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Category Archives: Music

Gig Of The Week (2)

The tragic death of guitarist, Michael Casswell, TOWT’s cousin, last September was a shock to his family. What was also a shock to them was how respected and loved he was in the music biz as he rather hid his light under a bushel.

On the hottest day in 40 years we went to the subterranean music venue that is the 100 Club in Oxford Street to attend the tribute concert put on by his friends and colleagues. It was a great evening with his band, East of Java, putting on a storming set.

There were cameos from the likes of Tony Hadley, Limhal – who had me dancing in the aisles – and the wonderful Marcus Malone band.

Check out tribute concert highlights

Check Malone out playing with Michael https://youtu.be/14oeKO-RJYI

The venue had smartened up since I was last there, some thirty-seven years ago, and the beer was considerably better – I had to have the BrewDog Punk IPA.

It was a great evening and one which did Michael proud.

 

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Guitarist Of The Week

mc-biog

At my age it is a regrettable fact that I find myself going to funerals with increasing frequency – at least it is an opportunity to wear a whistle. It is even more tragic when the person who has died is younger than you and had immeasurably more talent.

Last Tuesday TOWT and I trekked out to the Badlands of Essex – Hainault – to attend the surprisingly uplifting Humanist funeral of her cousin, the rock guitarist, Michael Casswell who died in a tragic swimming accident aged just 53. The celebration was standing room only and as well as family and friends there were musos in attendance including Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet) and Limahl (Kajagoogoo).

I only met Michael on a handful of occasions – usually funerals – but to use the cabbie’s vernacular I had him in my car once when I drove him to Stansted airport to fly off for a gig after his Dad’s funeral. We had a great chat about music, influences and styles.

As well as being an accomplished session musician, he had astonishing technical ability and was always keen to pass on his knowledge via his popular Licklibrary videos.

As Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Click the link to hear a track from his latest album, Complaints about the noise https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NUImqaI_u0

Michael, rest in peace.

Book Corner – July 2016 (2)

1971

1971 – Never A Dull Moment – David Hepworth

Ah, 1971. It was a year of transformation for me. I started the year aged 16 and turned 17 three-quarters of the way through. It was the year that I realised that there was more to life than parsing irregular Greek verbs and discovered the three Bs, booze, blow and birds. And the soundtrack to the year was pretty good with Who’s Next and the wonderful Baba O’Reilly, Led Zep IV with Stairway to Heaven, Lennon’s Imagine, Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Neil Young’s Harvest, the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and, if you must, Carole King’s Tapestry.

One of those topics for pub conversations when the only other option is to stare vacuously at each other is which was the best year for popular music. A very good friend of mine steadfastly refuses to believe anything good was produced after 1973, for him the year that music died – yes, Don McLean’s tiresome American Pie was released in 1971. Hepworth nails his colours firmly to the mast. Forget 1966, 1971 was the year that saw more influential albums released than any year before or since and was “the most febrile and creative time in the history of popular music”. TV was nowhere, the film industry was tanking, but music was vibrant.

This is the thesis behind Hepworth’s affectionate, sometimes irreverent and sometimes tongue-in-cheek survey of the music biz in 1971. The book is laid out chronologically with a chapter for each month of the year, from which Hepworth picks out some notable albums or artists who were emerging at the time. The problem with this approach is that the book rapidly descends into a muddy mix of thee thematic and chronological approaches and I can’t help thinking that a straight thematic approach would have served him better. Music doesn’t fit into neat chronological packages – there is the conception, the recording and then the release, all of which takes time. The subtitle to the book illustrates his problem. The Rod Stewart album of that name was actually released in 1972.

That aside, there is much in the book to think that there is something in what Hepworth has to say. It was the year that saw the first mega star charity bash, George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh, a concert which he could only persuade Clapton to perform at in aid of starving children if he was supplied with his favourite heroin. It was also the concert at which Dylan took the unusual step of playing an oldie, Like A Rolling Stone  – one of the fascinating insights of the book is that until then bands touring, and they all toured prodigiously then, thought they had to play current or new tracks – a landmark event along with Elvis Presley’s residency at Vegas which persuaded groups that they could resuscitate their back catalogue and which launched what is now termed heritage rock.

Technology assisted rather than hindered the music, the synthesiser became established as a bona fide rock instrument and there were more family groups and fey singer songwriters than you could shake a stick at. The book’s finest chapter includes the pen pictures of three London lads, Cat Stevens. Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart. For me one of the endearing features of the book were the social insights – record stores with listening booths, scouring the music press, NME and Sounds, to gen up on the latest records and forming a sort of collective to share the burden of buying albums and swapping them, all of which I did.

This book won’t feature in the top 100 books of all time but Hepworth makes a fine case for 1971, although for me it set the pendulum swinging in a way that needed the punk uprising of 1976 to rectify.

Gig Of The Week

myths

Fairport Convention – Camberley Theatre

The first band I ever saw live was Fairport Convention – on 6th August 1972 at the Rainbow Pavilion, Torquay, if my memory serves me well – and even then, they were a shadow of their former glory, having lost the likes of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson along the way. Still, the legacy lives on and when I eventually heard they were playing at the under-publicised International Music Festival in Camberley, tickets were purchased.

The current band – Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway – ran through a selection from their latest album, Myths and Heroes, laced with a few from their extensive back catalogue. Portmeirion was as beautiful and haunting as ever and it was lovely to hear Crazy Man Michael again. The evening’s highlight, undoubtedly, was their send up of their erstwhile rivals, Steeleye Span’s Gaudete.

Walk Awhile was played with zest and to hear the old standard, Matty Groves, again is always a treat, although the acoustic version lacked the power of the original. The encore, inevitably Meet on the Ledge –  nailed on for my funeral – was poignant given the death of Dave Swarbrick a few days earlier. His ghost hung over the gig and I couldn’t help reflect that the current incarnation – technically proficient and entertaining as they are – are journeymen compared with the pioneers of folk rock.

On getting home I put on Liege and Lief to remind me of the mighty group they once were.

Time For Magic

source

The Source – Afro Celt Sound System

It’s been a long time a-coming, ten years since the last Afro Celt Sound System album, Anatomic, but the new thirteen track, seventy-seven minute album, The Source, has been well worth the wait. For this album, mixed from sessions recorded around Europe and the UK, Simon Emmerson has toned down the noodling and twiddling of the drum and bass of old and brought the sounds and instrumentation of West Africa to the fore along with the original Celtic mix. The result is a whirligig of sounds and sensations with so much to listen to and enjoy that you come across new twists and nuanes each listen.

The core of the band is Emmerson (guitar and cittern), Davy Spillane and Emer Maycock (uilleann pipe and whistles),Ronan Browne (uilleann pipes) and Moussa Sissoka (talking drums and djembe – a rope-tuned, skin covered goblet drum played with the hands. Added to the mix are singer, kora and balafon player, N’Faly Kouyate, and the wonderful dhol drummer, Johnny Kalsi. I had the experience of seeing him close up from the front of the house at an Imagined Village gig a year or so back and he is a truly talented and infectious individual.

Added to this impressive core are a host of guests including a five strong griot-speaking female group from Guinea, whose voices open the album, Robbie Harris on bodhran, Seane Davey on harp, Ged Lynch on drums, Richard Evans on bass and Gaelic vocalist and rapper – yes, rapper – Griogair Labhruid and Rioghnach Connolly on flute.

There are some bizarre ideas in the album. Some Gaelic psalm singing isn’t everyone’s bag, I’m sure, but when blended on A Higher Love, possibly the stand out track, with Kouyate’s soaring vocals, a heavy brass mix and strings, then it all kind of makes sense and creates a spell-binding track. And then we have Pal O Siadhail reading from his forthcoming book, Wonder and the Medicine Wheels, on Child of Wonder to the accompaniment of kora, harp and flutes with a blinding and mesmerising beat.

Where Two rivers Meet starts off with gentle kora and careful bodhran and then vocals and sensitive and jazzy uilleann piping before, halfway through the almost ten minute track, Irish and African strings kick in. Taladh features a beautiful duet between harp and kora and Kouyate gives full rein to his stunning vocals on The Soul of a Sister.

The album has a sense of fun and on some tracks has a live feel about it. Kalsi Breakbeat is a piece of joy and showcases Kalsi’s dhol style to good effect. And the wonderful Cascade is a breath-taking tour de force. Fusion often panders to the lowest common denominator but this album painstakingly allows all the various styles and instrumentation to shine. I will look forward to seeing them live.

The album is ethereal and uplifting and definitely one that will long remain on my personal play list. Perhaps its greater spirituality provided Emmerson with a place of refuge after he fell out with James McNally big time last year and the two sides are in a bitter dispute over rights to the ACSS name, a dispute that will only keep the lawyers happy. Emmerson has got his retaliation in first and what a retaliation it is too. If you don’t believe me, click the link and find out for yourself.

Change The Record – Part Five

blindfaith

Super groups

I was never convinced by the concept of a super group. The idea was that you took the pre-eminent members of various groups that had split and formed a mega group. The result surely would be a mix of music that would be unsurpassable. The problem was, though, that you would increase the potential for the clash of super-sized egos. The dynamics of a group require some lesser lights who are prepared to put in the hard graft to allow the stars to do their stuff. Think of the Who, Led Zep and the Beatles where Ringo Starr always looked like someone who had found a jackpot lottery ticket in the back of his jeans.

Blind Faith whose eponymous album was released in August 1969 is one of the first manifestations of the short-lived phenomenon which was the supergroup. Comprising of two members of the recently split band, Cream, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, together with Stevie Winwood formerly of Traffic and Ric Grech from Family, they lasted just seven months and the album had mixed reviews at the time.

What caused a major stir was the album cover, featuring a topless pubescent girl holding a silver winged object in her hands which some found to be phallic. In response to the stushie, their record label, Polydor, withdrew the cover replacing it with a more conventional sleeve showing the band members. Although the original image was dropped, the title given to it by photographer Bob Seidemann, Blind faith, became the group’s name. The version of the LP in our collection has the replacement cover so we won’t have the old Bill knocking on the door.

It must be over forty years since I heard the album so I was intrigued to see what I thought of it after all that time. Firstly the cover hadn’t withstood the ravages of time – the gum holding the cover together had dried out and the precious vinyl almost dropped on to the floor. Safely installed onto the turntable, the opening track, Had to cry today, gives a pretty good impression of what the album is going to be like and is a stunning showcase for Winwood’s vocals and Clapton’s guitar riffs. But it also shows that the musicians will break out from the track’s hard rock format to experiment and improvise. The classic example of this is the final track, over 15 minutes long, called Do What You Like which features extensive solos from each of the musicians. Winwood’s organ solo can only be described as freaky but Grech’s bass doodlings over chants give the impression that they are filling up time. Baker rescues the track with a fine drum solo.

Grech’s finest moment on the track is a wonderful violin solo on the opening track of side two, a Sea of Joy which draws influences in from country, folk and hard rock. Clapton’s first composition, Presence of the Lord, which completes the first side is probably the most flawless track – a sort of gospel meets rock song – and features some fine organ work by Winwood and some astonishing guitar work from Clapton with wah-wah peddle to the fore in the final verse.

They cover Buddy Holly’s Well All Right where Clapton plays a fairly subdued role, allowing Winwood’s organ work to shine and Baker and Grech to lead the jam into which the song inevitably moves with some funky rhythms. Can’t Find My Way Home has a more folky, celtic feel about it ending with fine interplay between Clapton’s acoustic guitar and Baker’s jazzier drum licks.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Change The Record – Part Four

curvedair

First vinyl

When conversation in the pub or restaurant wanes, it is always good to have a stock question up your sleeve which will revive the convivial banter. One that almost never fails is what was the first single or album or book – you get the drift – that you ever bought. The answers are often amusing, embarrassing and revealing and often the person that you thought had the coolest and most impeccable musical taste turns out to have started off with a real turkey.

My first album was a Monkees album. There is nothing much that can be said in self-defence other than I was young and impressionable. In those days the Light and Home Services from the Beeb ruled the airwaves and what popular music was played was heavily controlled. The more adventurous of us tried to tune in the cat’s whiskers to find Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations. The signal was by no means crystal clear, waxing and waning with monotonous regularity, but was good enough to engender a frisson of excitement and rebelliousness.  Doubtless the Monkees were plugged mercilessly on these stations and I fell hook and sinker for them.

But an early record I am proud of is Airconditioning by Curved Air which was released in late 1970. Curved Air are pretty much forgotten these days but this album was ahead of its time and a pretty astonishing debut, coming almost from nowhere. The key components of the group were the guitar of Francis Monkman and the violin of Darryl Way. Sonja Kristina provided the vocals and the improbably named Florian Pilkington-Miksa played the drums.

It was with some trepidation that I took the album which is firmly in the prog-rock camp and put it on the turntable to give it its first listen in over thirty years. And, I’m pleased to say, it stood the test of time. What I was astonished by was the quality of Monkman’s guitar work. Whenever I had thought of Curved Air it was always the violin and the quality of Kristina’s voice that came to mind but on my first re-listen it was the guitar work I was intrigued by with its continual weaving in and out of the other instrument lines. The solo on Hide and Seek is astonishing and Monkman was clearly one of the unsung guitar heroes of the time.

For me the most pleasing track was Stretch where the violins take centre stage, providing a solid soundscape against which to appreciate the almost manic guitar work of Monkman. A truly astonishing track. And then there is Vivaldi which represents the pomposity that we now associate with prog-rock, a bravura piece with manic violin work building up to a crescendo with cannons (natch) which then settles down into a calmer section which explores some of the ideas at more leisure before finishing with a frenetic climax.

curvedair2

I have amalgamated TOWT’s collection with my own and there are surprisingly few doubles but we both had Curved Air’s second album, imaginatively called Second Album, with its pale yellow sleeve with top left quadrant showing the purple, light blue, light green and pink pages of the inner sleeve as if they were a rainbow. In comparison with their debut album this is disappointing, being more of a mainstream rock affair. The first side features compositions by Way and the second by Monkman, perhaps a portent that the band’s days were numbered and that the main creative forces were going to go their separate ways. Better, though, to create one masterpiece than none at all.

Perhaps I will forget the Monkees and claim Curved Air as my first album. No one will know any different, will they?!

Change The Record – Part Three

specials

Ska Wars

It may have been down to the untimely death of John Bradbury at the end of last year but the first ska based album I picked out of my now fully catalogued vinyl collection was the Specials’ debut and eponymous album. It still sounds as good as it did in 1979 when it was released, combining a rock steady beat with lyrics that had something to say and delivered with as much, if not more, energy than many a punk band at the time.

Listening to the lyrics is like stepping back in time to an era when race relations were spiky to say the least and there was always an undercurrent of menace if you wandered down the street. The National Front, punks and natty dreads were a threat to the unwary. Fortunately, times have changed somewhat, a small part in that played by multi-cultural bands like the Specials. But some of the lyrics hold true today – Monkey Man, that homage to the night cub bouncer, Nite Klub where the beer tastes like piss and the paean to the cap, Too Much Too Young.  A great album.

selecter

The Selecter were, to me, the rootsier of the new wave British ska bands, with a much more stripped down sound which brought together the best elements of punk and reggae. Their music was underpinned by very heavy bass lines interspersed, often very briefly, by guitar and brass with Pauline Black’s vocals adding the top line. The opening track, Three Minute Hero, Missing Words and Too Much Pressure all stand the test of time.

beat

Birmingham based The Beat had a more commercial ska sound and I was pleasantly surprised to unearth their debut album, I Just Can’t Stop It, released in 1980 on Go Feet records. They are not misnamed and their infectious rhythms served up at pace are infectious. It was great to revisit Mirror in the Bathroom and Stand Down Margaret which the band segue into from the ska classic Whine and Grine. The anti-Thatcher song was a staple sound-track to many a meeting of the left I attended. Alas, La Thatch took almost another decade before she got the message – so much for the power of music. On re-listening there is a sharper political and social edge to the album than I recalled but the reworking of Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You sounds as much of a mistake as it did then.

buster

But the jewel in my ska collection is the piece of vinyl contained in a bright yellow cover – Prince Buster – FABulous Greatest Hits on Melodisc Records. As Madness acknowledged in their track, The Prince, he was the daddy to whom all the British ska revivalists owed their love for the genre. A pioneer of the infectious beat that was known then as Blue Beat and later became ska, Prince Buster Campbell gained international prominence in 1964 with Al Capone and rather than Bob Marley can justifiably be thought of as Jamiaca’s first superstar.

His music is infectious, much of it up-tempo, but there is a high degree of experimentation in the mix. On Freezing Up Orange Street, organ and saxophone play off one another and in Texas Hold-up  a demented horn section plays over a shuffled syncopated beat. To modern ears, Prince Buster is far from politically correct, his views on race and sex would upset the bien-pensant. But he is a creature of his time, put down some stunning tracks and influenced one of the more creative and interesting sub-genres of the post-punk British music scene.

Change The Record – Part Two

acr

The vinyl records have now been sorted into alphabetical order and the cataloguing has begun. I have concocted a spreadsheet into which I am entering the name of the artist, the album, the record label, the year of recording and whether it is mine or TOWT’s and allocating each a unique reference number which will be used to store them and facilitate their retrieval. That’s the theory, anyway.

I have adopted only two rules in cataloguing, aside from the obvious one of observing strict alphabetical order, the principal one being that there is no definite article. So The Who are filed under W.  Perhaps more controversially, solo artists are filed under their first names. So Bob Dylan is filed under B. There was a long and lengthy discussion on this point but I was overruled!

Starting with A I came across two long lost gems in my collection. If I was pressed against the wall or had one of those Desert Island Disc moments and was asked who my favourite group was I would probably have to say Joy Division. At the time – we are talking about 1979 to 1982 – I was besotted by the sounds coming out of Factory records. Following Ian Curtis’ untimely and tragic demise and New Order emerging to pick up the pieces there was a bit of a hole in Factory’s armoury and a group of lads from Wythenshawe called A Certain Ratio manfully tried to fill the breach. Their name came from the lyrics of a 1974 Brian Eno track, The True Wheel.

When I got their albums out of the storage box I was a bit fearful. The cover to their first album, To Each, released in 1981, was a bit bent and warped. Clearly the pressure that it had been under over the years was above a certain ratio but, mercifully, the vinyl played without any problems. The hallmark Factory sound is there – thumping bass and distant, almost monotone, vocals but the funkier edge to their sound and in particular the trumpet seem to get lost in the mix. To my current tastes it led to an unsatisfactory listening experience.

acr2

By the following year some of the balance issues of the band had been sorted out and Sextet, with its beautiful picture of a sunset sky, is a more satisfying album. It is still not an easy listen and has an even bleaker feel to it than the earlier release. But at least there is a more discernible funky feel to it interspersed with atonal piano and dissonant trumpet and vocals which seem to be struggling to keep up with the pace of it all. Undoubtedly, the stand out track is the two-chord seven and half minute wonder that is Knife Slits Water. It was good to give the album another spin but, God, I must have been depressed in those days!

defunkt

After that there was a dire need for some uplifting music. Now funk isn’t really my thing but I always had a soft spot for Defunkt’s Thermonuclear Sweat, their 1982 release for Hannibal records. The album’s title is apposite and they cook up a storm, their style being a mix of James Brown style funk and more conventional jazz riffs. The opening track, Illusion, was always my favourite with some stunning solo interplays between brass and guitar but listening again some thirty odd years after the second track, I Tried To Live Alone, really stood out and kicked some ass. The pace was such that it was a relief to move directly on to the more overtly jazz piece, Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa). To add to my pleasure in rediscovering this album I found it was worth quite some money.

Change The Record

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Father Christmas (TOWT) has b(r)ought me a record player. A rather splendid jobbie it is too, encased in a brown faux-leather attaché case, with a red interior with the letters G.P.O embossed in the inside upper lid. It can handle all formats of vinyl – records that go at 33 and a thirds, 45 and 78 revolutions a minute – and its tip of the head to modernity is a slot for a USB stick – a free one is provided – which can be used to record the vinyl into MP3 format or play music content from the stick through the player’s speakers.

The sound quality is surprisingly good, especially if you wire it up to play through an amp. Ever since digitally formatted music became available there has been a long (and for many, tedious) debate as to the respective merits of digital versus vinyl. You will be relieved to know that I won’t be adding to the debate save to say that there is something undeniably romantic, at least for someone of a certain age, in removing a 12 inch circle of grooved vinyl from a record sleeve and placing it over the metal rod. Releasing the arm from its holder and positioning it carefully on to the edge of the vinyl you are greeted with a hiss and then slowly but surely the music plays.

What you lose in the clinical precision of digital music, you gain in excitement. No play will be the same because of the condition of the stylus or of the record – the simple act of putting the stylus on or off the record inevitably leads to some surface damage and the stylus is marvellously efficient at collecting dust and fluff that previously was imperceptible to the human eye. And the lack of portability or at least the need for mains electricity means that you are required to stay in the same room as the player to enjoy the music. Your music is no longer an ephemeral accompaniment to your everyday life. It becomes an event in itself.

One of the most shocking features of Lord Ashcroft’s revelations about the youthful indiscretions of David Cameron’s time at Oxford was that he spent time listening to Supertramp. No wonder, allegedly, that it drove him to smoking dope. I know how he felt. The problem with having a new form of music reproduction is that you relive that time in your youth when you only had one record to play. You played it ad nauseam so you were painfully familiar with every nuance of every track.

TOWT thoughtfully provided me with some vinyl carefully selected from the discards in the local charity shop bins and the one she selected was Breakfast In America by, of course, Supertramp. They were never one of my favourites but by Boxing Day I was familiar with every word and every chord of their 1979 opus. It was only when friends and relatives had left after the Christmas break and sobriety had returned that I was able to get up into the loft and retrieve my boxes of vinyl albums.

It had always been a retirement task to sort through them to see what gems were lurking there and discover whether they had escaped the ravages of prolonged confinement and the dust and damp of ages. They are now in my study and during the course of the next few months I will be playing them and, where I don’t have CD equivalents, recording them. In this new series I will share some of my discoveries, the stories and memories associated with them and what I think of them now. I will have some fun even if you don’t!