Long Strange Trip

Being British, and having only developed a deep love of the band’s music in the last five years or so, I got a lot out of Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, which I caught up with last week on Amazon Prime.

The strongest episodes may have been the last two, which tell the interconnected stories of the groups’s legion of fans, the Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia’s relationship with fame. A natural anti-authoritarian, he refused to assume the role of mayor of a travelling hippie carnival. So while Phil Lesh did PSAs asking Deadheads who didn’t have tickets not to come to the show anyway to party outside (Deadheads routinely did this in their thousands), Garcia couldn’t bear to tell anyone else how to behave. Instead he allowed the fans to do as they pleased, even as his iconic status effectively imprisoned him in hotel rooms for months on end where he ate and smoked himself to death.

The story of Garcia’s final years is as dispriting as late-period Dead shows (on the whole) are to listen to. The band could still rouse themselves occasionally, but Garcia frequently sounded disengaged, his voice worse for wear. The playing, too, could be ragged, the double drums of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann often at odds (truth to tell, I’m a Kreutzmann guy, and he was at his best during the period in the seventies when Hart left the band. Not having to worry about where Hart would be putting his emphases, he could just play his own feel). Yet the fans still turned up by the stadium load, loving Garcia to death, not allowing him any break from the rigours of being a countercultural icon.

Bar-Lev is extremely good at showing how this happened – how the machinery of a veteran band is so big and relentless that no one inside it (or at least, no one actually in the Grateful Dead) really understood what was happening until it was too late. He handles the whole issue sympathetically, and clearly doesn’t blame the band, although one of the talking heads obliquely accuses management of enabling Garcia in his addictions, simply because rehab would have meant cancelling tour dates. The toll such a life took on him was evident simply in his face. When he died, Garcia looked a couple of decades older than his 53 years.

As powerful as those final episodes are, there’s great stuff earlier on too. Joe Smith, the former head of Warner Bros. Records, talking about his strained relationship with the band in its early days is always a hoot. The group’s 1969 appearance on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after Dark is a when-worlds-collide jaw dropper. It was fascinating to hear, too, about how Garcia’s obssession with bluegrass banjo bored his then girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier so much that she ended things with him.

The highpoint of the early episodes is the section about the Wall of Sound. Owsley “Bear” Stanley, maker of (it’s said) the finest LSD anyone on the West Coast ever had, conceived (and largely built) for the band the largest PA set-up in the world at the time. Weighing over 75 tons and requiring four semi trucks to haul it, the system contained 44 amplifiers developing over 26k watts of power, driving nearly 600 loudspeakers and 54 tweeters. Each band member had his own stack directly behind him, and a differential microphone system that cancelled the noise on stage resulting in only their voices being amplified. The sound could be heard clearly a quarter-mile away without wind interference degrading it. It was an awe-inspiring creation, and when the crew and Lesh reminisce about it their enthusiasm for it is palpable. “I loved that thing,” said Lesh, his face shining like a schoolboy’s. “It was like hearing the voice of God”.

There’s good stuff all the way through the documentary. If you’re a fan, it’s a must. I’m one of those who tend to enjoy music docs even when I’m not into the musician being covered, as you still find out things about the era and the history of the music business they operated in. So even if you’re a sceptic, I think you’ll still get a lot from it.

Advertisements

A House is Not a Motel – Love

Laurel Canyon, a rural idyll ten minutes from Hollywood and The Strip, became widely populated after it was settled by developers in the 1920s, who built weekend and vacation properties for wealthy Angelenos intending to spend their leisure time hunting up in the mountains. Later, in the 1960s, Laurel Canyon later became a kind of countercultural centre, as the major names (and many minor names too) of the folk-rock scene bought the funky cabins that used to belong to Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Louise Brooks. Billy James, of Columbia Records, lived there. Mark Volman of the Turtles. Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, members of the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas. Even Frank Zappa.

In 1967, Arthur Lee was one of those musicians. The leader of Love, a moderately successful folk-rock band with increasing leanings towards the orchestrated and the psychedelic, Lee was a well-known, striking figure on the LA scene. The son of a black father and white mother, Lee’s very appearance set him apart in the overwhelmingly white world of rock and roll music in the mid-sixties, and his ornery personality and drug-fuelled paranoia merely added to his isolation. He spent most of his time in his house on Mulholland Drive, listening to the sirens and the traffic noise from the city below, obsessing about what the hell was going on down there.

What was going on down there was a crackdown by the police – begun in the summer of 1996 and said to have been instigated at the behest of local business owners – on the kids who hung out in the coffee shops and drugstores and on the street corners of the Sunset Strip, with a curfew instigated for kids under 18. The folk-rock scene had inherited the Strip after it was abandoned by the film stars and gangsters that had made it their playground in the 1930s and 40s, and for a while young musicians and the kids who constituted the scene mingled freely (“There was a magical quality to it,” said Billy James; “like a carnival midway,” said musician/photographer Henry Diltz). But in 1967, concerned about what looked like it might be becoming a countercultural uprising, the new Republican Governor of California – a former actor by the name of Ronald Reagan – doubled down. Police were not sparing with their use of the side-handle.

Lee, like most of his peers, was appalled and it was inevitable that his disillusionment, which coexisted cheek by jowl with his native cynicism, would find its way into his music as he convened his straggling, multi-racial band at Sunset Sound to record Forever Changes. Most of the band members were by now strung out on something or other (heroin and acid mainly, but coke probably figures too, this being Los Angeles) and the sessions did not go smoothly at first, requiring producer Bruce Botnik to bring in session players for the first couple of songs tackled during the sessions (Neil Young is said to have been involved in arranging The Daily Planet, too). It’s amazing they got the thing done at all.

A House is Not a Motel is one of the record’s more musically aggressive tracks, with a twisting, knotted tension that is only released by the duelling lead guitars that take over (both played by Johnny Echols? One by Echols and one by Lee or Bryan MacLean? – the two guitar tracks have a very similar tone, suggesting that maybe they’re two of Echols’s takes playing simultaneously). While A House is Not a Motel lacks the orchestration that is the album’s defining musical characteristic, in its mix of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, intricate drums, lyrical paranoia and screaming lead guitars, it’s quintessential Love.

It’s become part of the record’s legend that Forever Changes failed to sell in great numbers. This is partly an exaggeration; the record did stay on the Billboard chart for 10 weeks, and was a top 30 hit in the UK. Given that Love seldom played outside the Greater Los Angeles Area and band relations were so low that Lee turned down most of the opportunities the band were offered, that wasn’t a bad showing. Today, though, with its utterly idiosyncratic mix of psychedelic rock, acoustic fingerpicking, orchestral pop and mariachi brass, Forever Changes is universally regarded as a masterpiece, one of the very finest LA records and a towering achievement that casts a long shadow over everything Lee did subsequently.

arthur-lee-2

Enter a caption

Arthur Lee

Kathy’s Song (Songbook version) – Paul Simon

Managed to score tickets for Paul Simon’s farewell gig in Hyde Park this summer. To celebrate, here’s a look at one of his most beloved early songs. If you enjoy this post, you might like this old one too:

Paul Simon’s first solo record was not his self-titled album from 1971, made in the wake of his split from Art Garfunkel (and one of my favourite records ever). The first album to be released by Paul Simon as a solo artist was 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in London, released in the UK only, and deleted from catalogue at his own request in 1969, at which point he and Garfunkel were among the biggest stars in the world of music, following the back-to-back triumphs of the Graduate soundtrack and Bookends.

In 1964 and 1965, Simon made several trips to the UK on his own, to tour provincial theatres and folk clubs. While he and Garfunkel had already released two albums by January 1965, they weren’t available in the UK. Sounds of Silence would not be released in the UK until 1968, and was available on import only when Simon came over on his solo tours. So the UK arm of Columbia Records (named, confusingly, CBS – confusing because CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, the parent company of the American Columbia Records label of which CBS was the UK offshoot) decided to capitalise on Simon’s growing popularity by having him bash out a quickie album in a cheap studio for UK release only.

Simon cut 12 songs for the record in an upstairs studio on New Bond Street. Compared to his lavish albums with Garfunkel, which were meticulously recorded and produced by the pair’s genius engineer and guiding hand Roy Halee, The Paul Simon Songbook was a low-key, lo-fi affair. Songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each with one microphone, with Simon playing and singing live and minor flubs left in. This is how countless albums by the UK folk scene’s big names were recorded (live to tape, usually in an afternoon), but it’s fascinating to hear immortal Simon songs like I Am a Rock, The Sound of Silence and Kathy’s Song in this more intimate, less controlled setting, the balance favouring his voice over his guitar playing. And of course it’s fascinating in an alternate-history kind of way, too – this is what his records might have sounded like throughout his whole career if he’d stayed at the level of a Davy Graham, Bert Jansch or Jackson C Frank, beloved only by a cult audience and subsisting on the proceeds of small gigs more than from the sales of albums.

Kathy’s Song is one of Simon’s finest early compositions, one of his most deeply felt and most mournful. Simon met Kathy Chitty and the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex, in 1964 and was smitten. They began a relationship and are pictured together on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook, sitting cross-legged on a wet cobbled street, playing with puppets. If that sounds a bit precious and twee, well, Simon was a bit precious and twee in those days. The main fault of early S&G was the duo’s relentless ra-ra earnestness, which clashed with and undercut their wish to be seen as intelligent and bohemian. Yet Simon’s affection for Chitty was real enough; she reappears in one of his greatest songs, America, and he was hit hard when she ended their relationship. While travelling around on tour with him in the US, she realised how big he and Garfunkel were becoming off the back of The Sound of Silence and she wanted nothing to do with that life.

So she returned to England and now lives in a village in Wales. Simon re-recorded Kathy’s Song for the S&G album Sounds of Silence and went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. The first version of Kathy’s Song captures him at a moment before he chose the life of a star over the life of a folk singer whose heart lay not just in England, but in my own county of Essex.

The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios. If the history of recording technology interests you, or of the British music industry generally, read this article by a former mastering engineer at the studio.

Featuring “Birds” – Quasi

Featuring “Birds” is one of my very favourites. When it came out in 1998, it sounded like no other album I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs with immediately memorable pop melodies, and then buried them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord (a chintzy electronic keyboard from the late 1960s). Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney’s drummer), meanwhile, played drums with frantic, nervously twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

The album sets out its stall immediately with Our Happiness is Guaranteed. Weiss plays a syncopated pattern with improvised rapid-fire fills while Coomes makes as much noise as possible, segueing into the song proper via a series of tone clusters (there’s a melody in there, but the harmonies applied to it seem to be a result of keyboard mashing) and a brief riff that recurs prior to every subsequent verse. The song, when it begins, is a sci-fi fable with a sing-song melody, which Weiss harmonises sweetly. The whole thing is over in under three minutes.

The tension between the group’s melodies and its casual dissonance and sonic aggression made the music thrilling to me, as did the unconventional song structures (many tracks are just a verse and a chorus, or even just a verse on its own) and Weiss’s gonzo drum fills, which sounded like her mind was only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she didn’t quite know where she was going to go next. The musical tension may well have been fed by personal tension, too; Weiss and Coomes had been married but were already separated by the time of Featuring “Birds”, and as the group were a two-piece, there was no one else to defuse things when they got heated. I imagine the rehearsal studio was an interesting place to be at times.

The album is full of songs like Our Happiness is Guaranteed – wonky little tunes that are definitely pop, but that are skewed by Coomes’s sardonic delivery and the group’s full-bore commitment to its sonic aesthetic. I Never Want to See You Again, California (with its hilarious intro: “life is dull, life is gray/at its best, it’s just OK/but I’m happy to report/life is also short”), the surprisingly poignant I Give Up and Nothing from Nothing are all gems, and Please Do shows that Coomes could even rival his friend and sometime bandmate Elliott Smith with an acoustic guitar in his hand and nothing but his fingerpicking to fall back on.

Alas, the group couldn’t repeat the trick. Field Studies, from 1999, was a less frantic affair all round, and saw the group diluting its signature sound with more electric guitar and piano, less distorted keyboard, and more bass guitar (courtesy of a guesting Smith). It also saw Coomes’s chippy observations losing their freshness and becoming dulled by his reliance on unvarying end rhyming and repetitive melodic phrases. I checked out after Sword of God, which suffered even more badly from the same problems (and also sounded rubbish, as the group had recorded themselves), and never really picked them up again. But I still come back to Featuring “Birds” and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with any love for 1990s indie.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, Part 5

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a series of posts going over Aimee Mann’s solo records, discussing how her music had developed in arrangement, production and instrument sounds over more than 20 years.

Just towards the end of that process, she previewed a couple of songs from upcoming album Mental Illness, starting with Goose Show Cone. It sounded nice enough but I’d basically listened to no one else for three weeks and I’d had my fill of her music for a while. I figured I’d pick it up at some point soon, but in the event it wasn’t until last week I actually got round to listening to it in full. I’ve listened to it maybe five times now, and I think it’s her strongest in some time, probably since Lost in Space, 15 years ago.

The obvious things first. It was trailed as being her folk-rock move, but it’s actually more of a soft-rock move. In interviews she’s talked a lot about Bread and David Gates as a reference point, and while there are no songs that particularly put me in mind of Bread, the record does seem to be harking back to that era, the early 1970s, with its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and extensive use of vocal harmonies.

It’s a modern record though, so the sounds are bigger, closer and flatter, and there’s a bit more processing on the vocals than I’d like, but overall it’s a nice-sounding album. The string arrangements by Paul Bryan and the harmonies sung by Mann, Bryan, Jonathan Coulter and Ted Leo are the defining musical elements of the album, but drummer Jay Bellerose deserves a lot of credit for his playing on the record. He allows himself to play a full drum kit on only a handful of songs, instead adding shaker, bells, tambourine and other percussion in little touches, here and there – nothing intrusive, nothing that doesn’t serve the song.

As has been the case with Mann’s last few albums, the songs chosen as singles, Goose Snow Cone and Patient Zero, are not necessarily the strongest on the album. Goose Snow Cone suffers from the same malady that afflicted the singles from 2008’s @#%&*! Smilers, 31 Today and Freeway, where the verses and the choruses are each composed of one melodic phrase repeated four times. The (very well sung) vocal harmonies add interest to Goose Snow Cone, but still, it’s a little repetitive over four minutes. Patient Zero, meanwhile, suffers from being a little lyrically involuted. Mann wrote it, she has said, about meeting Andrew Garfield at a party before his career had taken off and thinking he “was obviously kind of freaked out about the vibe of being in that rarefied movie star atmosphere” – which is fine, but why does that make him patient zero? I’m not sure what she’s saying by invoking the term, which is synonymous with the phrase “index case” – the first documented patient in the onset of an epidemiological investigation. The whole song rests on a metaphor that, right now at least, doesn’t reveal itself to me. Neither of these are bad songs, and nor is Lies of Summer, even if it is a musical retread of the brilliant Guys Like Me from Lost in Space, but they are a step down from the best material.

Rollercoasters is a beautiful, painful portrait of someone, possibly with bipolar disorder, unwilling to let go of their life of emotional extremes. On Good For Me, Mann gives voice to someone who knows she’s pursuing a terrible relationship, but can’t stop herself; her high notes are a little huskier than they were, but Mann’s voice is still devastating in its upper ranges. You Never Loved Me has one of Bryan’s best string arrangements, never taking the spotlight from Mann’s vocal or the lovely harmonies.

I’m pretty delighted by this record. Mann, in my view at least, peaked with the Magnolia/Bachelor No. 2/Lost in Space triptych, but that was fine as even on the downslope of her career each new album had three or four really solid songs that I could add to my Aimee Mann playlist. But Mental Illness is way better than that – Mann sounds fully engaged and genuinely enthusiastic about her art for the first time in three or four albums. If you’ve lost interest in her work over the last 10 years, do spend some time with this one.

This week in spurious lawsuits: Radiohead sue Lana Del Rey

At the risk of making myself unpopular…

The Radiohead/Lana Del Rey lawsuit is super depressing for anyone who thought Radiohead were good guys. And, I admit, I did.

The similarities first. Creep is built on a continuously repeating four-chord pattern: G, B minor, C, C minor (or in musicological terms, I-iii-IV-iv). Get Free has the same progression in its elongated verse/bridge section. Its chorus is a different progression. The vocal melodies are quite different, but in places the phrasing of Get Free is somewhat similar to Creep – where the vocal starts and ends in relation to the bar lines.

I suspect this latter detail is what their case will hinge on because the idea of Radiohead suing anyone for writing something harmonically similar to Creep when they themselves were sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood for Creep’s harmonic similarity to The Air That I Breathe (made famous by the Hollies) doesn’t pass the laugh test. Or, rather, it shouldn’t if the judge has any musical literacy at all.*

For what it’s worth, I think the idea of a songwriter suing another over shared chord sequences is inherently bullshit, and analogous to suing over similarity of drum pattern. Chord sequences have been used and reused thousands of times by thousands of songwriters. At what point do you say a chord pattern is well known enough to not constitute one writer’s intellectual property? The very common sequences ii-V-I and I-V-vi-IV seem to be safe. I-IV-V (the basis of the vast majority of blues songs) is definitely safe. So why is I-iii-IV-iv so (fucking) special that Thom Yorke thinks he owns it (or rather co-owns it with Hammond and Hazlewood)?

As for the melody, there’s a bit of a resemblance, but it’s not so marked that you’d be able to pick out the similarity if someone sang you the two tunes a capella, one after the other.

Comments in the press have been predictably depressing, with loads of people taking Radiohead’s side just because they’re Radiohead and Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. Which is no less depressing just for being predictable. Accidental resemblances to other people’s work are bound to happen within pop songwriting when tens of thousands of new songs get written every year. There are two responses possible – everyone can sue everyone for everything all the time. Or, everyone can acknowledge that they themselves have at some time written something that’s a bit like something else without realising, and therefore choose not to be obnoxious about enforcing copyright. Take the high road. Be a grown-up.

A curse on Radiohead’s house if they don’t call off their lawyers. Or perhaps David Byrne can teach them a lesson by suing them for 100% of all past and future earnings for ripping off the name of one of his songs for their band name.

*Judging by the history of copyright-infringement suits, few judges do have any musical literacy. Expect Radiohead to win.

One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.