any picture taking or recording. Although this was meant to be clever, it had all the authenticity of your teachers in sixth grade putting on a skit to keep you from smoking. Eye rolling led to a vow to actually take pictures of the show against their will, much like the wide eyed sixth grader watching his teachers play and saying “dammit these assholes are actually going to drive me to trying a cigarette”  It hadn’t been a thought until the awkwardness of the opening tape entered its third minute of preaching. When will this guy learn? (illegal show pix above)

I was very glad I had not glimpsed a set list before the show, because what we had in store was monstrously unexpected. Crimson was never a band to delve into back catalogue or do anything remotely close to a greatest hits show. A tinkling of kalimba and sundry percussion came up as the lights went down. All three drummers worked busily to make a very quiet tapestry of sound. I seemed to be the only one who noticed this was a song–“HOLY SHIT! They are opening with Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part One!” I yelled out in the darkened theater. This song had not been played on stage in forty years, I was ecstatic. Next up was Pictures of a City from In the Wake of Poseidon, a tune not played since 1972. What was going on? Songs from Lark’s Tongues, Red, Islands, In the Court of the Crimson King? This was not what I expected at all. The band was flawless in execution, although those who were watching closely could see that Fripp sitting quietly on the side had off loaded many of his guitar parts to Jakko, but this was fairly indistinguishable in the long run. The only damper was a drum solo by Harrison in the middle of 21st Century Schizoid Man (aside: There has never been a drum solo proper in this song, why now? And….there are 3 drummers, he is the only one to get a solo? First Steve Wilson is allowed to remix Crimson’s albums and now the Porcupine Tree drummer gets a solo? Do these guys have dirt on Fripp? Ugh) The show was flawless, perhaps the best I had seen the band since my first show in 1981. I wished that I had gone to the previous shows, but was glad that I had seen this  one, even more glad I hadn’t glanced at a set list. So where does that leave us in 2015? Lots of complaints, even more delights.

You didn't take any pictures, did you?
You didn’t take any pictures, did you?

In the long run, all of Fripp’s perceived oddities and eccentricities, however annoying, are essentially coming from the right place. And that place is fueled by a passion for music that many of his contemporaries are sorely lacking. No band in the history of rock has remained relevant as long as King Crimson. That is a weighty statement there. Nobody has managed this. And the sole reason for Crimson’s being able to stay a light year or two ahead of the competition all comes back to Robert Fripp’s single minded devotion to principle and perfection. So batshit crazy or batshit genius? Grab a bunch of Crimson albums, hell grab all of them. Lock yourself into the soundroom and let it fly, and you decide.

In The Lap of the Gods-Amazing Super Groups That Almost Happened: HELP, XYZ, WWB and Beyond

The Super Group: a collection of well known stars that band together to make up a highly touted record selling juggernaut, attract all of the attention, get the plum gigs, and of course, get all the girls. Most have failed, few rise above the hype and the lucky ones (usually ones not noted initially as super groups) grab the brass ring of success.

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Early super groups were defined by the band Blind Faith. Even the name suggests what the audience should have going into the project. Members of Cream (kind of a super group already)  and Traffic (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Ric Grech) combined ideas and personnel to make one middling album (known more for its topless twelve year old girl on the album cover than any music inside), a 1969 tour that pulled in the dollars but showed the band to be more or less a blues jam band with few real songs, and relied on their former bands for in concert faves. Playing the same Cream songs to increasing hordes of rabid fans who were out of their minds wasted was exactly why Clapton had broken Cream up, so the writing was on the wall. They pulled the plug and quickly faded from memory, thus providing the model for many super groups to follow. (see GTR)

Jimi_Hendrix_Exp. elp help

But this article isn’t about the dinosaur era of failed super groups, it is about groups that nearly formed, or formed and then disbanded without any output. You know, the big “what if’s?” of rock history. One of the first of note did not have a name, but was going to be a collision between the most histrionic rock guitarist going, and the most over the top keyboardist of all time: Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. It was to be called either HELP or HELM depending on the final line up. With the end of the Nice, Emerson was looking to retool a band. He had already pooched Greg Lake from King Crimson, and was fishing around for some pieces of the puzzle to round out the band. Supposedly he contacted Hendrix to jam together, and (depending on who you listen to) Jimi came by to sit in on  some of the early sessions that yielded Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  This is where the story gets a little murky. The one thing that has been documented is that Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell showed up to a rehearsal at Emerson’s studio with a large entourage. Discussions of Mitchell coming on board to round out the trio led to the wild idea of including Hendrix. It is uncertain whether Carl Palmer was in the loop of discussion as of yet as a drum choice. It is likely that, had the project gone a bit further, Hendrix would have had the final say in drummers, and gone with his favorite in Mitchell over the unknown Palmer. British tabloids at the time hinted at the HELP moniker, but a close look at the facts indicate that the HELM lineup would have been the final outcome. Witnesses to the first meetings said that the huge drugged out entourage Hendrix brought with him did not lend to the ‘friendly jam’ atmosphere that nascent bands crave in the formative stage, and that Lake and Emerson “freaked out”, and had second thoughts. Still, for any fans of Hendrix and ELP, the thought of two of the most talented point men in rock being able to duel on stage and trade riffs and solos of unimaginable depth is pretty appealing. (Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 put an end to the proposal). But the jazzier leanings Hendrix was dabbling in at the time make it even more of a tantalizing proposition. Which leads to….

miles telegram

Hendrix, McCartney, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This lineup is documented by an October telegram sent to Apple Records and Paul McCartney trying to get the bass player to show up in New York for the album sessions. Hendrix and McCartney are already a fairly enticing proposition, but throw in jazz legend Miles Davis and phenom jazz drummer Tony Williams? Good god the mind boggles at the thought of what that quartet could have accomplished. Whether Macca would have been one of many bassists on the album or a solid member of the quartet is unknown. But the tantalizing scrap of paper in the Hard Rock Cafe bears witness to something that rock fans can only dream about- a super group that could have rewritten musical boundaries forever. The Hendrix album Nine to the Universe released in 1980 had jazz leanings, and a little known album session with John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame showed the direction Hendrix was heading. (McLaughlin nixed the release of his jams with Jimi, alluding to crappy playing on his part. I have a bootleg of  the session, and McLaughlin gets truly smoked at every turn and is out of sorts with Hendrix, not something a flash guitarist wants on his resume). In the long run, McCartney was on holiday and it is unknown whether he was apprised of the telegram. (Apple was notoriously inefficient in 1969).  But this would have been something special, no doubt. A group that would have defined and redefined “jazz rock”.

beatles  (FILE) Rolling Stones Return To Hyde Park, A Look Back At The 1969 Concert bob-dylan-1969

Before passing out of the sixties, another proposed band has recently come to light. In the realms of the word super group, this one would  have been a doozy: a nine piece band comprising Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Yep–Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, all in one band. Producer Glyn Johns let this one out in his recent book. According to Johns, the impetus for this project came solely from Bob Dylan. He wanted to make an album with the most influential song writers of the 1960’s, and see what the combined talents could collaborate on to produce. The time period would have been the summer of 1969-Self Portrait era of Dylan, post Brian Jones Stones, and the chaos of Let it Be for the Beatles. Johns had worked for years on the Rolling Stones production end, and Dylan was intrigued by his recent work with the Beatles. Despite Dylan’s enthusiasm, only George Harrison and Keith Richards jumped at the chance and tried to gather support. Wyman, Ringo and Watts waited to see what others would do, and Lennon felt ambivalent. McCartney and Jagger would not even consider it for a second, perhaps reflecting the power struggles then going on in both bands. Despite the cachet these names generate, it is hard to see how this would have played out. Collaborative song writing? If real, then it would have been something we’d still be analyzing to this day. But other luminaries were sidling up…

yes-xyz plant

                                           xyz

Fast forwarding a decade comes a super group that strikes very close to home: XYZ. Representing eX Yes and Zeppelin, XYZ was formed in late 1980 as both Yes and Led Zeppelin had imploded (the former due to a break up during the failed follow up to Tormato, the other by the death of John Bonham.). At the time, two of my favorite bands had just jumped the rails, and my lifelong search to finally see Led Zeppelin live summer 1980 was thwarted by Bonham’s untimely death. Whispers by those who had insider information spoke of XYZ-Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Chris Squire and Alan White. Holy Crap–talk about a consolation prize! I anxiously awaited further news. I carried around a 1981 clipping from a local newspaper from a ticket scalping agency for the better part of a decade. Around the border were upcoming big concerts they were pushing: The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, AC/DC…the hottest tours of the biggest bands circled in a border around the advert. But one caught my eye, the elusive XYZ. Was there going to be a tour? Holy shit! But then….an information black out. Nothing in the news anywhere about this. What was going on?  In reality, Page, White and Squire had gotten together with former Greenslade keyboardist David Lawson to combine forces. As a front man, the obvious choice was Robert Plant. Rehearsals in early 1981 progressed well, but Plant dropped out after a single session with them, citing lingering trauma from Bonham’s death. Other sources claim the songs being written were straying into an unfamiliar ground as Squire and White drew Page into much trickier uncharted territory-fluctuating time signatures, stops and starts and evolving key changes–the hallmarks of prog rock and Yes. Plant found this material out of  his comfort zone and a bit too “tricky” for his liking. Whichever excuse you  prefer, Plant was out. This left Squire and David Lawson as vocalists, but the initial momentum and  enthusiasm began to wane as rehearsals continued. Disputes over management between Brian Lane of the Yes camp and Peter Grant of the Zep camp did not help. (The aborted sessions produced some tantalizingly rare outtakes, which finally have surfaced in the bootleg underground and are readily available to the skilled internet surfer). Finally both parties realized that this was headed in the wrong direction without Plant to tie it together, and they went their separate ways. Some of the more finished material ended up on the rare Squire/White single,  Run With the Fox. Other material ended up on the 1983 Yes reformation album 90125. One song ended up on a Page/Rodgers Firm album. One of the ‘trickier’ pieces finally surfaced 15 years later as Mind Drive on the 1997 Keys to Ascension2 Yes album. For many Yes fans, this was the last decent original song they ever released. Few know that its origins have Jimmy Page rattling around in there somewhere. But this wasn’t the only aborted Yes project of the era….

When Yes failed to come up with a follow up to Tormato, they imploded in Paris. Roy Thomas Baker was at the helm, and the band bickered endlessly. Writing was strained and Jon Anderson tried to wrestle control and impose his will upon the band, a very un-Yeslike attitude. (Songs of this era showed up on bonus tracks of Drama and the Anderson solo album Song of Seven. They are excruciatingly bad.) In the background was the easily disaffected keyboard genius Rick Wakeman. Rick had once famously consumed sausage sandwiches on his grand piano while playing on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour to show his disapproval of the material and horrify the recently vegan turned Anderson and Howe. So when Alan White broke his ankle during the sessions, Rick saw his opportunity and wisely bolted for the door.

wwb wetton

But this was not the first time Wakeman had pulled a vanishing act. The first time was post Tales, in 1974. He then became a fairly large draw as a solo act, but stage productions for Journey to the Center of the Earth (performed around a lake with inflatable monsters bobbing up and down from the surface) and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of  the Round Table (performed around a skating rink with ice skating characters, and orchestra and choir) drained finances like burning money in a stove. A solution was in the offing, and America had the answer. With ELP effectively off the road, a keyboard led supergroup was needed. That group was Wakeman Wetton and Bruford, WWB.  John Wetton and Bill Bruford had most recently played together in the final 70’s version of King Crimson, and were nearly telepathic in their playing. Wakeman? Well as he himself has noted, was an unofficial member of the UK Olympic Drinking Team. This seemed doomed from the start, but they hung together for six weeks in May-June 1977, took promo photos on a James Bond movie set, had press releases out and record companies lined up. Unfortunately, the execs pumped up Wakeman’s already inflated ego with promises of ELP styled mega events with him at the helm. They also proposed a 50-25-25 split of the finances, something that Wetton and Bruford could not swallow. With  accountants running with contracts after them, the band fell apart. Wakeman rejoined Yes, while Wetton and Bruford enlisted Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth for the more sedate and complex band, UK. The bombastic WWB never saw the light of day. Two songs of their work survived–Beelzebub surfaced on a Bruford solo album, and Thirty Years on the first UK album.

Recent history has provided many an example of super groups that fizzle out upon launch. Had these bands continued and actually toured and released albums,the same fate may have struck the above mentioned bands. But time and events will not let us know how this  would have played out. One thing I do know, I really would  have loved to see Jimmy Page in a progressive rock band. “What if?” indeed.

Divided Alien? Dingo Virgin? Daevid Allen and Pot Head Pixies Depart For Planet Gong

I've been off planet, have you?
I’ve been off planet mate, have you?

This has been a rough winter for fans of the cosmos. First Edgar Froese. Then Spock (supposedly actor Leonard Nimoy, but facts are unclear as to whether Spock is real or not) and now Daevid Allen. Although Daevid is the least well known of the three, he made a fairly large imprint on the minds of impressionable space rock aficionados across the planet as he wove his magic from the late 60’s up to the current decade. Six decades by my reckoning.

This month (March) had brought the sad news from the Gong camp that Daevid Allen was not doing well health-wise. He had made the decision to quit all radical chemo and radiation therapies and let nature take its course. Although this should not have been that surprising (he was born in 1938), Daevid Allen has been such a constant in many people’s lives that they were taken completely unaware. Because for my whole life of following bands and collecting records, Daevid Allen was always there, lurking in the background. The elusive Flying Teapot trilogy was legendary in the late 70’s, and nearly impossible to find in record stores. I remember getting Angel’s Egg in an import store in Boston when my parents refused to help me shell out the nearly 20 bucks a Japanese copy of Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan commanded. (It was released within two months to the US market at a much more sensible six dollar price point). But with Flying Teapot already in the collection, Angel’s Egg upped the weirdness quotient exponentially, if that is even possible. How to describe the mythological weirdness that floats around Gong? A coterie of green pointy headed aliens with propellers on their heads, known as Pot Head Pixies, fly from their home planet, Gong, to visit Earth. From here the story gets a little murky. The pixies come to earth in flying teapots from across the galaxy to offer earthlings tea. Said tea will promote wisdom, peace, enlightenment and mischief. They broadcast to us via a cross galaxy station known as Radio Gnome. The healing vibes of Planet Gong….uhhh…..well Daevid was not quite clear about this part. But you get the idea perhaps. Drugs clearly are a big part of this. Gong as a band were inveterate stoners, and LSD was sprinkled in liberally to tighten up the recipe. Pot Head Pixies, from Flying Teapot is a paen to their drug of choice: flying-teapot gong

David started his bohemian existence in Australia in the late 1950’s, the beatnik era. (Daevid was considerably older than his contemporaries). Stints in Paris and London in the early sixties led him to a musical pathway. Along this path he left no turn unstoned, and spread his burgeoning mythical vibes. He hooked up with William Burroughs to do soundtracks to live plays, lifting the band name ‘Soft Machine’ from a Burroughs novel. These free jazz experiments and lifestyle lay the foundations for some incredible moments: Allen overstaying a visa meant he was unable to return to the UK after Soft Machine’s first Europe tour, and was bounced from the band. (the other famous early member of Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, chose to quit the band to hang out on the beaches of Spain and soak up sun, champagne, drugs and bang rich and bored European heiresses) David shifted to Paris in time for the commune revolts that spread in the spring of 1968 and nearly toppled the government. Now a borderline revolutionary, Daevid was getting close to being persona non grata in two of the largest European countries. It was in France that the seeds of Gong were planted. Gilli Smyth came on board as muse and space whisperer. Daevid perfected his glissando guitar techniques that he used until his dying day: sliding a metal bar over guitar strings yielding an astral sound of the galaxies and beyond. This was a sound that was integral to Gong’s whole ethos-bubbling synthesizers from Tim Blake, echoing leads piercing the sky from Steve Hillage, and an underpinning of galactic gravy gliss from Daevid to hold it all together. Gong famously sprinted from France to England to perform at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre Festival. Their side long contribution-Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory-is a classic of space rock and an indelible part of the hippy culture of England in the early 70’s. Gong was signed to Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin label in 1972 in the wake of the massive success of debut labelmate Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Their communal lifestyle and music drew druggies to them like moths to a flame. Much like the Grateful Dead had Americans follow them everywhere while imbibing improbable amounts of psychedelics, and Hawkwind had a likewise following in the UK, Gong drew in the French hippies en masse. Concerts were like tribal family gatherings, and the line between band and fan was not always clear. Success bred insanity, break ups, reunions, line up shifts and a colorful tapestry of alternative living, with an undercurrent of ‘better living through chemistry”. Three albums later, Daevid quit Gong while onstage. During the 1975 tour for the third album of the Teapot trilogy, You, he was watching a jam from offstage waiting for his cue to return. But the vibes were not right. He said “I felt a wall, invisible but real, form while I stood side stage. I decided to leave through the stage door, and walk out into the night, still dressed in my psychedelic stage costume. I left Gong forever that night” Solo Daevid Allen albums became more pastoral and gentle as he honed his philosophy. Woodland critters and gentle streams and breezes informed his new work.Then a punky phase from New York. Then a stint with Here and Now, one of the only Gong influenced bands on the planet (Ozric Tentacles would be the other one) He continued to be prolific throughout the nineties and millenium. I met Daevid several times in the nineties, once at a solo show where gliss guitar filled the air, and once at a full blown Gong reunion show in Boston. A white haired wizard, he had not lost a step in wits or in cosmic attunement. daevid older

In retrospect, Daevid Allen was a unique synthesis of talents. A mystic, a mime, a musician, an artist, a visionary. Only Vivian Stanshall and his work in the  Bonzo Dog Band is a close reference point. Job descriptions blurred as Daevid took the stage. Performance art, rock, cosmic experiences, theater, jazz–it all blurred into one glorious experience, with Daevid as the psychedelic mastermind. From his busking daze in Australia to proto agit prop firebrand in France to elder statesman of space rock, Daevid carved a genuinely low key and delightfully positive path through the world. Would that were more folks like that in the rock world. I am sure Daevid would agree. If you point your antennae to the stars and can locate an obscure alien transmission known as Radio Gnome, you might just get an answer. The teapot taxi will not be visiting any more. But I will still be pointing my dish towards the galaxy, hoping to pick up a transmission. “You are I and I am you”.

Manowar: “Death to False Metal”-The Good, The Bad and….The Sublimely Ridiculous

So, you are watching the first Conan the Barbarian movie. Conan is brought to town early in the film, and the market is crowded with suspicious merchants, thieves, vagrants, broken wizards and prostitutes and the detritus of a sword and sorcery society. In the background, four men are in a straw covered corner, dressed in fur loin cloths and swathed in chain mail armor banging on guitars and drums and pounding out slow anthems to heaviness and glory undreamt of…..

Conan-the-Barbarian

No, this never happened, but that imagined scene gives the uninitiated a pretty good idea of what Manowar are about. And In retrospect, they would have done a helluva job on the soundtrack to that movie, Alas an opportunity squandered….

Manowar are fairly unique in the annals of Heavy Metal. Before death metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, there was Manowar. Since their inception in 1980, they have plowed ahead with a singular vision: being the loudest sword wielding metal band on the planet, bent on the destruction of every band except those who play true metal.  Their dedication to the ideal of true metal fuels their drive, and is their zeitgiest. What exactly defines ‘true metal’ is rather nebulous…even the metal masters themselves are unclear on it. In one radio interview done circa 1983 (the golden age of Manowar) they claimed they listened to no rock music at all, only classical. An incredulous DJ asks if he heard correctly. Then, suddenly realizing they are on the air, and that they had toured with Black Sabbath, they quickly added: “We like Black Sabbath a lot!” (They also allowed that their current tour partner Ted Nugent was okay too.)  So they are on record as saying they only listen to:  A. Themselves B. Classical Music C. Black Sabbath. This keeps their minds clear for their Beowulf era sword slash sorcery sagas of honor, killing, revenge, killing, metal, and killing. Other frequently visited topics for lyrics are ‘we are the best band in the world’ (about a dozen songs fall into this category) and railing against ‘false metal’. Add in a dollop of Norse mythology and you pretty much have it.

battle hymns

Manowar sprang into being in 1980 during Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ tour. Joey DeMaio, founding member and brain trust of the band was working with their lighting rigs and supposedly handling the pyrotechnics end of stage productions. “i got to blow things up on stage, THAT is metal” he said in an interview. He had an epic voiced partner in Eric Adams from his hometown of Auburn, New York that had the pipes to give life to DeMaio’s self penned tales of swords and vengeance . But the necessary pieces were not quite assembled yet. That tour proved fruitful, as Joey encountered Ross the Boss of Dictators fame playing guitar for Shakin Street in the opening slot for Sabbath. They compared notes on what each had in mind for the perfect band, and finding common ground and common minds, a plan for world domination was hatched. (We met on English ground, In a backstage room we heard the sound, And we all knew what we had to do… -from the song Manowar from debut LP, Battle Hymns.)  Back in the States, an advertisement for a drummer who’s ‘heart was black’ yielded the Rod’s drummer Karl Kennedy (Canedy) and then quickly his replacement, Donnie Hamzik. This quartet recorded the debut album, released on Liberty Records in 1981. The album sank without a trace, and was vigorously ignored by press on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet some gems are in there. Most notably, the inclusion of Orson Welles in the narration of the epic Dark Avenger. An extensive quote of the narration is needed to understand exactly what these guys were about

“Let ye not pass Abaddon–Return to the world
From whence you came And seek payment
Not only for thy known anguish But to vindicate the souls
Of the Unavenged” And they placed in his hands
A sword Made for him
Called: Vengeance Forged in brimstone
And tempered By the woeful tears of the Unavenged
And to carry him up on his journey Back to the upper world..”

Orson-Welles

Picture the stentorian voice of Welles, dripping with gravitas,solemnly intoning that one. In one song, the ethos of Manowar is laid bare. Yet few in the world took notice. They were promptly dropped by Liberty within months of the album’s release. Manowar, realizing the world was against them, closed ranks and declared war on…..well pretty much everyone. The path to success was clear: not the way of commerciality, but to get even weirder and more uncompromising. One piece was missing though.

That piece was drummer Scott Columbus, a former plumber. In an interview regarding his entrance, DeMaio said “He literally pounds metal for a living, what more could you want for a true metal drummer?” What more indeed? With a drummer with a heart black enough to propel this motley sword wielding crew towards Valhalla, Manowar sought a new label.

The new label was the US indie Megaforce.  Formed in 1982 to put out Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, they were home to early Anthrax and Raven releases as well. (all three begrudgingly declared true metal by their new labelmates). Manowar was willing to do anything to succeed. In the aforementioned interview, they said “we will play anywhere with anyone! I will personally hang up posters for any show! But nobody will tour with us, they are afraid!”  Ross jumps to the radio mic and yells “their hearts are filled with fear, their hearts are filled with fear!” They were deadly serious. I, however nearly wet myself in hysterics. This was a band that was dead set on entertaining, although perhaps unintentional humor was rising to the top.

manowarintogloryride

Into Glory Ride, released in 1983 set a new standard. The album cover showed them dressed in fur loincloths, wielding swords. Yet unlike other metal bands, one got the impression that they would actually use these swords.  A quick aside: In late 1983, they had scheduled an interview with the British magazine Sounds. They asked the reporter to meet them in a field at dawn. He sat in the grey morning alone, thinking ‘Damn, I’ve been had by these Yanks, they got me to get out of bed and sit here like an idiot.”  And then..a thrum thrum thrum in the distance became audible. The sound reconciled as horses hooves. As the sun rose in the distance, Manowar crested the nearest hill on four horses, with swords held high, thundering down the plain towards the disbelieving journalist. They circled his car, threw their swords point first into the ground around him, and announced “We are Manowar!” and dismounted for the interview. Perhaps the best promo stunt in the history of rock, although the writer was not so sure they were kidding. As were their legion of growing fanbase.

 

manowar 

Manowar meets the enemy

hair metal

Into Glory Ride upped the insanity quotient quite a bit. With no commercial considerations, all bets were off, and the killing could begin in earnest. False metal was a large target for the band’s vengeance plans. By 1983, hair metal ruled MTV-Cinderella, Poison, Motley Crue, Winger, Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot, Ratt….and Manowar was pissed. “True metal people want to rock not pose, Wearin’ jeans and leather, not cracker jack clothes…” -Kings of Metal LP.

More than most songs, the surreal epic Gloves of Metal from Into Glory Ride continues to hone in one most of what the band was about:

“Hear the pounding army of the night
The call of metal summons us tonight
And gather we on this site
To behold the power and the might
We wear leather, we wear spikes, we rule the night

The sound of metal so loud it cracks the beams
Played by warriors called the Metal Kings.
A hero’s welcome for those who heed the call.
We are together, we are all.
With hands high fists fill the air
Against the world we stand.
Hands high forever we’ll be there,
Gloves of Metal rule tonight.”  – Gloves of Metal

This album got them noticed, especially in England. A tour with Mercyful Fate had them opening for the first leg, but their overwhelming stage presence and deafening volume pushed them to headliner status. From the radio interview:  “we are the loudest band in the world. Everywhere we play, every theater, we drop plaster. Chunks of ceiling crash to the floor from us.”  True to their word, they were included in the Guinness Book of Records in 1984 as the world’s loudest band, a record they have broken twice since then.

hail to england

Album sales in the UK were healthy, and a full blown tour of England was planned. To accompany the tour, they put out a British only release, with the subtle title of ‘Hail to England’. Considered their masterwork by many, this proferred homage to the country they hoped to conquer contained some of their strongest material to date. Blood of My Enemies cruises along at half throttle, but though the bpm are down, the power soak is set to scorch. And it contains some of their catchiest riffs and some of the most unedited stabs at lyrics yet:

“Three sons have I, and they
Ride by my side. The fierce,
The black, and the wicked are
their names-we ride down my
enemies on their half-hearted flight.
No voice of mercy-no evangels of light.” -Blood of My Enemies

Run berserk-spreading fear and pain
Black shield and weapons, black our chain.
None can harm us-not their fire-
Iron or steel-for we have the
Will to power-with power we will
Kill

Kill with power-die die
Kill with power-die die” -Kill With Power

The last one there is actually kind of catchy. Which is an important point, despite the inane and adolescent bent to their philosophy and lyrics, some of their songs are damn appealing, catchy as hell. As is their paean to their fans, Army of Immortals.:


“Metal makes us strong
It makes us
Metal makes us strong
It makes us stronger, stronger, stronger, stronger…
Stronger, metal makes us strong

In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever
In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever more.”

As goofy as that sonnet is, there is a strong undercurrent to the song, and that is that they believe 100% every word, and it is a genuine heartfelt message to the fans. That is something rarely put to disc.Then, a bass solo I think.  Black Arrows is a bass solo…or is it?

“Let each note I now play
be a black arrow of death
sent straight to the hearts
of all those who play false metal”

This pitch bent demented speech is followed by a scream, and a frenzy of notes from a piccolo bass. Melody? Nope. Structure? Nope. Black Arrows of death were sent to dispatch the literally thousands of hair metal bands across the planet, those bands festooned with colorful bandanas randomly tied to their legs, and strategically torn spandex tights. And at 120 notes per minute, one can assume they put a solid dent into the legion of the false metal hordes with said arrows. Did they conquer the British Isles as planned? Not really.

A 12″ single, Defender, brought back Orson Welles once again for a narration. (It was re-recorded for the disappointing Fighting the World lp). A move to Ten Records was preceded by the shameless and ill advisedly titled single, All Men Play on Ten. Although musically solid, the lyrical content (heavy on the Odin this time) was getting silly. Folks began to wonder if the band had pumped the creative well dry. But this is the central paradox of Manowar. How can a band that kicks so much ass instrumentally be so goofy lyrically? Do they actually believe all of the self praising ass kicking Nordic god stuff? No good answers are available.

220px-ManowarFightingtheworld

A jump to Atlantic forced some compromises. Efforts to create a single on Fighting the World were embarrassing, Blow Your Speakers and Black Wind Fire and Steel began to seem inexplicably self mocking, yet it was clear they were serious, despite the comic book cover. The fighting the world theme, once a call to arms in 1983, was now a tired mantra. By 1988, it seemed over. But the band had one last trick up its sleeve.

220px-Manowar_kingsofmetalsalbumcover

Kings of Metal, their sixth album marked the last with Ross the Boss and Scott Columbus.But what a farewell this thing is. Wheels of Fire, Kings of Metal, Blood of a King, Hail and Kill….many of their masterpieces which grace their set to this day come from this album. A ten minute narrated story is also included. This is one of the essential albums, and is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Gonna keep on burning
We always will
Other bands play – Manowar kill
Other bands play – Manowar kill

Even the cartoon cover is grim, with only the US flag still standing, the last unconquered nation. For you see, America never came to grips with Manowar. No radio play, no press, no notice. They stay ignored in their homeland for the better part of two decades of existence.

The departure of Ross the Boss and Columbus signaled the end of the magic. Triumph of Steel, with its Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts, weighing in at a half  an hour in length, signalled the end of the game. It became apparent that Ross the Boss had brought a melody and swing to the band that was now gone. Bereft of ideas, the band died on the vine. Several more lackluster albums led into the 21st century. Re-recordings of Battle Hymns and Kings of Metal now pass as their new albums, as the band finally admits that yes, the creative well has gone dry.

I will finish with some personal stories. In 1983 they were due to play in New England. Their sound and lights showed up at the theater in an 18 wheeler. No sign of the band though. The crew waited, waited, then pulled out. Half an hour before showtime, the band showed up. Fans were confused, mad, and felt cheated. One called and left a message on Manowar’s listed phone number. He let them know what fans thought-the band were chickenshit and acted like babies pulling out. Weeks later, the phone rang at a suburban Boston house at dinner time. Mom gets her 22 year old son to the phone “Joey DeMaio’s brother is on the phone honey”  He got an earful. “How dare you call us pussies? We will play anywhere anytime anyhow!”  The fan calmly noted that they hadn’t played a booked gig the past week, which sent the Manowar messenger into a berserk fury.

I finally saw them in the early 2000’s in a bowling alley. The ceiling was low, the lanes were closed, and an air of Spinal Tap pervaded the evening. The band had thrown a shit fit when witnessing what the venue looked like, but regained composure, turned the amps to twelve and proceeded to drop ceiling tiles in lieu of plaster. Drinks flowed like streams overflowing their banks, and the crowd was generally pummeled by the end of the show. 130 decibels, beers and shots, bodies started to drop. Exiting the bar as the dust settled, a large guy staggered into the night with a passed out girl thrown haphazardly over his shoulder. I yelled out “We will avenge our fallen!” Everyone laughed, everyone knew. Cuz we are Immortals.

Edgar Froese: Yes I Invented Space Rock. See You In the Cosmos

Edgar Froese passed away this week (January 20, 2015), and most of the world have zero idea what a legend this man was. That right there is a shame. John Lennon dies? John Entwistle? Johhny Cash? Headlines across the world. Edgar’s passing has created nary a ripple in most news outlets. And this is also a shame, for this man was a giant and a pioneer of synthesizer based music. He was the founding and sole surviving member of the German kosmische synthesizer trio Tangerine Dream. You may know them from the soundtracks to Risky Business or Firestarter. Others may remember darkened college dorm rooms with Stratosfear or Phaedra bending uninitiated minds to the edge of sanity. But one thing is certain: this man is single handedly responsible for most of space rock, krautrock and hell, even techno. That is a pretty large legacy for an under the radar German synthesizer  guy.

Electronic_Meditation

For those who are new to this, let me get this out there: you need to own some Tangerine Dream albums. This band pretty much created a sound and scene on their own. Meetings and work in the late 60’s with Salvador Dali and Karlheinz Stockhausen cracked Edgar’s rock n roll reality. Multi media, lights, plays, music, improvisation? This was the signpost for the future.  A new wind blowing through Europe encouraged experimentation.   Fledgling experiments under the  moniker Tangerine Dream started in 1967, with Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive as the blueprint. But where Pink Floyd quickly abandoned their massive sonic improvisational sound for songs, Edgar and company took the model even further. The first Tangerine Dream album, Electronic Meditation (1970), was a miasma of sound. Klaus Schulze, future synth god was aboard as the drummer. Many of Germany’s great space rock musicians had floated though the band before they broke internationally. But still it was rooted in the rock format-drums, organ and guitar were the predominant blueprint.

Phaedra             Rubycon                 Ricochet         Stratosfear           Encore               Tangerine-Dream-Sorcerer

It was the period from 1972-1978 that was their glory period though, and the stretch where the albums that defined a genre were created. Kraftwerk, another synthesizer trio from Germany that broke in the US, were filled with repetitive blips and clicks. Tangerine Dream pulled in the sounds of the cosmos. Huge soundscapes were the order of the day. Melody, rhythm, chord structures? No thanks. 1972’s Zeit was a sprawling double album that sounded like a 60 cycle electronic hum accompanied by droning cellos. This was about as far from rock that anyone could get. Yet they swung in rock crowds, and attracted rock audiences. They caught the attention of Virgin Records, who were coming off the massive success of Mike Oldfield with Tubular Bells. They were looking to grab any fringe bands, and the enthusiasm of DJ John Peel for the band ensured they got signed. 1974’s Virgin debut Phaedra was the result. The classic trio of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann had pretty much abandoned their ‘normal’ rock instruments (guitar, drums, keyboards respectively) for a new form of musicianship. VCS3 synthesizers, mellotrons and electronic effects replaced normal instrumentation for most of their tunes. Prototype sequencers generated hypnotic rhythmic patterns, drawing in the LSD and stoner crowd from England and Europe. Fans of space rock who thought Pink Floyd had sold out and gone commercial and that Hawkwind was stagnating in format now had a new darling-a synthesizer trio that could genuinely freak out the hard core freaks. Washes of sound induced paranoia could come on the heels of delicately beautiful piano driven melodies. Moog modular synthesizers could conjure up genuine vertigo as the sensation of the floor suddenly slipping away poured from your speakers. This was some heady stuff. But was it rock? Lester Bangs described it as the “sound of silt seeping across the ocean floor”.

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Phaedra was the breakthrough. It sold massively in the UK, and was the underground hit of the year. With little publicity and zero airplay (barring John Peel’s rabid enthusiasm), it shot to near top ten in British charts. Europe and America started to notice. A tour in 1974 used cathedrals as venues (the natural ambience providing a powerful and impressive reverb character to the sound). A concert at a cathedral in Reims France in summer 1974 drew international attention when over 5,000 fans tried to cram into a cathedral that barely held 2,000. People were literally hanging from the rafters. (the Pope banned them from cathedrals, and sent emissaries to ritually ‘exorcise’ the sullied church) What the hell was going on? People were in a frenzy trying to see what many thought was just subliminal hums and static? And the band reinforced the image by never acknowledging the crowd. They came on to a darkened stage, played, and left. No song introductions, no hello or goodbye. Was this rock n roll?

After the international success of Stratosfear (1976), Tangerine Dream’s legend was assured. A massive tour of the United States was documented on the 1977 live album Encore (highly recommended as a starting point for anyone uninitiated, as is Ricochet). Krautrock was a recognized genre (see: Can, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Amon Duul 2, Faust, Neu, Guru Guru, Klaus Schulze, Kraan, Eloy…) and German synthesizer pioneers started to work with dance club divas (Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was a prime example). The seeds that spawned techno had been planted by German synthesizer pioneers.

So this brings us back to today, and the passing of a genuine electronic music genius. His work has been massively influential on swaths of musical fields. I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar briefly back stage after a 1986 US show. I approached him to shake his hand, and said “Danke schoen Edgar”  He looked me in the eye and said in a thick German accent: “You’re welcome”. Thank you Edgar. See you in the cosmos.