Tag Archives: King Crimson

When Critics Get It Wrong-“Flash Will Get Huge and Yes Won’t Survive”-A Blast From the Vaults of Rock Obscurity

It’s 1970, and one of the up and coming British bands tapped for success was Yes. The liner notes of their 1969 debut boldly quote Melody Maker critic Tony Wilson who declared that Led Zeppelin and Yes would be the two Brit bands most likely to succeed in 1969  (Nostradamus-wise, Zep perhaps being an easy call, Yes less so). Their debut album got some attention for it’s mash up of unlikely covers and burgeoning musical prowess, but in May 1970, disaster struck the band….

As the second Yes album, Time and a Word was undergoing final tweaks in post production and a tour testing the new material was underway-founding member Peter Banks was shown the door. Or quit, depending on who you  believe. Either way, this was looked upon in the industry as a death knell for Yes. After all, Peter Banks was generally considered to be the heart and soul of the band-fashion savvy, and with a personality and playing style that were open and daring–in marked contrast to the taskmaster persona brought by Jon and the aloof and entitled (some friends said condescending) views of Squire. He had named the band in 1968 when Jon Anderson’s suggestion of ‘Life’ and Chris Squire’s suggestion of ‘World’ were met with indifference. Peter suggested ‘Yes!’ (exclamation and all) as a holding action until they came up with something better. It stuck,  though the exclamation point was dropped quickly.(The less letters in the band name, the larger it shows up on posters noted Peter).  Banks also designed the first Yes logo.

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With a sound fueled by a Gibson ES-335 that was very difficult to define, Banks was able to fuse rhythm and lead guitar sounds simultaneously to make a jazz rock fusion that some said formed the original definition of  progressive rock guitar. Lester Bangs noted of their debut album both the good and the bad in his February 1970 review:

Because all of it is excellently done: brisk fuzz leads, whirring bass, a bit of the Beatles vocally, a touch of Wes Montgomery in the guitar solos—a definitive album, in fact, in the prevalent style of “hip” groups over the past two years. The only trouble is that there are hosts of American bands (and presumably British as well) who are into the same bag with equal facility and taste. The excitement of true innovation is missing—which may not be a valid criticism, since most rock is folk music anyway, but that’s what makes albums like this one so much less arresting than many others…Their version of the Byrds’ “I See You” is especially nice, although none of their own compositions are very memorable.

Image result for yes time and a word      Image result for yes time and a word

The second Yes album cover was hastily reshot for the US version with newly acquired guitarist Steve Howe on the cover, although he didn’t play at all on the record. Howe played a similar style to Banks and his Gibson ES-175 hollow body brought a similar sound to the band as Banks’ ES-335. Howe’s reputation on the circuit was as a low key but tastefully improving guitarist, but not a forceful and flashy personality like Banks. Time and a Word featured some fairly heavy handed orchestral overdubs which stepped all over Banks’ guitar in the mix, and rendered Kaye’s organ work nearly invisible. A short attempt to demo this live in  concert left Banks even more dissatisfied-and he was gone. But with a new guitarist under their wing, the band soldiered on to create their first mini masterpiece, the meticulously ‘assembled from little song bits’ lp the Yes Album. Recorded six months after Banks departure, it brought some new success to the band. But while on tour in 1971, the axe fell again-and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye was left curbside for pickup. Two founding members leaving in a year? Many thought Yes was in big trouble. This is where our story begins:

Flash (clockwise, from left), drummer Mike Hough, bassist Ray Bennett, guitarist Peter Banks and vocalist Colin Carter. 

There is little agreement on the facts surrounding Banks and Kaye’s ouster from the Yes. In one interview Kaye said that Anderson came in his bedroom while he was sleeping off a night out and profoundly hung over. ‘You’re out of the band” said Jon and Kaye later said “I just grunted, mostly relieved that he was leaving the room so I could sleep more”

An early 1972 Rolling Stone article noted the difference of opinions as to what had transpired:


Tony Kaye and Pete Banks have now come together and formed their own band, Flash, which is currently working its way around the club and dance hall circuit.  Their departures from Yes are explained by Jon:  “They didn’t leave- we decided to get someone else.  It doesn’t help them to say that.  We’ve always said that Tony decided to leave the band because it’d get him a better situation. The truth is that we blew them out because they weren’t really into what we were trying to get together . . . Peter was a bit lazy, that’s why. He liked his clothes a bit more than his music.  Tony had a marvelous mind, he was a great guy to talk to, but he didn’t have so many ideas.  He wasn’t willing to expound himself.”

Jon and Tony seem to agree that he was tossed, Peter however disagrees (from the same early 1972 article):

  Pete Banks still doesn’t quite see that things happened the way Jon described.  “I decided to make a move more than anything,” he explained one evening, sitting on the floor of his basement flat.  On the walls were reminders of his stay with the band – posters, photographs and an album sleeve.  “I only made the decision though after I’d given it a lot of thought. Luckily Yes were strong enough to get a new guitarist, rehearse and get it back on the road.”  From his point of view Yes had become a mechanical band producing music that was less than human.  He remembered the times when he and Bruford had gone through the motions of clocking in and out on live performances, and how it [was] really only half a joke for them. “We’d go on each night knowing we’d go down well,” he said.”We’d got things worked out to that degree.  Yes always went for the technique approach, whereas with Flash we’re going for the feel.  Yes tends to lack feel.  Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes to show you’re human and that it’s not being made by a machine.  I don’t think Fragile was human.  You couldn’t fault it in any other way though.”

Peter seemed to reverse himself  and took a more distanced view of what happened in a 2006 interview:

Peter: I was kicked out, simple as that. I’ve never really found out why, to be honest. I think it was mostly musical. We hit a really bad period where we had quite a lot of work and rehearsals. I think the musical reason was, and I’m kinda guessing here, I think I lacked a certain amount of structure, and Steve came in to replace me, he was a more structured player, where my approach always has been really, I don’t like to play the same thing twice.

Obviously you have structure within music, but if someone says ‘I like what you played last week can you play it again?’ chances are I probably won’t, I’ll go out of my way to play something different, with a new spin on it. If you’re a lead singer, that kind of puts lead singers out. I think that might have been a reason but I don’t know.

I think Jon mentioned in a recent interview, where he was talking about Yes guitar players, he was very frustrated that I never played the same thing twice. Same with Bill, us two were a bit of a loose cannon. Because we were playing the same things night after night after night, we would like to screw around with it.

Rolling Stone in their review of 1971’s Fragile also took note of some of the complaints Banks had pointed out about Yes’ shortcomings:

  Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to the show-off syndrome. Their music (notably “Cans and Brahms” and “We Have Heaven”) often seems designed only to impress and tries too hard to call attention to itself. Is anyone really still excited by things like “Five tracks on this album are individual ideas, personally arranged and organized by the five members of the band..etc.”

Melody Maker echoed this in 1971: ‘Fragile’ does not seem to go anywhere or have any theme except displaying Yes’ technical ability …   It’s all a little too much like exercises, clever and beautifully played”.

 (A quick aside: Jon wasn’t averse to taking some dodgy chances with Yes-like recording around this time, as a Faberge commercial was recorded during the sessions for the studio version of America:     Another project which was waiting to be recorded when “America”  finally reached the can was a 60-second commercial for Faberge-
Put a little music on and hear it play/ Put a little music on from Faberge.
They’d even got a nice little arrangement for the band to set the lyrics to, but Jon wanted to it his way. He decided to use the same technique he used on “We Have Heaven” on the Fragile album, where they overlay vocal tracks from their own music. ” I think it’s worth it,” said Jon.”Not for the money we’re getting, but because it’ll be a nice little song when it’s done the way I want it. I didn’t want a dinky little song. Anyway, the more people that hear our music the better.”)

Whatever the facts were, two important founding members of Yes had joined forces in 1971 to create a band that echoed the early sound of Yes, but emphasized feeling over technique, and playing for the sheer joy of creation over the construction of things far removed from the emotional immediacy of rock n roll. People were excited.

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Although he is listed as a full member on their debut album, Tony Kaye was always viewed as a sideman in this project according to both Kaye and Banks (there were high hopes he’d stay on) Still, this fact escaped the music press, and Flash were viewed as a back to roots version of Yes, something that is less evident as desirable today as it was back in 1971. With the guitarist and keyboardist who’d provided most of the musical ‘sound’ to the parent band now in a new project-who could say which one would come out on top?

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https://ronkanefiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/flash_new.jpg?w=1440&h=712Their debut album in 1972 was decidedly Yes-like. Band members Mike Hough on drums, Ray Bennett on bass and the noticeably Jon Anderson-ish Colin Carter on vocals made up the quartet. Bennett had some prog-cred even in his teenage years: he’d been in a band with Bill Bruford at age 15, and rubbed elbows in bands with musicians who ended up in Gentle Giant, Man and Gun. The album cover by Hipgnosis was ambiguously created to impart a sauciness when viewed in the racks, but entirely confusing as to whether it was a front or rear shot when folded out. Small Beginnings, the first single, charted on both sides of the pond (top 30 in US Billboard) and things looked bright.

Children of the Universe, another highlight, accentuated the Yes vibe. Diddits and rahoovyahs straight out of The Yes Album were the frosting on the dexterous and constantly changing instrumental underpinnings. Banks was able to knit together some impressive runs that challenged the depth of his earlier work with Yes. His runs became even more jazz-like than in Yes, approaching a territory the Robert Fripp had dipped his toes into during the early days of King Crimson, yet Banks created a more successful hybridization of rock and jazz stylings. Although this album didn’t make the waves some critics were expecting, it did well enough to warrant a second album release, and many Yes fans snapped this up instantly. In retrospect, this was a fine response to  The Yes Album. Fragile? Well there was no challenger to Roundabout here, but the earlier notation by Banks that Fragile was hampered by sterility of playing shows the difference of opinions that led to his departure. Besides, Fragile only contained four actual songs.

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Fully keyboard-less, the band delivered their sophomore effort, just as strong as their debut. Titled Flash in the Can, a name that punned on  the sophomoric cover. Like the first album, this one also flaunted the ‘sex will sell this album, dammit!” as it likewise folded out to a more salacious version. Despite the word flash meaning ‘fancy and cool’ in British slang, the record company was intent on another meaning of flash for the public to grab onto. One thing was sure at this point-Flash could jam live.

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Banks reveals anti-gravity guitar solo effect

The second album contains what many consider their finest musical moment, There No More. Overall, this album hangs together better than their debut, despite the lack of a proper keyboardist. The first two albums are definitely essential for any Yes fan. Critics weren’t so sure that a progressive rock band could cut it without keyboards, but Banks fretwork here ups the ante from the debut. Check out this:

Despite being perhaps even more overtly Yes-like (albeit an early version of Yes), their second album didn’t get the attention it deserved.Songwriting credit for Banks was limited to a half a song, as Ray Bennett was revealed as the principle songwriter-Banks crafted his guitar in and around songs. Maddeningly,  despite a full US tour spending a large chunk of  1972 in the States with the likes of Foghat, Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Three Dog Night, Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and Humble Pie, the band’s fortunes only slightly crept onward. A second US tour in December of 1972 did see them headlining many of their own shows, and a full billboard graced the streets of Los Angeles next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

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Their 1973 album, Out of Our Hands continued the ‘boobs n butts’ theme, with hands and knuckles cleverly taking the place of arched backs and bums. The band had been sued for their name, forcing the record company to call the band ‘Flash featuring England’s Peter Banks’, much to the consternation of his hard working band mates. Sure Banks was still the draw, even three albums in, but his musical mates chafed at the change. They  played at least 65 US shows on an arduous tour from early August to mid November, finally imploding on November 17, 1973 with seven shows remaining to the tour-which all had to be canceled. Dissension and fatigue combined with the inability to get to the next level to finally destroy the band. According to Bennett, the problems 
all came down to Banks: “He
 was almost entirely to blame for the early Flash breakup, and for a major 
amount of friction and unrest in our
 camp — and not just with the band
— almost everyone around us, too:
 manager, producer, Capitol Records
 and others. I’ve restrained myself
 from just saying it bluntly in the past,
 but Flash didn’t just ‘implode on the
 road’. We’d had enough of Banks.”Some information on their dissolution can be found in an interview with Carter and Bennett here.

Banks takes a more distant, but similar view of the break-up in 2006, acknowledging he might have been a problem:

 We didn’t last long, but we were very creative, we made 3 albums in 2 years. But business things were very bad, we needed new management, I was very unhappy. What turned out to be our last tour was very Spinal Tap, I wasn’t even traveling with the guys, I would show up sometimes 10 minutes before the show, and I  probably acted like a real asshole at the time.

We broke up in New Mexico with 4 more gigs to go, very unfortunate thing to happen. I tried and I tried after that, because it was like a divorce. For 2 years we’d been working so intensely, we were getting better but the audiences were dropping off. We were playing with bands we shouldn’t have played with.

I had wondered about some of the bills they had been booked on during the US tour. They had more success here than in the UK, and it made sense to try to capitalize on the buzz created by the first album and single, but really…Three Dog Night and Flash on tour together? Grand Funk? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show? A gig is a gig I suppose, but a more concerted effort to get them in front of an appreciative audience by  their management is perhaps the biggest spike driven into their possible success.
An easy example-Genesis was in the States in 1973, and Flash would have been the perfect opening act on that bill. Perhaps they were trying a bit too hard to shake the perception that they were a junior varsity version of Yes and were their own band by playing with folks not even close to their more technically adept stylings.

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Image result for flash colin carter   Image result for flash ray bennett

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Flash wasn’t going to hit the same level as Yes. But in 1971, things weren’t as easy to predict. Half of Yes strikes out on their own, leaving only the singer, drummer and bassist? You can see how those paying attention might be wont to plunk their ducats on the dark horse in this race. To this day, the first two Flash albums stand up extremely well against their peer group of B-division progressive rock bands of the early 70’s, (hell it even stands up fairly well against pre-Close to the Edge Yes.)  And the world would have to wait a few more years for the next even more  derivative Yes clone band to hit the floorboards, (though lacking the cachet of real Yes members)…..Starcastle.

But for now, let’s just ruminate on some small beginnings with large aspirations. One more pass through with Flash on US TV in 1972:

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The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

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Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

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The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

David Bowie-the Anti Chameleon: Will the Real Davy Jones Please Stand Up?

Rock stars seem to be dropping like flies lately. In reality, important rock personages have been shuffling off the mortal coil since the trifecta of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all pulled the curtain closed at age 27. But the one-two whammy of Lemmy and Bowie in under two weeks has left the rock world reeling. That the both of them died less than a week after their birthdays only adds an eeriness to the tale. Lemmy was the one that really hit hard, for many folks thought they had a bead on Lemmy-everyone’s fabled disreputable but lovable uncle. (just keep him away from your little sister and the liquor cabinet). But David Bowie was more enigmatic. Able to shed personalities like a snake shedding skins, the real David Bowie was very hard to pin down. The question is, did a real David Bowie exist under all those layers? Let’s see:

Which One Is Davy Jones?

Sometimes there’s just not enough room for two people in one place. Davy Jones and the Manish Boys were on track under Shel Talmy’s (the Who) guidance towards success-singles and selected high exposure gigs. Things weren’t perfect, but then in 1966 something happened, a US television show. Perhaps the meteoric rise of the Monkees in 1966 caught everyone unaware. But as Bowie wrote to an American fan in 1967: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it” ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said Bowie’s manager.  The name change to David Bowie was necessary. (Of note is his 1965 encounter with session guitarist Jimmy Page. Jones/Bowie grabbed an unused riff from Page that he held on to for the perfect moment, resurfacing five years later on The Man Who Sold the World as The Supermen).

Glamming on to a Trend

                                     Alice                                            David

The glam movement was just getting started in the late 60’s. Guys started wearing make up and dresses, dropped hints that they might be gay, strapped on guitars, and rocked out. An early pioneer, Alice Cooper (first the name of a band, then later the name of the singer) had workshopped  the ‘guy pretending to be a girl thing’. In Britain, homosexuality was becoming popular (it had been illegal in that country until 1967). Though it took until 1972 for him to declare himself gay (possibly a publicity stunt to promote the bisexual character Ziggy Stardust that was his persona for the next two years), he embraced the controversy and the ink it generated in the music press. Regardless, the androgynous Bowie character went huge. Starting with the hugely influential Space Oddity single (which seems to have drastically higher production value than the rest of the LP, indications of the need to get an album out quickly), Bowie seemed to have the grand plan already in mind-space themes and dystopia with a hint of hippy pop.  The follow up,  1970’s The Man Who Sold the World found Bowie hitting a rough but powerful outline of what was to come next, with three quarters of the future Spiders already in place. Width of a Circle is a good picture of the imminent future, and a dystopian party it was going to be. The musicianship of the Spiders From Mars band-Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder had a lot to do with this incarnation becoming the real life version of the fantasy. The combination of Bowie and Ronson was unbeatable at the time for spinning out anthem after anthem. 1971’s Hunky Dory brought in fans drawn to this guy who might be a hippy (Glastonbury Fayre appearance), might be a faux stoner trying to be cool (Davy Jones background), might be some half-alien spacerocker trying to get a cult together?  The latter choice  was closest to the truth. But fans gathered to the freak flag Bowie was flying, and the party was about to begin in earnest. The stage was ready for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s acknowledged masterpiece. A loose rock opera of sorts, it is a dystopian tale with a hint of 60’s utopian optimism. Everyone should own this record.(The fictional glam alien pop star Ziggy that takes the world over was supposedly based on the name and persona of the over the top persona and groundbreaking ambiguous sexuality of Iggy Pop).

“Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the Spiders from Mars”

Ziggy drew huge crowds wherever he went. Arenas and halls filled up across the Europe, America, Japan and of course, the UK. They played 174 shows from February 1972 to July 1973. They had conquered the world in fashion akin to what was accomplished recently by Led Zeppelin. This was far more than just a band-the whole trip promised was a lifestyle that fans wondering where the promise of the festival generation had gone had been waiting for- a glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem. The hippies, the glam kids, the new pill druggies, the sci-fi futurists–the optimists and pessimists of the post commune era had been searching for something to fill this unfulfilled dream. This was a utopia of sex, drugs and rock n roll as a way of living. Not a cliche,  but a real outlet from reality that you could stay in permanently, with Ziggy as their leader. Ziggy was becoming a reality, the messiah that was only words scrawled into an album coming to life-a real cult leader with a real cult following. But it wasn’t really clear where Ziggy started and Bowie ended. They started to fuse into one personality, which in a haze of drugs and decadence, must have been a little concerning.  When Bowie announced his retirement live in concert, there were gasps of disbelief in the crowd. Fans were aghast that he had taken off the Ziggy persona like a cheap Halloween costume and crumpled it in the corner, ending their dreams.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

  US original cover and 1972 reissue

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A Lad Insane?

You’d have to be nuts to walk away from the fame (and cash) that Ziggy brought in. His retirement? A publicity stunt. You see, only Ziggy was retiring, not David. Bowie’s next tweak wasn’t that radical. Aladdin Sane was huge in America, and those that missed the Spiders From Mars tour were sure not to miss this one. The next two albums did not stray too far from home. The lightning bolt became his icon, and glam burst full force in America, spawning bands from the New York Dolls to Kiss, signaling even the early Ramones to put on make up, wear dresses, act gay, and hope to get famous.

His decision on Diamond Dogs to not have a star guitarist in the band, and hold down guitar duties on his own was a hubris motivated mistake. His limited skills on guitar held back some fairly impressive songs from becoming full blown rock legends. Still, this album ranks as one of his best, and is the last in the trio that started with Ziggy. Rock n Roll was about to run its course for Bowie. The three album arc for an invented personality though? This was a format to stay on.  (Many Bowie fans point to these three albums as the essential Bowie, a point I essentially agree with).

Blue and Green Eyed Soul

Bowie’s next move puzzled many. Gone were the dresses, the futuristic sci-fi costumes, the make up, the platform shoes-the whole thing. Many fans were crushed when Bowie became the Thin White Duke: a cigarette smoking, smoky eyed soul singer. Demure zoot suit era costumes were modernized to fit in with his new ‘cool persona’ . 1975’s Young Americans kicked this off. R n B and Philadelphia soul? A natural for a skinny white boy from Brixton, right? Soul was huge in America, and though he had a solid fan base, radio hadn’t caught on until Young Americans. Station to Station continued the run, and the Ziggy kids were perplexed and pissed, feeling ditched by their hero who had laid out the blueprint of a whole lifestyle. Fame and Young Americans had supplanted the alien pied piper. Carlos Alomar came on as guitarist, but couldn’t get the things out of Bowie that Ronson could. Never again would Bowie have a muse like Mick Ronson.

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Nothing says soul like being surrounded by black people,  and his appearance on Soul Train either validates his new persona or is uncomfortable in the extreme. Perhaps a little bit of both?

Krautrock Here We Come

The next trio of albums was started in Berlin. Krautrock had been noticed throughout Europe, and the flamboyant and odd Amon Duul II and equally strange Faust had left the playing field to the instrumentalists. Bands like Cluster, Harmonia, Can, Kraftwerk (see V2 Schneider from Heroes), la Dusseldorf and Tangerine Dream had been left standing. Mostly  instrumental, these bands had created a sound-they were stark and brooding-and ambient. Bowie saw and Bowie liked. He contacted ambient music pioneer Brian Eno to come to Berlin and absorb the vibes of a dark and brooding city, and make some music. Eno was essential to this new sound, and the new image-part performance art, part disaffected rock star, part coke head trying to kick a nasty habit. Many Bowie fans point to the trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as his peak period, and perhaps the only view of the ‘real’ Bowie he allowed us to see.

Low (album).jpg  

Scary MTV Monsters

The follow up to Lodger didn’t exactly light up the charts-it was a frightening thought to have a 1980’s Bowie for many. Robert Fripp and the then new instrument guitar synthesizer played by Chuck Hammer tried to fill the gaping hole left by Eno’s departure. It spawned the classic tune Fashion, but others noticed the album was filled with references from his past, especially an update on Major Tom.

A three year layoff and a huge new record contract with EMI (as he jumped ship from RCA) led to an unexpected renaissance. Let’s Dance, released in 1983 garnered a lot of attention, and the rise of MTV gave it a boost that no one could have predicted. With the relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, and the ultra slick disco era Chic’s Nile Rodgers as a producer, a streamlined dance floor ready MTV icon was created. The guitar work of Vaughan kept some of his older fans in the fold while new fans flocked to the banner in hordes. The album went straight to number one in the UK, and scrapped its way to number four in the States. Following the pattern of three, it was followed by the generally inferior Tonight in 1984 and the generally ignored Never Let Me Down in 1987.

David-bowie-lets-dance.jpg Tonight (album).jpg Never-Let-Me-Down.jpg

In the mid sixties, Bowie had said that all he wanted to do was be Mick Jagger. In 1985, his dream came true in the magnificently horrific ‘Dancing in the Streets’ duet with Jagger. A video so amazingly ill advised, the US animated television show Family Guy showed it in its entirety, without comment. That moment in a show that never used live footage said more than any words could ever say -a unique combination of awe and disbelief for mid 80’s cocaine decisions:

Folks rightfully thought it was over, and Bowie was generally put into the ‘where are they now’ category. For those puzzled by the duet with Bing Crosby, this duet was viewed as the nadir of his career. He needed something to revive his flagging prospects.

I Am a Musician In a Band, Not a Pop Star

Tin Machine was a surprise in 1988. Bowie was no longer an MTV star, poster fodder for tweens bedroom walls. Though his reputation was headed towards  ‘fading former video icon’, he was now a musician in a band, Tin Machine. With Reeves Gabrels as the guitar hero for a musical foil, and Soupy Sales’ kids-Hunt Sales and Tony Sales as a rhythm section, this unit seemed headed for stardom. Bowie trying to get his rock cred back, twenty years after Space Oddity? Sure, I’m in. Trying to ditch all of the unwanted fans that Let’s Dance had created? Admirable. But there was a problem. Perhaps due to an inability to write a single good song, the seriousness with which this was presented sank like an overloaded freighter presented with a large ocean wave. It sank agonizingly slowly. The follow up was met with even more disdain. Apparently Bowie was not ‘a musician in a band.’ An admirable failure.  (the live album is mildly entertaining).

Tin-machine album.jpg The European album cover, showing 4 greek Koroi statues and the name of the band Tin-machine oy.jpg

Revisiting the Past to Nine Inch Nails Here We Come

Black Tie White Noise brought Bowie into the 90’s. Released in 1993, Nile Rodgers was back on board. So was Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine. Add in a cameo by Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars and you have a two decade reunion on one disc. It hit number one in the UK, but barely made the top 40 in the States. It was scattered and showed that Bowie might be grabbing at any ideas he had left over. The next albums did little to dissuade anyone leaning towards this theme. By 1995, techno and industrial music was huge. Former underground bands like Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry had developed large followings, and new tastes were trending towards raucous electronics. Bowie sniffed the wind and adjusted accordingly. Outside in 1995 and Earthling in 1997 felt like he was being led by the trends a bit more than actually writing from the heart. Eno had shown up for Outside, a dystopia revisitation of Diamond Dogs themes-right down to the spoken word pieces, ominously subtitled “the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. Computers were called in to randomize proposed lyrics in a scissors cut and paste method, and sampling became a parallel cut and paste technique. The album got mixed reviews and did not crack the top 20 in the States. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails for this tour, and the blurring of who created what was suddenly right on the same stage. The release of I’m Afraid of Americans – a stand alone single featuring Trent Reznor further cemented the NIN/industrial image. The follow up, Earthling in 1997 brought more current trends to bear. Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, club techno all collided with technology to create a full on digital computer based product. Drum n bass fans were miffed at this less than original appropriation of their generally underground scene. Older Bowie fans thought a weak copy of a Nine Inch Nails album might signal the end of the line. The follow up, Hours, did little do dispel this notion. A contest to get fan lyrics on the album(!) and a video game theme song were the highlights and the signpost that the train might be hitting the last stop. Heathen from 2002 called upon guests: Pete Townshend, Tony Levin from King Crimson, Dave Grohl, Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater to give a mish mash of leftovers a fresh coat. Neil Young and Pixies covers gave this a patchwork feel, but it was a slight return. Not as overtly derivative of others, he now was mining his own career for nuggets, semi-successfully. As one reviewer said “I’m tired of attending funerals for David Bowie’s career” when appraising Bowie’s last decade of work.

Outsidebowie.jpg  Earthling (album).jpg Bowie Hours.jpgHeathen.jpg

Ironically, it was in the last two years that Bowie mystified his critics. 2013’s The Next Day surprised many. Those who thought he was lingering in retirement gave their kudos. Recorded in secrecy, many of his associates and even his label were unaware this album was being recorded. The album shot to number one in many countries (number 2 in the States) and was by far the most successful and original piece of work in three decades. Housed in a perplexing sleeve (Heroes, reworked), it gathered praise everywhere. Rock n roll had returned, and most of the songs on this would not be uncomfortable on a late 70’s Peter Gabriel solo album-a minor classic, and so unlikely this late in the game. His 26th album was even more paradoxical. The release of Blackstar, two days before his death in January 2016,  confounded critics and was viewed by initial reviewers even more favorably  than its predecessor. Was he mining the little heard skronk territory of music to glom onto a new vision? (Much of this still sounds like Peter Gabriel filtered through the second side of Heroes, only much darker). Or had Bowie, realizing the end was near, finally become able to reveal his true self to the world? Only time will tell, but the concurrent Lazarus theater project is ironically symbolic. The chameleon may have shed the multi layers of skin he had grown over the past fifty years.

David Bowie - The Next Day.png   

Picking Up the Pieces

It should be noted that Bowie was an artist, first and foremost. Rock star, screen roles, theater, visual art-check out his Dada inspired collaboration with Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1979:

Also, before we finish-let’s not forget that Bowie single-handedly saved the careers of both Mott the Hoople (he gave them All the Young Dudes, slated for Ziggy Stardust, as a career changing single), and Iggy Pop- the inspiration for Jean Genie and Ziggy himself. The amount of money Iggy took in for co writing China Girl was not insignificant. (It could be argued he saved Lou Reed too by producing Transformer with the groundbreaking single Take a Walk on the Wild Side). Three hugely influential rock icons might have shuffled off had it not been for Bowie.

Well, What Was Bowie-Gifted Copycat or True Genius?

The definition of a chameleon is something that changes its colors to blend with the background. But Bowie was an anti-chameleon. He changed his colors to match the background not to hide, but to become noticed. Like Madonna, Bowie’s real strength was in having a good radar for what is currently popular, identifying musicians that were good at the particular genre, and then exploding on the scene with a new full blown persona-masquerading as the figurehead of a scene. Also like Madonna, musicians and music writers were well aware of this appropriation of what others had started. Unlike Madonna, Bowie’s legacy is much harder to pin down. He became so influential in the rock world for two decades that the chicken and the egg question becomes relevant-which was more important, the innovators or the copyist? His nose for popular trends was unerring, but the question remains-how much originality was involved? In the long run, it might not matter. David Bowie touched so many lives since Space Oddity quietly scraped the charts some 47 years ago. And in the long run, that is what really matters. Lazarus will rise. One thing you can say about Bowie, he was a survivor.

Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother

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

crimson 2014

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’

king-crimson-1974-granger Crimson1_Fripp

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. (After that show, 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). I saw him at a Projeckt 2 show later in the year, and saw him dressed in a scarf and overcoat (it was about 85 degrees that night), and I yelled “Hey Mr. Fripp, great show!” He saw he was recognized, and quickly scurried away.  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.

elements

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.

 

b31c2__20CRIMSON-master675 crimso 2014

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.

crimson bostonphoto(1)

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.

blind

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”.

Hindenburg

Led Zeppelin Mk 0, Proto-Zep 1966

This is a band line up  that has fueled much speculation and disagreement over the years: Led Zeppelin almost happened in 1966. There is only one enticingly small piece of evidence that documents this incarnation of the proto-band. A barely noticed B-side to a Jeff Beck single (Hi Ho Silver Lining) called Beck’s Bolero had been recorded in May 1966, and quietly slipped out in 1967. A truly earth shaking super group this was too: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums. Page and Beck had a short run together in the Yardbirds (Train Kept a Rollin’ in the film Blow Up was their only documented duet), but this single had the earmarks of a real band. The Who were on the verge of a break up once again (Daltrey had been fired briefly in 1966) and Moon and Entwistle had discussed a project involving Jimmy Page. Whether the original name Lead Zeppelin originated with Moon, Entwistle or future Zep manager Peter Grant is unclear (Page has tapped Moon as the origin)–Entwistle was adamant that Grant was present at his and Moon’s initial discussions and stole the idea, including that he had even thought the project out to include the Hindenburg in flames on their first album cover (which Grant also nicked). Soon the Who and Moon had kissed and made up, and this idea was put on the backburner to simmer for a couple of years.

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

Beatles, Stones, Dylan form a single band

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

WWB-Wakeman, Wetton, Bruford

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.

Steven Wilson and the Remix Mania-Stop the Madness!

wilson

This will be a quick one–Rant? Polemic? More of a warning to the unwary. It was inspired by running into Jethro Tull’s Passion Play in a store today, remixed.

Remixing other people’s work, in particular especially beloved works, is very dangerous territory. It is like tampering with someones childhood memories, their primal brain wiring–unsettling and ill advised. So, an important question: just because you can, does it mean you should? This brings us to the spate of reissues that have been remixed by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.
crimson court
I had first noticed the remix game being played with In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson’s majestic debut. Seeing Steven Wilson’s name was intriguing, he can work wonders with his own band in the studio. Yet there was a nagging question-did this album really NEED to be remixed? After all, this whole album, from recording to artwork to final mix, is a product of 1969. A time capsule if you will. All part and parcel of what the artist considered a single body of work, a document of the time and space it was created in. Should someone come bounding into the room and proclaim they are able to improve on it?  For that is the underlying message, because if it cannot be improved upon, why should anyone attempt it in the first place? (this is ignoring the 5.1 mixes that have been created for sound systems so equipped. If it was created in stereo, leave it that way is my take, I know others that are delighted by 5.1 discs surround sound effect, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t feel ‘artificial’) Overall the Court reissue was somehow not quite right. Too clean. Not warm. Perhaps this was the only experiment. I was wrong. He was planning to remix every important Crimson, ELP, Tull and Yes album of the early 70’s. This needed watching.

Modern technology can work some miracles (see article here on the resurrection of the Velvet Underground acetate by Universal), but there is a point where modern technology loops back in on itself, and brings diminishing returns. But when factoring in an important aspect, the analog vs. digital debate, then the argument gets a bit clearer. The albums Wilson has remixed are full analog creations of the seventies (60’s for Court), and converting the whole work to the digital domain is the first step towards sterility. Analog breathes, has life and tension, real sound waves recorded as they happened to be created. Digital is an approximation, very close but an approximation that is clean, motionless and somehow gets cleansed of the emotion inherent in the music. 80’s and 90’s works created solely in the digital domain usually have this sonic flaw. Some call it the “ProTools” syndrome. ProTools is a computer program used in many modern recording studios that isolates every part of every multi-track so it can be processed individually. The results are precise, clean and crisp. And often sterile. Unfortunately this is not how music sounds when it is created live, and much of the life of the music is sapped when transferred this way. Analog has a very different quality when overdriven (recorded in the red, ironically see King Crimson-Red). Harmonics appear, and the sound can produce qualities that no one has expected, but are delightful artifacts. Digital however, produces nothing but nasty glitch sounds when overdriven. Butch Vig was a big mover and shaker in the ProTools style of production (interestingly, Dave Grohl flat out refused to have the Foo Fighters last album with Vig recorded on anything but analog tape, threatening to firebomb any computer in the studio).
But Vig’s work, however huge sounding it is, can tend to a samey feel, big sound but ultimately lifeless. This is the process that Wilson uses to remix the classic albums of the 70’s, dump them into the computer, digitizing them, and start fiddling. Akin to cutting a small child into 40 pieces and then reassembling it carefully, then wondering why it doesn’t act like it used to. The records he has worked on were all created with analog microphones, recording desks, tape machines and mastering. The sound was reproduced on an analog record on an analog turntable through analog speakers. The path stayed pure analog.

A quick side note: without getting too technical, many remixes often use compression. This is a technique that makes ‘everything as loud as everything else’. The recent Genesis remixes suffered from disastrous compression. Comments like ‘hey I never heard that little tingly bit before that used to be in the background’ are tempered by cymbals crashing to be heard over lead guitar with bass fighting for the attention….you get the picture, ZERO dynamics. Quiet bits were meant to be quiet, loud surges were meant to be loud. Compression means that every single instrument and every single passage is fighting for your attention at essentially the same volume.
Lets’ first look at the list of what has been done so far: Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Yes…the big guns of progressive rock in most people’s collections. More obscure contemporaries like Hawkwind and Caravan also got the treatment. (Hawkwind’s remix is unsettlingly clean and very un-Hawkwind) These were also the ummm important gods of the time for many. Tampering with icons of people’s past is getting into a grey area of good vs bad.
close to the
Close to the Edge by Yes is one album that is a sonic benchmark. Highly dynamic, it captured Yes at their peak and is usually agreed to be the highlight of their career, both sonically and compositionally. The Wilson remix tries to keep the feel of the original, but is essentially dry and flat sounding. Wilson said that some of the overdriven parts of certain albums needed to be addressed, with the overdriven artifacts in mind. Many fans disagreed. Clarity? Yes, there is plenty of that. Some vocal bits are higher in the mix than they used to be.(some oddly are pushed to the background). But warmth and life are far more important than clarity. Ultimately this comes down to one thing-what is more important, clarity and cleanness of a mix or the emotional feel and warmth of the music? The power inherent in the music lies in the latter not the former. This is an important part of the equation that Wilson has missed. One basic fact remains–analog tape is not very suited for digital remixing. All of the Wilson remixes I have heard suffer from the above traits, cleaner but ultimately emptied of emotion.
Remixing albums is like tampering with a work of art. It comes back to the original question: does it really need to be changed? Another troubling point is that this project smacks of wayward hubris, a dangerous motivation. It takes balls to think you can improve on the work of people from decades ago, rock visionaries who created musical works far superior to anything Mr. Wilson has ever come close to. One does not indirectly try to tell another artist what they should have done in the studio, one appreciates the work as it was created. So what is the motivation here? Is it for us, or is it for his own gratification? Put in a different way-“Hey Mr. Picasso! Come over here! I fixed all the noses on your paintings!! They didn’t quite ‘look right'”.

star wars star wars 1

Film makers learned the problems with this trick when George Lucas added special effects to the original Star Wars movies, to the universal disdain of purist fans. Even Lucas realized he had made a mistake. A work of art is static, captured in time, not a continually changing piece that is always in flux. And that’s where all of this is headed. Stop the madness.

The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…