XTC’s Dave Gregory Plays The Fool

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2014 by pulmyears

It may be April 1st as I make this blog entry, but the following Fool story is not a hoax.

FOOL on BLACKBack when I was writing my book, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, in 2008, I eagerly sought and eventually landed, interviews with all three core members of XTC in regard to their work with Todd on one of their best albums (his and theirs) Skylarking. Whereas lead singers and songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding opted to speak with me (at great length) over the phone but their ace guitarist, Dave Gregory, chose instead to write me a letter answering all of my questions. At first, I was let down, I wanted to talk to him, but then I received the 10 pages of detailed diaries and equipment lists, written in a very lively and engaging manner that was almost a shame to have to edit to fit into the manuscript. But I had to fold it into the commentary by Partridge, Moulding and Rundgren, not to mention additional input from drummer Prairie Prince and Utopia Sound engineer Chris Andersen.

My book came out in 2010 and is still in print, but this being April Fool’s Day, I wanted to excerpt a passage from Dave Gregory’s letter regarding the Skylarking sessions, and specifically the time he got to play Rundgren’s psychedelic Gibson SG, famously painted by Dutch art team, and Beatles colleagues, The Fool (Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger) for one of its original owners, Eric ClaptonThe Fool, as the SG became known, had many subsequent owners, Clapton handed it down to George Harrison, who gave it to Apple Records’ singer Jackie Lomax, who passed it on to Todd Rundgren. Todd had very much enjoyed Clapton’s solo on Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” and promptly gave the SG its alternate nickname, “Sunny.” Finally, while XTC were recording at Rundgren’s studio in Upstate New York, Gregory had found The Fool and eventually played the solo for “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” on those storied frets.

UTOPIA SOUND

In Dave Gregory’s September 19, 2008 letter to me, he wrote:

Half-way between the bungalow and the house stood a large, glazed timber shed with a stone chimney stack in one corner; Utopia Sound Studios!

The studio was open so we went inside, where we found a variety of instruments and amps gathering dust, and looking somewhat neglected. A 1968 Vox Super Beatle amplifier – impressive looking, horrible-sounding things we never got in England – stood against a wall on its chrome stand. A grand piano stood in one corner, next to an ornate screen that a fan-dancer might have used; there were some Indian instruments hanging on the chimney breast, including a sitar; and lurking in another corner was the much-vaunted Chamberlin, which we had been promised would be a suitable replacement for our (absent) Mellotron. Opposite the Chamberlin stood a shelf containing boxes of 2” master multi-track tape reels, many of them Todd’s own recordings. I could hardly believe I could actually touch some of this stuff! On the wall behind the wooden stair-case that led to the control room was a blown-up painting of the “wizard” cartoon that adorns the back of the Runt LP.

DAVE GREGORY with TODDThe biggest surprise for me, however, was entering the control room and discovering Eric Clapton’s world-famous Gibson SG guitar, complete with its restored Fool artwork, sitting on a stand. It was still Todd’s main guitar and had taken up permanent residence at his place of work! Since Clapton’s sound with Cream had been among my biggest influences as a guitar player, to see the actual instrument he’d used right in front of me was a like a bolt from the blue. I decided that I’d finally reached rock heaven – all my musical dreams and aspirations were about to come true!

Later in the letter, Dave gets his chance:

I really, really wanted to play the Clapton SG on something, and Todd agreed to let me use it for this solo. Of course, it sounds more Todd than Eric, but that’s OK! It was strung with acoustic bronze-wound strings, which he allowed me to remove. While changing the strings in my room, I took the opportunity to remove the pick-guard and control rout cover, in order to examine the artwork more closely. I was surprised to discover that the paint had been applied directly on top of the factory cherry lacquer, which was still visible beneath the pick-guard. At some point the guitar must have been dropped vertically, because there was a serious crack in the wood under the controls; it would have been possible to break a corner of the body clean off. It was only the cover plate that was holding it together!

We recorded the solo in the control room, neck pick-up via the Scholz Rock Man and whatever devices Todd used to produce that uniquely Utopian effect. That SG felt very comfortable to play, the neck has a nice profile even with all the paint covering it (Clapton quickly scraped the paint off the neck, but Todd had it restored). Months after the album was finished I was listening at home to Utopia’s “Ra”, when Roger Powell’s ascending trumpet lines in the middle section of ‘Magic Dragon Theatre’ struck a familiar chord. I noticed that subliminally, I’d borrowed the same little 5-note runs for part of my solo! Todd can’t have considered it important enough to mention…

A1dKeM5ysML._AA1500_NOTE: On April 14, 2014, Andy Partridge’s APE House will reissue the so-called “corrected polarity” remaster of Skylarking, with his original cover design, available through Burning Shed. Click here for details.

 

This Must Be The Place: Chris Frantz And Tina Weymouth Get Around.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 21, 2014 by pulmyears

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By Paul Myers © 2013

[NOTE: I originally wrote this interview with Chris Frantz for Wine Luxury Magazine in 2013, I have abridged it slightly for The Pulmyears Music Blog.]

“Home is where I want to be but I guess I’m already there.

As founder members of both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, drummer Chris Frantz and his bassist wife Tina Weymouth have shared as many air miles as they have recording sessions. And nowadays they find themselves equally at home in sleepy Connecticut, jamming with the Downtown Rockers in New York City or basking in the rural ambiance of the French countryside.

Charlton Christopher Frantz was born on a military base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky (“a short hop from Nashville”) but when his father, who eventually rose to the rank of Major General, was sent to Harvard Law School, the family relocated to Boston. Chris attended school in Virginia before eventually enrolling in the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and, inevitably, winding up in New York City. Already no stranger to moving within America, Talking Heads gave the young drummer his first exposure to the flavors of Europe.

T HEADS POSTER FRANCE

“People really rolled out the red carpet for us… we had a ball.”

“We went over in the spring of 1977,” he recalls, “opening for The Ramones on a tour of the capitals of Europe, about 20 or so shows, in around 25 days. It was amazing. Tina had been to France many times and to England, Italy, and Switzerland, but for me it was a first. I felt very lucky to be going as young, new wave rock and roller, because people really rolled out the red carpet for us and we met a lot of cool people and just had a ball.”

Martina Michèle “Tina” Weymouth had roots in Brittany, and had therefore taken plenty of trips to Europe, to visit her uncle in Paris or her cousines living in the south of France. In 1978, seizing on a few days off from a European tour with Talking Heads, Weymouth brought Frantz to her Breton mother’s hometown. They’ve been coming back ever since.

“Britanny is just such a great spot. It’s on the sea, it’s beautiful and life is good there.”

“Tina and I go back there as often as we can,” says Frantz, “because it’s just such a great spot. It’s on the sea, it’s beautiful and life is good there.”

Part of that good life includes the indigenous foods and wines of the region, and Frantz is particularly fond of Muscadet, served cold with oysters, mussels or any kind of shellfish.

“We eat a lot of mussels when we’re there and oysters are plentiful there in season. There are also wonderful scallops there. We’ve been in Brittany at all times of the year but obviously the summer is the warmest time of the year. The last time we were there, we stayed for three months and I wish it had been six months. Once you get entrenched there it’s really hard to leave. But then again, it’s extremely remote where we go, so if you’re feeling like you’re missing out on all the excitement, you can get on a train and in two and a half hours, you’re in Paris!”

Just as New York had been to the young art students, the urban environment of Paris has become an inspirational place for them to draw energy from. Talking Heads recorded their final album, Naked, there and their longstanding and current band, Tom Tom Club, has also maintained solid ties with the city of light.

“We still have some very good friends in Paris that we always get together with,” says Frantz. “Usually, when we go from New York to France, we fly to Paris first, and spend a couple of days or more just hanging out and recovering from the jetlag. A lot of that is wining and dining, mostly with our friends like Wally Badarou, who is a keyboard player, and other friends from our rock and roll days. There are so many good restaurants in Paris, of course, but this last time, Tina and I were there on our 35th wedding anniversary, so we celebrated at La Coupole, which is a great restaurant, still. Then, the following night, we went to one called Macéo, which is named after [legendary James Brown sideman] Maceo Parker, which I can recommend.”

talking-heads-4fad81dda164cChris & Tina met while in their sophomore year at RISD, around the same time that Frantz had met David Byrne through mutual friend and jammed together on the experimental music soundtrack for a student film. They decided to start a band, which they called The Artistics. By October of 1974, Byrne had moved to New York City, and Frantz and Weymouth had followed suit. Frantz rented a rehearsal loft, at 195 Chrystie St, in dodgy neighborhood (at the time) but only a few city blocks from the influential rock club, CBGB, which would soon become the birthplace of NYC punk. Frantz and Byrne revisited the idea of forming a band and, after pleading with his girlfriend for months to join them, Weymouth surprised them by showing up one day with a brand new bass guitar she had purchased, on layaway, from Manny’s Music Store.

“She still didn’t own an amplifier,” says Frantz, “but now she had a bass, and the rest is history.”

That history includes changing their name to Talking Heads, adding keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, and going on to become one of the seminal groups of their era, beginning with their debut album Talking Heads: 77, through to Naked, in 1988. While the band formally dissolved in 1991, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and Rolling Stone magazine has recognized them as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

o6c2p4mq1phehpmIn their song “Cities”, Talking Heads once decried the need to “find myself a city to live in,” yet in 1985, after years firmly ensconced in the grimy downtown NYC art world where they first made their reputations, Frantz and Weymouth opted instead to settle down and raise their young family amid the relatively suburban tranquility of small town of Fairfield, Connecticut.

“Used condoms lying around… and really ugly graffiti.”

“Before we moved out of New York,” says Frantz, “we would take our younger son, Robin, to the playground and there would be used condoms lying around and really ugly graffiti. I mean, there was also some beautiful graffiti in the neighborhood, but this was not the work of any of the great graffiti artists; it was just curse words.  In those days you had to be close to New York, and Connecticut is within an hour’s drive from the city. It’s really pretty nice; we get the best of both worlds. If you feel like you’re missing out on something, you can hop on a train and in an hour you’re in New York.”

TomTomBackstageNow recognized as a seminal, post-punk dance rock band in its own right, Tom Tom Club, actually began in 1981, while Talking Heads was still going strong. In addition to presaging the mainstream acceptance of the rap genre with “Wordy Rappinghood”, they scored an early dance club and alternative radio hit with “Genius Of Love”, an infectiously groovy evergreen that namechecks soul artists like James Brown, Smokey Robinson and Bootsy Collins, and a host of other soul, and early rap luminaries such as Kurtis Blow. The track has since gone on to be one of the most heavily sampled dance records in history, used by artists as diverse as Public Enemy and Ice Cube to Mariah Carey, who built her 1995 smash hit, “Fantasy”, upon it.

8In 2012, Tom Tom Club came full circle when the title track from their Downtown Rockers album rattled off a laundry list of punk pioneers from the golden of era of New York City new wave, including Blondie, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Richard Hell, Television and the B-52s. But these people aren’t just legendary names; they are Frantz and Weymouth’s illustrious friends and peers. Indeed, their own legendary band, Talking Heads, gets a shout out. Frantz still recalls the happenstance circumstances that placed him in the right place at the right time in New York City.

“On my first day in New York,” says Frantz, “I went down to meet a friend named and fellow RISD graduate, Jamie Dalglish, who lived on the Bowery. Jamie said ‘Chris, there’s this club across the street called CBGB and there’s something going on over there. I’m not sure what it is but I think you should check it out.’ This woman named Patti Smith was going to be there on the following night. I went to see her — accompanied only by Lenny Kaye — and I got the chills. I just said to myself ‘This is it, I’ve come to the right place.’ So I kept going back and over the next few weeks I saw The Ramones, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, before Blondie, when they were playing in a band called The Stilettos.”

While they are still downtown rockers at heart, and are now empty nesters with grown up sons (Egan is 30, Robin is 26) Frantz and Weymouth are equally at home in the bucolic bliss of Brittany and domestic calm of Connecticut.

“The thought of a guy going in there with a gun and blasting away… you just don’t know how to process it, you know? It’s so wrong.”

That calm was briefly disturbed, however, by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, Connecticut. Frantz, who also hosts a local area community radio show, and who has many friends and co-workers in Newtown, says that he and Weymouth felt a profoundly local sense of loss.

“We live close enough to Newtown, that if we go for a drive or a bike ride in the country we usually go by the town,” says Frantz, “and it’s this lovely, very quaint and just this ideal little New England village. So, the idea that this type of horrifying massacre would happen there was like something out of a horror movie, only it wasn’t a movie, it was real. One of the reasons we moved up here, was so our own kids could go to a good public school that was very similar to the Sandy Hook school. So I know what these schools are like, and just the thought of a guy going in there with a gun and blasting away… it’s the kind of thing that you just don’t know how to process it, you know? It’s so wrong.”

Shortly after the events, the couple got a call from Louise Parnassa-Staley, a former associate of the late CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, presenting them with an opportunity to channel their grief into meaningful community outreach. The current owners of the CBGB brand were attempting to put together a recording of the children of Sandy Hook school singing the evergreen song of optimism, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. Without hesitation, Frantz offered to record the children at the studio he and Weymouth built in their home. He also agreed to produce the track, which features lead vocal and ukulele by fiercely independent recording artist, Ingrid Michaelson.

“It was much better for the children to come just a short distance to our studio than to go all the way into New York City and some kind of atmosphere that would be weird to them. A lot of these kids are six and seven years old. They came with their parents to our home and were very well prepared. Everybody on the project worked pro bono, nobody even took gas money.”

The single, which raises funds for both the Newtown Youth Academy and the United Way of Western Connecticut,  immediately rushed to the tops of both the iTunes and Amazon download charts. For Frantz, it was a way of giving back to a community he calls home.

“I’m happy for them,” says Frantz of the Sandy Hook students who found a way to make beauty from tragedy. “Tina and I feel like we’re elder statesmen now, although we’re still rockin’ and everything. Our reputation is established, so we didn’t do [the single] to try to promote us in any way. We did it to be good neighbors.”

“Home,” the Talking Heads song declares, “is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.”

This must be the place.

ME & TOM TOM

I finally met Chris & Tina in person at the historic 100 Club, Oxford St, London last summer.

2013 – Stuff That Caught My Ear While Driving On The Bay Bridge.

Posted in Uncategorized on December 23, 2013 by pulmyears

NewbaybridgeAs the tape marked “2013” runs off the end of the reel, I thought I’d post a little list of stuff I liked this year. I thought about not doing this at all. I pictured myself having to argue about or defend the choices, or the omissions, in my list. I thought about how much I loathe most of today’s armchair rock criticism, that’s not to say the actual music journalists I look up to and admire. I’m talking about the list mentality, this album good, this album bad, who’s hot, who’s not. That’s a game and a trap and it’s so far away from music that I find myself resisting it like a cat over a bathtub. (I miss my cat).

Ghost Legs (De Young)Another disclaimer, I decided that this was the year I gave up caring about whether I was a good “rock critic.” Maybe another year, I will, but this year I only had an arms length interest in the things that my colleagues were writing (wonderfully eloquent stories) about. So yeah, Lorde seems promising, Haim are really fun, that Beyoncé surprise album was a huge success, and Drake and Yeezus all took up a lot of music journalists attention. Oh and who couldn’t get into “Get Lucky,”  Daft Punk’s jam with Pharell and Chic supremo Nile Rodgers? It was the song of the summer. SO you’ve likely read about these guys, all over the place. So you don’t need to hear about them from me.

I’ll admit that much of what I hear in a year comes from things like the MOJO magazine free CDs, and the musical guests on TV shows, and the best being Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Later With Jools Holland.  Pretty much anything that has  already made it through their filters is something that I usually don’t mind at all. For instance, after reading about her forever, I only heard Laura Marling really clearly on Jools’ show, and I liked what I heard.

Screen shot 2013-12-23 at 12.50.51 AMWhen I listen to other people’s albums, it’s usually in our little 2 door Toyota Echo as I drive from Berkeley, into San Francisco. This year, we finally got the new span of the Bay Bridge which is very cinematic, then there’s a tunnel at Treasure Island. The music is playing as I emerge from the tunnel and take in my first view of Alcatraz and “the city” on my right, the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower and  Sutro Tower atop the rolling hills of one of the most picturesque places in America. With such visual stimulus, the music, if it’s right, tends to burn into your brain, locked to picture if you will.

Anyway, I did start to make a top ten list, but as I thought more about it, I figured I’d simply tell you about some of the most memorable 2013 release from these commutes.

Like me, this list is neither important, nor significant, and the list is certainly no time capsule for future generations to study. It’s just stuff that made me really happy on the bridge.

DAVID BOWIE: THE NEXT DAY

David_Bowie_-_The_Next_Day

Early in the year, on January 8, Bowie’s birthday, the old diamond dog proved he could learn new tricks, issuing the surprise single, “Where Are We Now?”  It was wistful, elegant, melancholy even, and Bowie’s voice was older sounding, showing cracks around the edges. The song seemed to say, “Hey guess what? I didn’t die, but I am older now, and you know? I kind of still have something to say.” He was talking about Berlin, which was fine with me as I’ve always had an affinity for his Berlin trilogy, and by the March release of The Next Day album (reuniting him with producer Tony Visconti), it was clear that he was back, for real, a more mature Bowie, but rocking harder than the single indicated. I probably listened to this album for many more months than usual, and repeated listenings rewarded me with deeper experiences, and standout tracks like “Love Is Lost,” “I’d Rather Be High,” “Dirty Boys,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and the title track. It helps that I attended the David Bowie Is retrospective art exhibit at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and that multi-media warehouse of Bowie-nalia solidified my bond with Bowie’s work and legacy. In 2013, David was still an event in himself. No small feat for the man who sold the world.

ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ROOTS: WISE UP GHOST

220px-Wise_Up_GhostEarly this year, Elvis Costello and The Roots confirmed publicly what Roots producer Steven Mandel had told me the year before, that they were collaborating on an album and that it would be out in the fall. Eventually, we learned that the album would be called Wise Up Ghost. As a longtime fan of Costello, and a relatively more recent fan of The Roots, I had high hopes that the album would be a true merging of their approaches. By the fall, it became evident that the sound of Wise Up Ghost contained the acerbic with and snarling bite of Mr. Costello and the cinematic funky jazz (and hip hop underpinnings) that epitomize The Roots. Songs like “Walk Us Uptown,” “Sugar Won’t Work,”  or “Refuse To Be Saved,” could have been from an early Attractions album, but they wouldn’t have sounded quite as fashionably funky. Costello had initially planned to rework some old tunes with The Roots, but Questlove and Mandel had other ideas and luckily Costello was sympatico to their Frankenstein reanimation of the Elvis canon on songs like “Tripwire,” or “Stick Out Your Tongue.”  It works, and new ground was broken for both artists in the process. This is another album that I keep coming back to. Side note: This album also seems to divide some of my fellow Costellophiles, as much as I have championed, I’ve felt push back from some of my friends who just don’t “hear” it. You can’t please everyone, but I’m glad that these guys pleased themselves, and me.

ARCTIC MONKEYS: AM

220px-Arctic_Monkeys_-_AMEver since I heard Arctic Monkeys earliest single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” in 2006, I was convinced that Alex Turner could be one of the greatest British rock lyricists and lead singers of all time, a blend of the poetic swagger of John Cooper Clarke or Mark E. Smith, with the social eloquence of Paul Weller, the sneer of Liam Gallagher, the mischief of Morrissey and even a hint of the post-rock brit-rapper Mike Skinner from The Streets.  I have always liked Arctic Monkeys, but on this year’s AM, it has become clear that not only has Turner fully delivered on his initial promise, but the whole band, including Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley, and Matt Helder,  has also grown into a muscular but nimble strike force. On songs like “Do I Wanna Know?.”  “R U Mine?,” “No. 1 Party Anthem,”  “Mad Sounds,” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” the Monkeys show extreme sonic confidence, bolstered by guest contributions from Josh Homme, Bill Ryder-Jones and Pete Thomas. There’s even one track,  “I Wanna Be Yours,” co-written with John Cooper Clarke, himself. Here’s a clip for “R U Mine?”:

PAUL McCARTNEY: NEW

Paul_McCartney_-_NewYeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It often seems that whenever McCartney releases an album, the faithful among us all rally and say “Paul’s still got it” and “This is a return to form,” but in truth it isn’t always the case, and I never even bought Memory Almost Full or Kisses On The Bottom. New actually has more in common with Chaos And Creation, and just as with David Bowie, it’s the sound of a man raging against his own legacy, while also aging gracefully as he embraces the pop language they created. If he sounds like Wings on “Save Us” or the Beatles on “Queenie Eye” are you really going to call him a copycat? Maybe you are, but I say he’s earned it and I love that he’s still got the spark. I think part of it is that he’s still living his catalog, putting on a fantastic show with his current band, who’ve been with him the longest of any of his backing bands, and (check this for me) possibly as long or longer than the Beatles were even together. For this reason, I think the past lives within him in the present, he’s always in touch with his whole catalogue, and has a band that can ground him, so he’s very much in the present and likely will be in the foreseeable future. McCartney recorded tracks with four distinct producers: Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles Martin who was also executive producer. Martin and Johns are both the sons of men who produced the Beatles (George and Glyn), so for sure the title track may be a bit too on the head Beatle-wise , but in context of the more naked songs like “Early Days” (his voice cracking in a way that reminded me of Johnny Cash’s American recordings) or the hidden track “Scared,” this album could even be compared to his earliest solo works, such as Ram or the sanctified Band On The Run. I’ve come back to New many times since it came out in October and  songs “Save Us” or “Appreciate” still have power.

SAM PHILLIPS: PUSH ANY BUTTON

SamPhill“It’s easy to change your name but hard to change your life,” sings Sam Phillips in “Pretty Time Bomb,” one of 10 slices of hard fought wisdom from her tenth studio  album, Push Any Button. And Sam should know a thing or two about change, her career path is a textbook story of change and reinvention. Phillips is stretching out and doing things her way on this album, her unique voice draws you in to hear her clever wordplay, and her production with The Section’s Eric Gorfain is elegant and refined but never laid back. The gentle chug of “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You” unfolds a laundry list of revealed knowledge,  while the galloping gait of “When I’m Alone” makes it kind of an anthem for individualism. The backing horns on “All Over Me” are playful and boisterous, and the extended string coda on “See You In Dreams” reminded me a little of the strings on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” After learning the ropes when she was with T Bone Burnett, Sam is finally taking control of the sound, and proving that it may not always be easy to change, but if you’ve got the talent and the voice, it can be done. This audio-only YouTube clip showcases Gorfain’s strings on “See You In Dreams”:

THE ORANGE PEELS: SUN MOON

PEELS SUNMOONI know I am duty bound to full disclosure in that Allen Clapp of The Orange Peels recently co-produced The Paul & John’s forthcoming Inner Sunset album, a collaboration between myself and John Moremen, also of Orange Peels, but  I really must say that Sun Moon is a remarkable achievement for this Sunnyvale, California based band, and a worthy addition to my list or anyone’s 2013 list for that matter. Clapp’s been the leader of the band since its inception, and there’s been a bit of a revolving door policy with his band members (save for the constant bassist Jill Pries ) which often made it feel more like an Allen Clapp solo project. But over the last few years, the addition of drummer Gabriel Coan and the repositioning of  John Moremen to straight up lead guitar has given new heft to their sound, providing an earthy foundation to Clapp’s naturally ethereal chamber pop / sunshine sound. And on Sun Moon, the band were invited to collaborate fully on the songwriting, meaning that this year’s Peels is not just a real band, but the grooviest and rockingest Peels ever. So in addition to more traditional Peels fare like “Grey Holiday” or “Watch Her Fly,” Sun Moon also ventures into  prog rock mayhem on “Yonder,”  reveal trace elements of Zeppelin on “All At Once,” and trip subtly into Big Star turf on the short opener “The Words Don’t Work”:

THE BEATLES: ON AIR – LIVE AT THE BBC, VOLUME 2

The_Beatles_-_Live_at_the_BBC_Volume_2How smart of  Kevin Howlett, Jeff Jones and Mike Heatley, executive producers of this project, t0 include all the announcer banter and band introductions on this 37 track compilation of various Beatles radio performances for the BBC between the pre-Beatlemania of March 1962 and  June 1965, a year before they stopped touring altogether. The cumulative effect is that The Beatles: On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2 feels like one big radio show, conveying the personality of the band, the nation’s embrace for them and, significantly, just how good the band who later came to epitomize the idea of studio-only recording,  could actually be without any of the studio overdubs or trickery. Also kudos for the (I have the CD) packaging, with a nifty booklet, proper liner notes, annotations, bonus interviews, and a fairly generous written introduction by Paul McCartney. Beatlemania was real, folks, and On Air provides another historical glimpse at it, in progress.

THE MILK CARTON KIDS: THE ASH & CLAY

the-ash-and-clay-digi-the-milk-carton-kids-290I bought this CD at The Milk Carton Kids mid-November gig at Freight & Salvage, here in Berkeley, which I attended at the invitation of my friend David Owen. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to go, it was three days after we had just euthanized our beloved cat Buddy, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for it. But it turned out to be just what I needed, and I was soothed and captivated by the tight acoustic duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, whose songs neatly pack a ton of musical sophistication into the two voice, two guitar format.  This is a warm bath of delightful songs like “Hope Of A Lifetime,” “Honey, Honey,” “Whisper In Her Ear,” and the title track. So I really have to thank David for inviting me to see this show, I’d see these guys anywhere they play. One minor quibble about The Ash & Clay, though, the recording shows the band to be serious, forthright and evocative of Simon & Garfunkel by way of Nickel Creek, good things to be sure, but their onstage banter is witty and hilarious in a way that I haven’t seen since Nixon drove the Smothers Brothers off the air. So, I tend to agree with James Christopher Monger who wrote on All Music Guide: “…the singin’ and pickin’ is so good that it’s hard not to submit, but one wishes that the pair had decided to infuse the collection with a bit more of their signature wit, as much of The Ash & Clay feels a bit like a serious Flight of the Conchords.”

“Hope Of A Lifetime”:

ARCADE FIRE: REFLEKTOR

81WSbCgAcQL._SL1500_Haters gonna hate, I guess, and I can’t believe how divisive Arcade Fire’s newest album was among my friends and colleagues. But for me, coming in the year of me reaffirming my Bowie worship, the Bay Bridge drive with Reflektor evoked memories of the thin white duke, but also Echo & The Bunnymen, Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem. It’s really neat to see them embrace new textures, and new styles within their huge collective sound. Again, glad I’m not a “rock critic” so I can just come to this without prejudice. Is it the greatest album of all time? Of course not, but for me it was definitely a memorable moment in 2013. Win and Company kept my car running, so to speak.

TELEKINESIS: DORMARION

dormarionI saw the touring band version of Michael B. Lerner’s group Telekinesis twice this year, most recently a couple of weeks ago at The Fillmore, and every time I see them, I leave the show beaming. The Seattle based crew seem like happy people and they make a joyful noise that makes me want to jump up and down, fist pump and sing along. Lerner’s the drummer and singer, so he plays the kit out front when they play live, and on Dormarion, produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno , the drums, drum machines and synth sequences are also out front, but never overpowering the humanity of the vocals or guitars, particularly on the Chris Bell-ish solo acoustic number “Symphony.” Standout tracks are the slow anthemic “Ghosts And Creatures,” and raucous jams like “Dark To Light,” the 80’s New Order vibe of “Ever True” and  the pure rock and roll of “Power Lines” which zapped into my brain earlier this year as I was clearing the toll plaza about to hit the Eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Go see ‘em live, but don’t miss Dormarion either.

“Ghosts And Creatures”

FRANZ FERDINAND: RIGHT THOUGHTS, RIGHT WORDS, RIGHT ACTION

Franz_Ferdinand_-_Right_Thoughts_Right_Words_Right_Action-coverThis album came to me as an advance download from a friend of the band, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted it. I’d liked their first album, back in 2004, but hadn’t really kept up with them. I took a leap of faith and burned the file onto a CD for the car, and took it for a test drive. Soon I was remarking, to myself, that the band were tight, the songs were catchy and singer Alex Kapranos had retained, and refined, his mildly effete, yet confident and playful post-Bowie  charm. Best songs out of the gate for me: “Right Action,” “Fresh Strawberries,” “Evil Eye,” and “Love Illumination.” Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t breaking new ground, but it was a fun listen and sounded great on the drive into the city.

“Right Action”

VAN DYKE PARKS: SONGS CYCLED

Songs_Cycled_coverIt was my musical collaborator John Moremen who gave me a CD copy of Songs Cycled. Like me, John is a big fan of Van Dyke Parks, who as you may know is a master arranger, innovative composer.  Unlike me, John took to Songs Cycled immediately, whereas for me it was a longer road. The first time I went out in the car with it, I couldn’t find an entrance to this lush, often chaotic music. In fact, in the case of the opening track, “Wedding in Madagascar (Faranaina)” I couldn’t even find the “one” beat on my first listen. But I have such respect for VDP, that I did that thing that we sometimes forget to do, try again. You know this man is one of Brian Wilson’s best collaborators, and as it happens, Songs Cycled is purportedly Van Dyke’s first full album since his 1995 Wilson collaboration Orange Crate Art. Regarding this long wait to 2013, I found Van Dyke’s comments to Sonya Singh, to be telling:

“I realized,” Parks said, “I couldn’t get bookings as a performing artist on the road, as it were, I could not make a living in music without going on the road, but I couldn’t get booked without a new product. People say, “Where’s your new album?” Well, I have no new album, and I’m not going to have a new album. They said, “What are you doing?” I’m performing music that I’ve done my entire life that I’ve never performed, and I’m promoting material that I haven’t promoted. They have not considered that opportunity, but I decided I needed to embellish this somehow and convince people that I have a contemporary attitude that’s affected by contemporary results.”

It’s dense, it’s lush, it’s melodic, and rich. It’s Van Dyke Fucking Parks, so put on a bowtie and come to the table, it’s worth your time to try and find this music.

“The All Golden”:

Sparks: Two Hands One Mouth (The Chapel, San Francisco, Tuesday, April 9, 2013)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10, 2013 by pulmyears

photo(2)“I am the rhythm thief / Say goodbye to the beat / I am the rhythm thief /Auf wiedersehen to the beat.” 
   
Russell Mael is 64 years old, but don’t tell his voice and dance moves this bit of unnecessary buzzkill news. An elf possessed, Russell is singing and prancing around the stage at The Chapel, here in San Francisco, even more than he did when he and his motionless brother Ron Mael first formed Sparks at film school in Los Angeles in 1971.

I’m smiling, and a bit relieved. On my way to the show, I’d been feeling down. My wife didn’t want to go to the show, and typically I’m fine flying solo, but as I drove over the Bay Bridge to the city, I started to feel weird. I’d picked up the ticket online at the last minute because I hadn’t been sure the songs work in this stripped down duo setting. It was a warm night on Valencia street, but I still felt uneasy as I parked and went to the will call booth. Once inside, there seemed to be an interminably long wait and the pre-show tape of John Phillip Sousa organ marches kept playing and playing. How much Sousa is too much Sousa? I found out last night. {*note: I have no idea if it really was Sousa, but you get my meaning.]

I was already tired of standing on my feet, the band were a half an hour late. Was this going to be worth my time?
   
“Oh no, where did the groove go, where did the groove go, where did the groove go?”

So there we were, show finally underway, and Russell is accompanied only by Ron on piano/synth for this duo concert, rather more of a retrospective recital, which also happens to be opening night of the American leg of Sparks’ Two Hands, One Mouth tour that will hit Coachella on Friday and wind down in New York (for now) on April 25th.

photo(3)

Ron Mael, who has only matured as a player and composer, will be 68 in August but there are advantages to having always looked like a movie star from a George Hurrell silent screen portrait. He has always had the air of a serious composer, balanced by Russell’s earlier persona as a poodle-haired, if more erudite, Marc Bolan. Today, Russell’s short (dyed?) mop and manically theatrical gestures suggest Dana Carvey in a Beatles wig doing John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig moves. Calm down, I love all those things. And Russell is magnificent.

Their full repertoire is remarkably well-represented on this tour, and fans of their earlier, Island Records albums will be happy to hear cracking duo versions of “Hospitality On Parade”, “Propaganda”, “At Home, At Work, At Play” and, of course, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”, which went over incredibly well with the Chapel audience, who seemed to represent fans from every Sparks era.
   
“This is the number one song in heaven
Why are you hearing it now, you ask
Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine…”
   
The Giorgio Moroder years were perhaps translated most easily to a solo synthesizer accompaniment, however, and versions of “The No. 1 Song In Heaven” “Singing In The Shower” and “Beat The Clock” seemed to answer the earlier inquiries about where the groove had gone.  Ron even surprised everyone by dancing out front, although his vintage steps made him seem more like a bowling trophy come to life.

“A metaphor is a glorious thing
 A diamond ring,
The first day of summer
A metaphor is a fresh air
A turn-on,
An aphrodisiac…
Chicks dig metaphors.
Use them wisely, Use them well,
And you’ll never know the hell of loneliness…”
   
At their cleverest lyrically, the duo versions of songs like the above referenced “Metaphor”, along with “Sherlock Holmes”, “Angst In My Pants” made me realize just how much they are the legitimate fathers of They Might Be Giants, albeit a decidedly more Eurocentric one. In fact, it is only when Ron or Russell speak (and RON ACTUALLY SPOKE, guys, breaking my imagined sort of Penn & Teller fourth wall) that you realize that, deep down, these guys are pure L.A. film school, regardless of how many UK air miles they must have.

photo

Nowhere is this mild thread of (playful) disdain for their own Hollywood backyard more evident than when they performed excerpts from their opera, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman. The songs seem to play on the clash and preconceived notions of high art vs. low art, themes which could also describe a cleverer-than-most L.A. band working with a full thesaurus and more than three chords. Donning a mischievous beret, Ron represented the great Swedish film director as he played the opening chords of “I Am Ingmar Bergman”, and began speaking.
   
“I am Ingmar Bergman. You may or may not know my films. You may or may not know anything about me as a person…” 
   
And then the pull to reveal:
   
“Have you ever felt compelled to do something against your will? I have. I have. You see, I have a total disdain for escapist art, and yet why, on that cold May afternoon in Stockholm in 1956, did I feel the need to enter that movie theater to see escapist art of the worst sort, a typical American action film…well, the title is not what is important. What is important is that I felt compelled to watch that film, against my will, for 90 long minutes. Why? Was it the urge to partake of something mindless?” 
   
After they played a few songs from the work, Russell told the audience at the Chapel that the two intend to take the script for The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman to Cannes in search of backers for a feature film.  I sure hope they get it. 
   
“So when do I get to sing ‘My Way’
When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt?” 

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Soon, the end was near and after an extended encore, the house lights came on and more Sousa marches guided us back out into Valencia street. But the street now seemed a little more alive. Ron and Russell had changed my San Francisco night.

This town was big enough, as it turns out, for both of them.

All photos © Paul Myers 2013

Tower Thunder: A photo safari in which Liza and I go to a ranch to hear loud acoustic music in a cylindrical concrete tower.

Posted in Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 by pulmyears

Last Sunday, Liza and I went on a little road trip up to Sonoma County. I took photos. We were heading up to the Oliver Ranch in Geyserville where philanthropist Steve Oliver displays his privately curated sculpture collection and does various charitable work. Our destination was a benefit concert for the Petaluma Educational Foundation school music programs, the once only performance of a site-specific, commissioned work entitled Tower Thunder.

The 100-acre Oliver Ranch is an “invitation only” exclusive art destination, home to 18 remarkable site-specific commissioned art installations, the most recent of which is Ann Hamilton’s Tower.

According to the Oliver Ranch website, the tower “was the realization of Hamilton’s desire to go beyond the ephemeral nature of much of her oeuvre and create a work of performance of her own design, a solid but living conduit for an ever-changing range of sensory projects and performances. The tower is Hamilton’s first permanent installation anywhere in the world. It took 3-1/2 years to complete, after 14 years of discussion and design.

The Tower is a unique, acoustic environment and a new type of entertainment space defined by two staircases built in a double helix form. One entrance and staircase is for the audience and the other is for the performers. Each staircase is composed of 128 steps that provides seating for the audience. Several openings in the wall allow the body to inhabit the thickness of the wall while in repose. As such, the audience staircase could seat as many as 150 individuals, however 100-125 is the most comfortable. Each performance in the tower are made available by the Oliver Ranch Foundation to benefit non-profit organizations.

The piece du jour, Tower Thunder, was composed by the Central Ohio Symphony’s principal tubist, Anthony Zilincik (seen with hands on railing in my pic below) who is an artist-in-residence at Oliver Ranch.

Tower Thunder a droning, often atonal atmospheric work was written for tubas, percussion, and electronic keyboard, which seems to combine Mr. Zilincik’s (admitted) fondness for the work of Pauline Oliveros, and a probably not intended touch of the Stravinsky-esque side of Jerry Goldsmith’s score from Planet Of The Apes. (Maybe it’s the drums). The work was performed by the Tower Ensemble featuring improvisation by some really gifted Petaluma music students. The musician lined one ring of the two-ringed spiral staircase, and the audience was on the other ring, all the way up and down the tower.

Tower Thunder was written especially for the space and was truly an experience for the senses. Tuba drones that sounded like approaching bombers, and those thundering drums.

Percussionist Christopher Froh on the spiral stairs.

I was really happy that Liza had thought of coming up and it was nice for us to share this musical experience.

And we availed ourselves of the grounds at Oliver Ranch, seeing a few sculpures such as Robert Stackhouse’s “Russian River Bones” (1989).


After a wonderfully inspiring day mingling art and nature, we barreled home across the Richmond Bridge at sunset, Liza driving as I reflected on the day’s memory in our rearview mirror.

Remembering Sam The Record Man (June 15, 1920—September 23, 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 24, 2012 by pulmyears

Sam Sniderman, Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press photo

Sam Sniderman, a/k/a Sam The Record Man has died at age 92 in his hometown, and my hometown, Toronto.

If you’re from Toronto, of a certain age, you’ll recall how important his flagship store, at Yonge and Gould Street (north of Dundas), was to so many of us, when I was growing up back in Toronto. Those who know me in other towns I’ve lived have surely heard me speak (ad nauseam) about Sam’s and the impact it had on me. So many of my first vinyl purchases, back when there only was vinyl and no other format, were made at Sam The Record Man.

Photo by Adam Shax, used without permission, but thanks Adam!

Sam was a tireless promoter of “Canadian Content” back when we Canadians often needed reminding about the inherent value of our local talent, and Sam decorated his store (and later his chain outlets) with banners and markers to indicate  that a record was homegrown, everything from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, to Stompin’ Tom Connors and Anne Murray

And of course Rush, whose “Spirit Of Radio” was used as the soundtrack to this photo show tribute to Sam’s that I found on YouTube:

Oh, then there was The Guess Who, one of my favourite Sam’s stories involves an ad Sam’s had placed in the Toronto Star announcing that you’d get a free Guess Who T-shirt, a white cotton number featuring artwork which depicted a Canadian “beaver” nickel emblazoned with “The Guess Who”, when you purchased “any Guess Who record”.

Dad took me down to get my free shirt. I was spending my own allowance money, so I could only get a 45 single of “Hand Me Down World”. We grabbed it from the singles racks and went to the check out. The cashier said she wouldn’t give me the shirt, because you had buy a whole album, but dad wasn’t having it. He got mad and started making a scene, insisted that “any record” could in fact include a single. This only made the cashier more determined to go full “High Fidelity” on this hothead, and she dug in her heels and refused to budge.

Then, as luck and fate would have it, Sam himself walked over. Having heard the commotion, he was hoping to tamp it down like a Vegas pit boss. When Sam looked at me, nearly crying, and my dad, who was at least making a coherent case that the ad in the Star had been misleading at best, Sam smiled widely reached over the counter and handed me the white cotton T-Shirt. The only size they had was Men’s Medium, which sat on me like an XXL in those days (sigh), but he’d done the right thing. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus, and yes, Paul, there really was a Sam The Record Man. Good on his word, and eager to keep the customer happy, even a scrawny kid like me.

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of storytelling, and workshopping some stories that will end up in a memoir style anthology of stories about how music has been like a thumbtack on the cork-board of my life.  I’m hoping to turn it out in the coming year. Anyway, one of these stories actually started here on this blog, then became a live oral thing, and is now a written up thing. That story is called “Ringo, Django and My Dad” and it concerns the time my late father and I drove downtown to Sam The Record Man, ostensibly so that I could buy The Beatles’ Abbey Road as a birthday present. But when we got down to the store, dad also took me upstairs to the Jazz section, where I had never been before. Here’s an excerpt from that story:

We parked and walked over to Sam The Record Man. I hope that in your lifetime you got to see one of these big, high ceilinged halls of record worship, because they are a dying (or dead) breed.  Sam’s was the Taj Mahal, a multi-storey funhouse of unbelievably deep selection. We found Abbey Road in the front racks, but instead of proceeding to the cash register, Dad had another idea. He wanted to go upstairs to the Jazz section, whatever that was.

I had never been upstairs, before. I didn’t even know Sam’s had a whole floor just for Jazz records. Come to think of it, I don’t think I really knew what Jazz was at that point.

The stairs creaked as we left the rock and roll floor and approached the great, jazzy beyond. Up there, the sounds became quieter; the tasteful honk of reedy saxophones punctuated the swishy sizzle of brushes on drums. Solemn single men, older men, flipped through the record bins with focused intensity, deep in the familiar search mode of the vinyl connoisseur. There was a man behind the counter, and Dad asked the man for something called Django Reinhardt. The man nodded approvingly then lead us to the appropriate section.

What was this magic name dad had uttered? Jango Rine Heart? Was that even a person? Dad told me that he’d recently been listening to the CBC and that they had played a song by Django’s Quintette Du Hot Club De France, and it had reminded him of the first time he’d heard this music, back when he’d been stationed in continental Europe during WWII.

He was excited now, he didn’t buy albums every day and up until now the only records I’d ever heard them play in the house were by Charles Aznavour or the Broadway cast of Camelot, starring Robert Goulet.

We headed to the cash register, both of us thrilled about our purchases, returned to the car, and sped home on the Parkway.”

I can also remember going to Sam’s with my good friends Michael Wojewoda and Dan Derbridge when I was a teenager and we’d buy a bunch of albums, which were heat-sealed into white plastic Sam’s bags, emblazoned with the phrase “Happy Shopping At Sam the Record Man”. After this, we’d go up to Dan’s  house to listen to it all. This was a big part of my development into the kind of music fan, and music writer, I am today.

Original Sam’s artwork by Kurt Swinghammer.

Another great moment at Sam’s happened in the early 90s. By now, the Indie record had become a viable option for Canadian bands, spurred locally by DIY bands like The Pursuit of Happiness and Barenaked Ladies, who had enjoyed retail success with non-label products. Sam’s, always a tireless champion for Canadian talent, had by now started an Indie rack and a chart to track and market these handmade homegrown releases. My old band, The Gravelberrys had been getting a lot of airplay on CFNY, CBC and college radio with our CD, Bowl Of Globes. The week or two (or maybe three) that Bowl Of Globes was  in the Top Ten Indies rack, I would go to the store sometimes twice a day and just stare at it. I’d made a real record, and it was on sale in a real record store. The store of my youth, the store of my dreams. I felt like I’d arrived.

So thank you Sam, for being a Record Man, and thanks for the hours and hours of happy shopping.

Ray-covery: A Ray Davies Birthday List of 10 Kinks Covers.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 21, 2012 by pulmyears

Happy Birthday Ray Davies.

A year ago to the day, I posted a similar blog greeting to Mr. Davies and I added a very basic sampling of Kinks recordings that I like (too brief, because there are really too many great songs). And I’ll repeat what I said then, for it holds today; Ray is considered, by musicians and songwriters like myself, to be a master storyteller (lyric-wise) and an expert melodicist. Unlike many of his contemporaries, save for Pete Townshend of The Who, what set Davies apart from his British Invasion compatriots was that, while all of the bands looked to American (and Black) R&B for their predominant influence, Ray (and to some extent Pete) put not just a London accent on it, he put a London essence into it.

Today, I am posting a brief selection of notable Ray Davies / Kinks cover versions. Call it “Ray-covery” (or  not). So Happy Birthday Ray, and thank you for the days, and the songs.

Note: These are no particular order nor do they constitute the ten best ever Kinks covers, they’re just ten versions that I like. Your own list may differ (Comments section please!) because I’m not like everybody else.

1) “Days” Performed by Elvis Costello.

2) “Waterloo Sunset” Performed by David Bowie

3) “David Watts” Performed by The Jam

4) “All Day And Of The Night” Performed by The Stranglers

Yes, I know and dig the Van Halen and Oingo Boingo versions of this next one, but how about we take the road less traveled?

5) “You Really Got Me” Performed by 801 (feat. Brian Eno & Phil Manzanera)

6) “Victoria” Performed by The Fall

7) “Lola” Performed by Madness

8) “Stop Your Sobbing” Performed by The Pretenders

9) “Sunny Afternoon” Performed by Bob Geldof

10) “Big Sky” Performed by Yo La Tengo

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