Pink Floyd Meddle 40th Anniversary

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This was a cover feature written for Classic Rock presents…Prog in September 2011.

Ping.

That sound, like a sonar signal.

Ping.

Or a radio signal from deep space.
Ping.

Or a heart monitor, measuring out a life.

Ping.

Incrementally.

The ‘ping’ on the opening and close of Echoes was, as we all know, produced by Richard Wright playing  a single note on a concert grand piano and feeding the signal through a Leslie rotating speaker. It’s a perfect opening, as iconic in its way as Elvis belting out “Well since my baby left…” at the start of Heartbreak Hotel, or death knocking at the door at the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Echoes is the centrepiece of Meddle, an album that is now widely regarded as the one where Pink Floyd got everything just right. In Meddle you can almost hear Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here and even The Wall. You couldn’t necessarily say the same about Atom Heart Mother or Ummagumma. Those albums, brilliant as they are in their way, are still the sound of the Floyd finding their way, trying to escape from the shadow of their brilliant erratic insufferable genius ex-front-man Syd Barrett. They had come a long way from the hallucinogenic whimsy of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and its less satisfactory follow-up A Saucerful Of Secrets. The psychedelic chaos was left behind and a new Pink Floyd emerged. They were still adventurous and experimental, but they were also more structured and stable. By the end of the 60s they had developed into a formidable live touring band. Meddle, although it was an album that revelled in its use of the recording studio, was the first album to capture some of the potency and excitement of the Floyd live experience. After Meddle, nobody called them ‘the’ Pink Floyd. The kids who bought Meddle in 1971 didn’t ask ‘Where’s Syd?’ They increasingly asked ‘Who’s Syd?’

It’s now generally agreed by Floyd aficionados that Meddle was the point where Pink Floyd as we know them really began. There’s the fizzing energetic opener One Of These Days which is the blueprint for half of the songs on Dark Side Of The Moon. The soundtrack music that they had recorded was there to serve a function: it was atmospheric. But they weren’t great songs. One Of These Days is Pink Floyd 2.0. While in their early incarnation they were a pop band as well as a psychedelic free-form freakout band, Arnold Layne and See Emily Play both being hit singles, the subsequent years saw them completely lose interest in the singles chart. In that way they were going with the flow of their contemporaries, becoming an albums focussed band. But One Of These Days, a great song (despite not having words other than a spoken phrase) proved that they were still able to turn out something approachable when they felt like it.

One Of These days is still one of the best Floyd songs ever recorded. According to David Gilmour in a recent interview, it’s one of the songs where their work was at its most collaborative.

“We’d done the individual solo tracks and decided that we worked better together,” says Nick.

“It’s got that sound, hasn’t it?” says Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, a long-time champion of Meddle as THE great Floyd album. “It’s got that 1971 sound. It’s so warm and organic and so golden and there’s something about that. Things were just coming out of psychedelic music and the influence was still there, not completely gone.”

It’s an album that they started without any overarching ideas as to what it was going to be.. Although Echoes is the centrepiece of Meddle, there are other songs like One Of These Days and Fearless that are just as important.

“They were just back from the US. I remember Dave Gilmour had just got they same wah-wah peddle that Jimi Hendrix used. The seagull sound you hear on Echoes is that, the Cry Baby. Hendrix died in the middle of recording which I think affected them a bit,” recalls engineer John Leckie, then recruited as a tape operator but eventually credited as engineer on Meddle.

They had also worked in Italy on the soundtrack for Michelangelo Antonioni’s counter-culture film Zabriskie Point. The band arrived tired and jet-lagged and were booked in the studio from midnight until six. This was to prove a frustrating experience as the Italian director rejected a lot of the music that they recorded.

“I don’t think he exactly hated it,” says Nick Mason, “but it’s difficult when someone else has the music in mind for a particular sequence of film. Antonioni wanted total control, and the only way he could have control of the music was to be able to select from lots of different versions. Whereas before when we’d worked with Barbet Schroeder (director of More and La Vallée, both films with Floyd soundtracks) he would give us the brief, we’d go off and do it and generally he said ‘yes, fine’ and we moved on. It (Zabriskie Point) was a bloody hard slog.”

Much of Meddle’s success is down to the fact that their label, EMI, not really having much of a clue about Pink Floyd other than that they sold lots of records, pretty much left them to their own devices.

“We had just signed a new contract that gave us a slightly reduced royalty in return for unlimited studio time, “ Nick Mason tells us. “I think only The Beatles had a similar deal at the time.”

Pink Floyd were one of the first bands to be allowed to produce their own albums. Peter Brown, who had worked with them on Atom Heart Mother, and John Leckie recorded and engineered the bulk of the recording work at London’s Abbey Road studio.

“They were left alone,” recalls John Leckie. “Colin Miles, who was the only person at EMI who could ‘relate to Pink Floyd’ used to turn up occasionally with a couple of bottles of wine. Maybe some spliff. They worked hard, though, it wasn’t a party.”

Floyd were an established band. They weren’t at the stage where they could afford a garage full of sport’s cars, but they were making a fairly good living from touring and recording. They were starting to have success in the US and had just returned from an American tour when they started work on Meddle.

Leckie remembers that the atmosphere in the studio was good: “They weren’t really different to any other band. It was quite energetic, everyone had a say. Nick came up with a lot of the crazier ideas. It’s his voice through a ring modulator that you hear on One Of These days saying ‘One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces’. Rick contributed a lot. Roger and Dave were running the show but everybody was contributing.”

Starting in early 1971, the band recorded at Abbey Road, sometimes bringing in ideas that they had worked on at home. They continued to gig, setting up the gear in the studio then going off at night to play headline shows, albeit at colleges and polytechnics.

“We were trying out a lot of stuff live at that time,” says Mason.

Echoes, at that time a series of unconnected parts labelled Nothing – there was Nothing Part One through to Part 36 – which eventually took shape when they debuted it live at a gig in Norwich in April. It was still listed under its working title Return of the Son of Nothing.

The band were pushing the possibilities of the studio.

Mason remembers: “Abbey Road had just invested in eight track, but were not ready to to 16 track. So we went to Air studios, which was great. A very different atmosphere to EMI. EMI had the big canteen…there was already a lot of change, though. The Beatles did that a few years before. But Air was state of the art.”

It was the possibilities offered by 16 track that changed everything.

“Yes, by definition, though unfortunately it made the process of recording slower. There were almost too many options,” says Mason. “Mixing took a hell of a lot longer.”

They also recorded at a third studio, Morgan in Willesden.

“Morgan was one of the first British studios to go 24 track, though not at that time,” says John Leckie. “What’s interesting is that years later I recorded some of the first Stone Roses tracks there, when it was called Battery.”

Although they had worked on long form pieces before Echoes was a bit of a departure. Songs like Interstellar Overdrive and A Saucerful Of Secrets came from the Syd era when the band were more improvisational. These were essentially extended jams. Atom Heart Mother was conceived as a sort of quasi-classical piece. Echoes was different: it incorporated several ideas, different passages and moods, but it was a structured and planned song. Its creation involved trial and error. A lot was thrown out. But it was a song with a final, almost definitive form. The version you hear in the film Live At Pompeii or the BBC sessions isn’t markedly different to the version on Meddle. Interstellar Overdrive, particularly in the Syd era, was never really the same twice.

“Echoes, for me, is the quintessential, ultimate epic. It just has a perfect shape. They hadn’t tried to cram too many ideas into it, so it still has a lot of room for building up and breaking down and improvisation, and it has that lovely song sequence that book-ends the piece,” says Steven Wilson.

“I’m sure that one of the reasons that they did Echoes was because of Roy Harper,” says John Leckie. “They shared management with Roy and he was a big mate of the band. He was always around and he was working on Stormcock. I’d worked with Roy, which I think played a big part in my being hired for Meddle.”

Stormcock is a ground-breaking 1971 album by Harper that includes four epic acoustic songs, all between seven and 13 minutes long.

“I don’t think it was any kind of one-upmanship with Roy,”says Mason. “Roy was extraordinary. I loved the fact that he could do a song differently every time. He’d record with a band but the acoustic version would be just as good. And he never used them. God knows where those recordings are.”

Harper, of course, would later join the band on Wish You Were Here to sing Have A Cigar.

“We quickly worked out that doing a song like Echoes was comparatively easy because of the repetition. Listening to it now it sounds a bit overlong. There’s a lot that could be chopped out of it which would make a better piece,” says Nick.

Ah, and maybe Leonardo Da Vinci thought in ;later life that the Mona Lisa would have been improved by wiping the smile off of her face.

The album also includes three absolutely perfect short songs:  One Of These Days, Pillow Of Winds and Fearless. Fearless includes the Kop Choir singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Naturally John Peel flogged it to death on the radio.

“Fearless is still the one that everyone in Liverpool plays “ says Leckie. “Not just for the football chant, but those churning acoustic guitars. That’s the one that The Las and all those bands tell you is the classic Pink Floyd track.”

Roger Waters, a lifelong Arsenal supporter, played the acoustic guitar parts. He used an open tuning, which gives the song its ringing quality. It’s a sound that does indeed surface in the work of bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. It’s also a song that has been covered by a wide range of artists, from ex-Marillion frontman Fish to The Black Crowes by way of midwestern indie ‘slowcore’ band Low.

Pillow Of Winds, inspired, according to Nick, by the game of Mah Jong that he and Gilmour and their respective partners used to play while on holiday together, is a fairly straight love song. It’s one of the pastoral pieces that they had toyed with before in songs like Julia Dream and Granchester Meadows.

“There’s a couple of songs at the end of side one that maybe you could say are filler, but certainly those three songs: One Of These Days, Pillow Of Winds and Fearless, are as good as anything they recorded. I think Fearless does always get overshadowed because of the two pieces that they played a lot live,” says Steven Wilson.

San Tropez was not composed collaboratively. It was written by Roger Waters and was brought to the studio in a completed form.

The notorious Seamus – a great sense of humour test – was named after ex-Small Faces then-Humble Pie frontman Steve Marriott’s dog.

“Steve would always be around the studio. They noticed that the dog would start barking in tune with the music,” says Leckie.

The dog that appears in the film version in Live At Pompeii is in fact another one, a female Russian Wolfhound named Nobs, which belonged to Madona Bouglione (the daughter of circus director Joseph Bouglione) took a bit more coaxing for her performance than Seamus did.

Live At Pompeii, a good snapshot of where the band were in 1971, was one of the first films of this kind. It prefigures the rock video by filming a performance in an exotic location without an audience.

“Steve O’Rourke (Floyd’s manager at the time) came to us and said ‘there’s this French based documentary maker wants to do a film’. The deal we did turned out to be very hard work and we never saw any money from it for a long time. On the other hand it turned out to be a very useful and I think a very good film. What Adrian (Maben, director) did, by doing it in Pompeii, it was a controlled environment as there was no audience, so we could cut, stop and reshoot. But the open air ad the dust and everything else made it feel like a real live show. There was a bit of grit to it,” says Nick.

Apparently some reels were lost.

“It was Dave and Roger from One Of These Days, which is why it’s mostly me,” says Mason.

Meddle was released in October 1971 in the US and November in the UK. It was packaged in a sleeve that Hipgnosis partner Storm Thorgerson has said was his least favourite Pink Floyd sleeve: “I think Meddle is a much better album than its cover,” he said. The cover was supposed to have been a close-up picture of a baboon’s bum. The band told him that they wanted something to do with water, maybe an ear underwater. It certainly fit with the mood of the album in a way that somehow you don’t feel that an ape’s anus would have done.

Regardless of its packaging, in the UK it reached number three on the album charts (Atom Heart Mother had been number one) while in the US it is felt that it bombed upon its initial release.

“If in doubt, blame the label,” says Mason. “We felt at the time that Capitol (Floyd’s North American label) was really an old fashioned company, it was the label of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and the executives were all old. I don;t think they really approved of us. They didn’t understand it. Consequently, they never worked the records anyway.”

“EMI, on the other hand, saw the potential particularly from European sales. And they decided to make it a hit. That’s the thing. The success of Dark Side Of The Moon had nothing to do with the loveable mop tops who made it. It was all the record company.”

The band lost patience with Capitol and secretly signed with Clive Davies to Colombia in the US. They felt that they were without the support that they got in the UK and Europe.

Obscured By Clouds, the soundtrack to La Valee, was recorded in a matter of weeks later that year. Then they started work on Dark Side Of The Moon. They had an appetite for work. Yet they would never quite record at this pace again.

“No because we got spoiled. After Dark Side we were a number one band,” says Nick. “And also, the pressure was then on. You couldn’t just go in and knock another album off. You had to think about it, not repeat yourself.”

According to Steven Wilson: “You feel that Floyd were still a band that were playing live, going out there and experimenting, and I think by Dark Side Of The Moon, that had gone. They’d become great sonic architects by that time, but a lot of the danger and a lot of the hangover from that period of experimentation had been gradually refined out of their sound.”

It’s a sobering lesson for anyone who makes a living writing about music to go back and read the sort of reviews that were written in the music press at the time of an album now considered an undisputed classic. Reviews of Meddle were lukewarm though favourable. Some seemed to miss the point: one reviewer compared Meddle unfavourably with More and Ummagumma. Arguments as to whether Meddle belonged in the same file as Fragile, Tarkus or Nursery Crymes now seem fatuous.

The Floyd, like Yes, ELP and Genesis, were just slightly ahead of the technology that was available.  These were like 24-track bands in an 8-track era.

After Dark Side Of The Moon, something was lost: Meddle, and even Dark Side Of The Moon, are far from being perfect. Afterwards, though, the drive was to create and sometimes meticulously over-egg the pudding in the studio. This culminated with The Wall and was probably what ultimately tore the band apart.

For Nick, working on Meddle, he says, gave him the confidence to start producing himself. Later that year he worked on The Asmoto Running Band, the second album by whimsy-prog oddballs Principal Edwards Magic Theatre. He later produced Robert Wyatt’s classic Rock Bottom and The Damned’s second album Music For Pleasure (though apparently because they couldn’t get Syd Barrett).

After the one-off solo album Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports in 1981, he worked with Rick Fenn and then jazzer Mike Mantler. But Nick, being rich as Croesus, is under no pressure to get in the van and go gigging.

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about doing something for a while,” he muses. He won’t be pushed on details. And what about another Pink Floyd reunion? He says that touring or playing with Dave Gilmour or Roger Waters is a possibility.

“I’d love to do something like Live8 again,” he says. Then he adds, perhaps enigmatically: “If it was to be arranged.”

Was that a hint? Or was it what we want to hear? That the journey that really got underway 40 years ago on Meddle hasn’t quite come to its end.

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Mike Oldfield as good as Can shock

In defence of Mike Oldfield.

Mike OldfieldIn a parallel universe, back in 1977 Mike Oldfield topped himself midway through the recording of his fourth album Incantations. Chronically depressed, painfully shy, he couldn’t take the adulation and the attention that his three hit albums had brought him. He’d hidden away in remote cottages, shut himself in studios and generally kept the world at bay for nearly five years. Now he was under some pressure from his label Virgin to take his music on the road. It was therapy or suicide and Mike chose to lock himself in the garage, turned on the engine and inhale that sweet sweet carbon monoxide.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just went Syd Barrett/Roky Erickson mental.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just disappeared and was never heard from again.

Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just suddenly quit music altogether and opened a chip shop.

Whatever happened, today all you pissy little hipsters with your bumfluff beards and skinny jeans and Morrissey haircuts and chunky specs just love him. The original vinyl copies of Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge that you paid way too much for nestle in your collection next to your original Jamaican copy of Big Youth’s Screaming Target and the Harmonia bootlegs and some unreleased Wooden Shjips 12 inches that you wank off over on a regular basis. The original Roger Dean Virgin label gives it a warmer sound, doesn’t it?

And you, bald over 40s bloke, would alternate the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures t shirt with a Tubular Bells one to show that you were still down with the avant garde kids.

And fucking Mojo would have Oldfield gazing soulfully from every fourth cover and the smug bastard Guardian would constantly run these 50 great lost album features about the greatest albums that were never made where Incantations would regularly pip Smile to the number one slot.

But when Schrödinger opened the box, the cat was still alive…

In the real world, Mike signed up with Exegesis, a rather nasty cult therapy group that cured its acolytes by physically and psychologically abusing them relentlessly, destroying them and building them up again, much as the Chinese commies did to all those Iowa farm boys back in the Korean war. Whatever they did, in Mike’s case, it worked. He was transformed from a shy retirer into a hyper-extrovert – some have said ‘overbearing cunt’ – obsessed by extreme sports, fast cars and powerful motorcycles. The Bill Oddy-like diminutive hippy was replaced by a confident clean cut chap in a hip white suit.

The music changed too, though in subtle ways. After 1978’s epic double Incantations, Mike abandoned the uncompromising album-length suites for a while. He toured. He had hit singles. He reworked the theme from Blue Peter. In some ways, in the 1980s he shadowed the trajectories of contemporaries like Yes and Genesis, moving from ‘head’ music to the heart of the mainstream.

In the post-punk musical marketplace, Mike was far from fashionable. He sold millions of records, certainly, but this was despite Virgin records rather than because of them. Can a man be more cursed than having his music filed under ‘new age’?

And while Yes and Genesis have been ‘rehabilitated’ – surely you’re prepared to admit that The Yes Album and Nursery Crymes have their merits? – Mike Oldfield is loved by no-one except his millions of fans. As one hater told me: there’s always a nagging suspicion that Tubular Bells is something that Jeremy Clarkson would like. You’d certainly prefer Dennis Nielsen as a fan. Which, of course, he was.

For me, the first four albums are staggering pieces of music, works that nearly 40 years on, I can still hear in new ways, still find new things in. I wore the grooves out on my first copy of Tubular Bells. I played it almost every night in 1973, power cuts permitting, and later used to ‘trip’ to it on Saturday afternoons. There are light and dark passages in Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn are both bleak and sad, a message from a man who was slowly going mad. The disturbing multiple overdubbed guitars on Hergest Ridge – like 10,000,000 bees swarming in a cathedral – and the maddening ever building crescendo on Ommadawn are still as potent now.

Oldfield’s music has more in common with Can, Faust and Guru Guru than with the homeopathic tinklings you hear in crystals’n’candles shoppes.

It’s not minimalist music, though it was a jumping-off point for me to discover Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Tubular Bells also pointed me in the direction of Soft Machine and the wilder edge of krautrock. It got me used to long-form pieces, ultimately softening me up for everything from John Coltrane to the Western classical canon.

More importantly, it whetted my appetite for music the like of which I had never heard before. Everything else that I was into at that time – Bowie, Roxy, Sabbath – all had some anchoring in the familiar. Oldfield’s music for good or ill encouraged me to seek out the shock of the new.

After Incantations I lost interest, though recently I’ve rediscovered just how good that album was. His best music in the 80s was filmic – his score for Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields is particularly good – though again, fine as some of it was, the best was at the start.

Perhaps it’s unfair to prefer the works of suffering artists. Would Van Gough be a painter of minor interest had fluoxetine been prescribed? Would Dostoyevsky’s novels be somehow shallower and less interesting if he’d undergone Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

It’s the gift of the artist to transform pain and suffering into something of worth and beauty.

Mike Oldfield created worlds and to enter them is to visit a landscape that’s as dreadful and unsettling as it is placid and pastoral. You feel the panic as well as – occasionally – the peace.

Queens Of The Stone Age – Rated R [Deluxe Edition]

This is a review of the anniversary deluxe edition, written for Classic Rock.

Rolling Stone’s 82nd best album of the decade. Tits.

There’s a case for saying that we’ve just been through yet another of rock’s golden ages.
The years between – roughly – 1999 and 2008 (please, ‘the noughties’ makes us puke) saw
Jeremiads about the death of guitars once again fail to come to pass. Great years for the
underground but they were also good times for very mainstream bands too, bands you saw on telly that your uncool mates might have heard of too. We got career-best albums from Machine Head, The Foo Fighters, Slipknot, Green Day, Judas Priest and Tool. We had awesome newcomers like Opeth, Mastodon, Coheed & Cambria, My Chemical Romance and The Mars Volta. And even Metallica eventually made a record that wasn’t totally shit.

The first great rock’n’roll release of the new decade/century/millennium was the second
album by Queens Of The Stone Age. Josh Homme never set out to be a trailblazer for
proper rock music, but things just kind of worked out that way. After years when the charts
were dominated by hip hop, pop and R&B, when ‘rock’ was a sickly category, either retro
fallout from grunge or Britpop or heritage acts stumbling onstage to die, here was an album
that sounded the way that a 21st century rock band should. Queens were robust and tough
and vibrant. They were eclectic. Queens had metal, punk rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock,
krautrock, glam rock – every damn variant of cool rock you can think of – wired into their
DNA.

The opening lines of Feelgood Hit Of The Summer “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol” serve notice that this is no album by a bunch of businessmen with guitars. It ain’t U2. They were not here to service a demographic or to provide content between the ads on modern rock radio. Yes, oh my goodness, that’s drugs they’re singing about, mum. Cover your ears.

The self titled first QOTSA album was still really a Kyuss album. It was the last ‘stoner rock’ album that Josh Homme made. Rated R was something else again. Produced by Josh and Chris Goss, a long time friend and mentor of Homme’s, it made enough compromises to get the band on MTV without selling the essential soul of the band. It was made with a loose line-up of madmen and geniuses, a gentleman’s club of cool that included Rob Halford, Pete Stahl, Mark Lanegan, Barrett Martin and of course Nick Oliveri.

Even a decade on, the album well played and imprinted on the consciousness, you hear new stuff all the time. Like the robotic beats and repetitive riff on In The Fade, which call to mind both Neu! And The Groundhogs, sounds slippery and different every time you listen to it. Or the mellower low key psychedelia of Auto Pilot, which sounds strangely contemporary, suggesting a direction not taken that other bands could build an entire career around. And at first BetterLiving Through Chemistry sounded like a failed trip hop experiment; now it sounds futuristic and oddball again. Monsters in the Parasol is almost Doors-like, a dark surreal ode to dropping acid in the desert. Rated R progresses from the singles Feelgood Hit of the Summer and The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret through to the discordant brass annoyance at the end of I Think I Lost My Headache. It’s showing off. Homme wants us to know that this is a band that can do anything. You want MTV friendly fodder? He will just fuck you raw with MTV friendly fodder. You ask when Kyuss will reform? They’re still here, at the guts of QOTSA.

Songs For The Deaf, the third album, is arguably the better. But Rated R is still a magnificent work, seeming much bigger and broader than 11 songs over a mere 42 minutes.

To celebrate a decade since its release and generally reactivate interest in this album – it certainly doesn’t need remastering or anything – there’s a bonus disc of live material, most notably the Reading Festival show, as well as  -sides and oddities. Like all such discs, it adds precisely fuck all to your enjoyment of or knowledge of this album. It does remind you that the QOTSA live experience is not something to be missed. It pads the box nicely, too.

Whether the new golden age of rock’n’roll is already over is a moot point. Too much tongue in cheek retro, too many bands retreating back to the underground: mainstream rock might be in recession again. Josh Homme has been arseing around with joke bands and ironic supergroups for too long now. Hearing this ought to be the wake up call that demands he get back to his proper work. The next golden age is nothing without him.

Peter Hammill London Cadogan Hall

Live review for Classic Rock presents…Prog. I’ve been a fan of Hammill since I was about 14; I had a really ancient scratched copy of The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other, swapped – as I recall – for a copy of Funky Junction Pay Tribute To Deep Purple and The Eternal Fire Of Jimi Hendrix. Well worth it.

You could hear a pin drop but nobody had the poor manners to actually drop any. Peter Hammill was paused to strike the piano and maybe sing some more. But in the few nano seconds after the reverberation of the last note faded, and the next begun, it was like being in the eye of a storm. Tense rather than calm.
The Mercy is the best song from his most recent solo album Thin Air and indeed one of his best songs ever: in many ways it is almost a typical Peter Hammill song. A beautiful, rippling melody, a complex structure that eschews the standard verse/chorus pattern and words shot through with anguish, loss, his voice always calm but on the edge of rage or a roar of pure pain.
It’s one of the night’s memorable moments. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff.
Hammill’s solo career has always run in parallel to his work with Van Der Graaf Generator, allowing him a more confessional and – sometimes – quieter platform for his writing. Tonight is proof that along with a rare coterie of songwriters – Neil Young, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are the only others that really spring to mind – his work in middle age is every bit as vital and engrossing as his work in youth. Arguable, more so.
In fact songs like (On Tuesday She Used To Do) Yoga, originally written and recorded in 1975 on the harrowing diary of the death of a relationship Over, take on an added edge of bitterness and wry self-deprecating humour coming from a bloke in his 60s.
Hammill is not some dysfunctional genius, some pained too-sensitive-for-the-world middle aged adolescent. Offstage, he’s probably as capable of banal moments in front of the telly as any of us. But over the past 40 years, as an artist, he has mined his own failings and shortcomings without quarter, exposing something raw and even embarrassing, something truly honest.
Sometimes in the course of this long and troubled performance, you actually wince at what he reveals. It’s like watching somebody confess at a show trial. Dressed all in white, alone onstage, he looks vulnerable.
Sometimes, though, it’s just a concert. You need a few of Hammill’s brilliant ‘greatest hits’ like Shingle from Nadir’s Big Chance – truly one of the great classic albums of the 70s that nobody knows about – and Habit Of The Broken Heart from Van Der Graaf’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome to balance out more recent material. But it’s songs like Friday Afternoon from 2006’s Singularity and Undone from Thin Air that actually prove the most intense and emotional points in the show.
Finishing with A Better Time from 1996’s excellent career high point album X My Heart, we leave feeling emotionally wrung out but in no doubt that we have been witness to one of the great English singer songwriters of the age with no signs that time has wearied him.

Buyer’s Guide to Jazz Rock

This is a piece written for Classic Rock in 2008. Normally I hate reading and writing stuff like this. Lists. Consumer guides. But I’m a whore. I did it for the money. I had a bit of ‘guidance’ with the list, so I probably wouldn’t have included Colosseum and would have put something by Soft Machine in its place. And whither George Duke, Spirit, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, Seventh Wave, Alan Holdsworth and newcomers Diagonal? I know, I know…

Miles DavisLet’s begin with a warning: jazz rock can be terrifying and it isn’t for everyone. But you can take comfort from the fact that it alienates and angers as many ‘proper’ jazz ‘buffs’ as it does rock fans. If you think Dylan going electric was a big deal, you should have heard the hissy fits from the hep cats when Miles Davis went on stage in the mid-60s and started playing along with a bunch of crazy muthas with Afros who fed their instruments through wah-wah pedals.

Jazz rock, or fusion, was the last gasp of jazz, the final surge of energy and creative power before lapsing into the hideous heritage industry that it has become today. Jazz rock is pretty hard to define. For bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra it involved hard rock structures but with complex, improvisational elements.

Rock and jazz have a few ancestors in common – the blues, even ragtime – but it wasn’t until the mid-60s that the two converged in what came to be known as jazz rock/fusion. Bands like The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and The Doors cited jazzers such as John Coltrane as major influences (listen to The Doors’ Light My Fire back to back with Coltrane’s Ole), although jazz fans and musicians tended to regard most rock as inferior.

By 1967, rock had become more creative, and for the first time jazz artists began to take influences from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, The Beatles and Sly & The Family Stone. There were also commercial considerations: jazz had waned as the dominant form of popular music.

It was a two-way street: rock artists like Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker and the late, great Tommy Bolin wanted to stretch themselves as musicians, and acceptance by the jazz fraternity was like passing the cycling proficiency test. Had he lived, there’s little doubt that Hendrix would have followed the logical course set by his Band Of Gypsies and become a jazz-rock star.

From roughly 1967 until the mid-80s, the intermarriage of jazz and rock produced some of the most stunning, original and mesmerising music of the 20th century (to be fair, it also produced more than its fair share of unlistenable toss.) Much of what we know as progressive rock – Yes, ELP, post-Red King Crimson – was essentially jazz rock lite. Today we can still hear the influence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis in bands as diverse as Tool, Mastodon and The Mars Volta.

Essential – The Classics

MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA
Birds Of Fire

CBS, 1972
“A person would be a moron not to appreciate [John] McLaughlin’s technique,” Frank Zappa once said. “The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as
if it were a machine-gun.”
Birds Of Fire was the Mahavishnu Orchestra at their absolute best, a multi-ingredient fusion – jazz, rock, blues, Celtic folk, Indian classical – churned out at an amazing breakneck speed.
John McLaughlin’s guitar work was staggering, and keyboard player Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman were also virtuosos. The seemingly telepathic interplay and improvisation is a joy to hear.

JEFF BECK
Wired

CBS, 1976
Beck was one of the few rockers to make the transition to jazz. His 1976 masterpiece Wired – particularly his cover of Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – is one of the few albums you could describe as jaw-dropping and mean it.
Entirely instrumental, and at just under 35 minutes comparatively short, Wired is an album that passes in a blur of high-speed funk, ultra-heavy technoflash guitar solos and thrilling power chords. Yes, it’s Beck shamelessly showing off, but it’s hardly self-indulgent.
It’s like a shopping list of musical ideas and directions, each of which could have spawned an entire album in its own right. Marvellous.

Superior – The Albums That Helped Build the Genre

BILLY COBHAM
Spectrum

Atlantic, 1973
As the drummer with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham was one of the foremost musos of his generation. Spectrum, though, is more than a bunch of difficult drum solos.
Opening with the truly amazing Quadrant 4 – which highlights the high-speed roller-coaster guitar of the young Tommy BolinSpectrum is all about the interplay between great musicians, crossing every boundary from hard rock to the soulful heavy funk of Red Barron. The drumming, as you’d expect, is from the realm of the angels – listen particularly to Stratus, where Cobham proves the superiority of the human over the drum machine.

RETURN TO FOREVER
Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy

Verve, 1973
There’s some debate among aficionados as to whether this or its follow up, Romantic Warrior, is the superior RTF album. …Galaxy is a less polished album, leaner and meaner, full of high-jazz musicianship and a low-down hard-rock attitude. The inventiveness on the title track, and keyboard player and leader Chick Corea’s reworking of his own Latin-flavoured Captain Senor Mouse, are definite highlights, as is After The Cosmic Rain which showcases bass player Stanley Clarke’s propulsive style. RTF is kind of the next stage left after Yes’s Close To The Edge.

MILES DAVIS
A Tribute To Jack Johnson

CBS, 1971
Miles Davis always bragged that he could put together the best rock band ever and blow everyone away. With this album, a soundtrack for a movie about boxing champ Johnson, recorded with John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham, Miles lived up to that boast.
Two extended jams, kicking in with Right Off, McLaughlin playing heavy blues rock guitar, breaking down into moody psychedelia, James Brown-like funk and going back to bar-room rock, this is probably a clue as to how the mooted Hendrix/Miles collaboration might have sounded. A good jumping off point for Miles’s electric work.

WEATHER REPORT
Heavy Weather

CBS, 1977
Easily the most accessible jazz rock release here and the most commercially successful, Heavy Weather actually spawned the hit single (albeit a minor hit) Birdland. However, it was possibly that success that closed the book on fusion’s more creative years and gave birth to the ghastly easy-listening mutation that was jazz funk.
Regardless, this album still sounds as fresh today as it did at the time. Weather Report went straight for the jugular, delivering marvellous tunes, keeping the instrumental flash in the background, and made an album that was less jazz rock and almost jazz pop.

Good – Worth Exploring

FRANK ZAPPA
Hot Rats
Reprise, 1969
After he disbanded the Mothers Of Invention in 1969, Zappa surrounded himself with some little-known but extraordinary musicians to record what became his breakthrough album, praised or damned as the Zappa record that people who don’t like Zappa like.
From the instrumental opener Peaches En Regalia, through the scatological blues of Willy The Pimp, this album album heralded Zappa’s foray into jazz rock. While Mahavishnu and even Miles had a sort of spirituality, Zappa remained cynical, deflating the undeniable brilliance of the arrangement, writing and performance with the usual lame dirty jokes. A brilliant album nevertheless.

COLOSSEUM
Valentyne Suite

Vertigo, 1969
Colosseum’s second album finds them reaching beyond their limitations as, essentially, a Cream-influenced blues rock band and groping to create something revolutionary. The extended jazz rock jams and particularly the 15-minute title track are reminiscent of what US bands like Blood, Sweat And Tears, Chicago Transit Authority and Chase were also doing at the same time. Essentially these were the handful of bands from rock backgrounds who were able to make a convincing transition to jazz. Along with King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, Valentyne Suite is one of the early milestones where prog rock and jazz rock met.

TONY WILLIAMS LIFETIME
Emergency

Polydor, 1969
There’s no argument that this album is seriously flawed: Williams can’t sing for toffee, and the production is truly awful. That said, the music made by then-prodigy drummer Williams and his band is pure electric hellfire. To the staid jazz establishment of the time, it must have been as shocking as Anarchy In The UK.
Emergency emphasises the rock in jazz rock, John McLaughlin’s guitar almost anticipates classic heavy metal, while Williams’s drumming veers from hostile to ecstatic joy in the space of a few beats. Years ahead of its time, this album is a slightly ragged and tattered masterpiece.

Also Try

Although the best jazz rock was released between 1967 and ’77, there are a lot of paths and tangents for the explorer to follow. Jazz rock in Britain is best represented by Soft Machine’s Third (’70), with more profoundly avant-garde noises following from the likes of Henry Cow’s Unrest (’74) and cult classics like Centipede’s Septober Energy (’71). The early works of Blood, Sweat And Tears, such as Child Is Father To The Man (’68), the Buddy Miles Expressway – most notably Expressway To Your Skull (’70) – and Chicago Transit Authority’s self-titled 1969 debut represent strand of US jazz rock which came from rock bands rather than from jazzers ‘slumming’ it.
European jazz rock is where things got really weird and wonderful: Wagnerian French band Magma released several sci-fi concept albums, most notably ’73’s Mekanik Destruktiw Komandoh (which reimagined John Coltrane fronting an orchestra from Saturn), while the altogether gentler Gong fused jazz rock with late-period psychedelia on their excellent ’73 album Angel’s Egg.

Avoid

ANYTHING BY KENNY G.
Kenny G represents the dire depths to which fusion eventually sank. Flushed with and egged on by the commercial success of Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, a few jazz-rockers decided to chuck out all that scary, innovative stuff and just play some peaceful elevator music to soothe the folks after a hard day being yuppies.

Cathedral The Guessing Game

Review of their most recent album from Classic Rock.

Clocking in at a statuesque 85 minutes, this double disc set from UK doom vetrans not only marks a renaissance, but may well be their finest album ever. From the outset, though, it’s obviously a massive break from the doom laden past, piling in with sitars, mellotrons, synths and glockenspiels, creating something that at times sounds like a phenomenal lost British prog album from 1971 (on Vertigo, obviously). Not that it’s in any way an exercise in nostalgia or pastiche: the doom roots are still there throughout and for all that it creates an impression of afghan coats and incense, it’s an albumn that could only really be made in 2010. Songs like Death Of An Anarchist and Funeral Of Dreams (featuring singer Alison O`Donnell of 70s Irish folk rock band Mellow Candle) are classic Cathedral, but with a little bit of a psychedelic twist. The Running Man, a nod to King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, and the pulverising doom of Requiem For The Voiceless (a protest song about factory farming) are the two strongest tracks and the two poles of The Guessing Game. The double disc format allows Cathedral’s imagination to be unbounded. It’s an exciting reboot for a veteran band.
8/10
Tommy Udo