Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Murder of Maria Marten – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Shirley Collins was already a folk-music veteran in 1971. Since 1959, she has released half a dozen records since 1959, including the seminal Folk Roots, New Routes with Davy Graham (1964) and Anthems in Eden (1969) with the Early Music Consort and her sister Dolly on portative organ. She was a – possibly the – leading figure among the younger generation of folk-revival musicians.

As a teenager, Collins had met Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax, accompanying the latter on a song-collecting trip to America. While she doubtless absorbed MacColl and Lomax’s passion for and commitment to the folk music of Britain and North America, she did not contract the disease of dogmatism that makes MacColl in particular a divisive figure to this day. Collins may be emphatically a folk singer in the literal sense – a living link in Britain’s chain of song and not a singer-songwriter like Sandy Denny or a hybrid writer/interpreter like Anne Briggs – but her most celebrated recordings look forward, not backward. It’s all there in the title of that celebrated work with guitarist Davy Graham: Folk Roots, New Routes. How do we take what we have inherited and move forward with it.

The third and last of those three revolutionary albums in her discography is No Roses, the first release by the newly formed Albion Country Band. Former Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchins put the band together as a vehicle for his increasingly deep exploration of traditional British and Irish folk music – work that he and his former bandmates had begun on Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.

Although Richard Thompson was becoming more interested in writing original material than performing the old songs, he was along for the ride on lead guitar, as was Simon Nicol on a rhythm guitar and the Fairport rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. But also present were players of the concertina, fiddle, crumhorn, ophicleide, Northumbrian smallpipes, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and a variety of other decidedly non-rock instruments, and a who’s who of singing talent, including various Watersons and members of the Young Tradition. All in all, there are 27 credited musicians on the record.

The Murder of Maria Marten tells the story of the Red Barn Murder in Suffolk, for which William Corder was hanged. But the record is less notable for the performance of the song than for what it represents. Fairport even at their most traditional featured the band’s original material and an instrumental approach more rock than folk. In contrast, No Roses sees folk and rock trying to come to some sort of accommodation with each other, but with neither ceding much stylistic ground to the other. The effect is sometimes jarring. The fade out from the full-band performance, with a backbeat and chord changes, to a verse sung accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy drone is a crude arrangemental device. Richard Thompson and fiddler Nic Jones solo over each other more than with each other. The rock musicians, schooled in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, are forced to add bars of 5/4 to work with the winding, serpentine melody.

So folk wins in the grand tug o’ war between folk and rock, then? Well, in this case, I think it does. Perhaps because Collins worked at the trad end of the British revival, she was happier for the rock musicians to adapt themselves to suit her, rather than the other way round. But even though primacy is given to folk over rock, few records have so adeptly blended the sensibilities of the two.

*Collins had some choice words about MacColl in a 2015 Guardian piece to mark the centenary of his birth:

“Ewan had quite a pernicious influence on folk music, I think. People who went to the Critics Group ended up being moulded by him, sounding the same. Folk music should be about reflecting music

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Shirley Collins, with banjo

Download single launch/Clapton Print and Zine Fair Links

Hi all. Just some links that may be of interest to those of you thinking of coming along on May 4th or 5th. Do check out the links: much good stuff is to be found.

Mat Riviere

SW London and Surrey Zines Collective

Yo Zushi

Zoe Taylor

Ross Palmer

Board of Fun

33chatsworthRd

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Little Differences/Can You Explain – Free download single, coming soon!

Hi all. I contribute occasional articles to a blog called Board of Fun, which has been putting out free download singles every month or so for the past little while (Yo Zushi, James McKean and Sean King so far). The next in the series is going to be a couple of my own songs, Little Differences and Can You Explain.

Both songs were recorded at home in a one-man-band stylee, although Can You Explain features a guest vocal by my good friend Christopher Martin – not the singer from Coldplay, but the singer/percussionist from Brooking & Martin and former Carterhaugh drummer. Chris and I have been playing music together since the bronze age or thereabouts, so it’s been really cool to work with him on this one. Just as expected, he sang the song brilliantly.

Yo Zushi, the head honcho over at Board of Fun and another guy I’ve been working with for years, has very kindly been putting together a video for Little Differences, which I’m really looking forward to seeing in its finished form. When it’s ready I’ll be sure to link you to it.

In the meantime, this is just a heads-up to let you know that I’ll be playing a set to launch the single at the Dentist in Homerton on Saturday 4th May. This will be my first solo show in over three years! At the same show, Yo will be launching the first of three new albums he’s planning for this year. The record’s called Smalltime and it’s full of the high-quality Zushi pop you’ve come to expect from him. Our special guest on the night will be Mat Riviere, who’s been receiving raves from NME and Artrocker amongst many others. Don’t miss it!

As if that wasn’t enough, the second issue of the Board of Fun zine will be available too, as part of a very special weekend-long launch (on May 5th, the same venue will be hosting a zine fair, featuring the new BoF issue and much more). Another date for the diary!

I’ll be back tomorrow with some links and more info. In the meantime, put 4th May in your diaries and note down this address: 33 Chatsworth Road, Clapton, London E5 0LH. Doors are at 7.30 and entrance will be £4 on the door or £3 in advance. For more information, go to

facebook.com/33chatsworthRd

launch gig

Richie Havens – RIP

Been doing far, far too many of these lately.

Richie Havens was a singer and a guitarist, a much better singer than most guitarists and a much better guitarist than most singers. His propulsive, ultra-percussive, heavily syncopated approach to guitar playing is instantly recognisable once you’ve heard it, and his voice just ached with passion and sincerity. Listening to him sing today, his lack of pretence, his lack of a front, brings you up short. Richie Havens was just himself; he wasn’t playing at being anything or anyone else. Although he strikes me as the kind of man who was probably not big on judging others, it serves as something of a rebuke to a generation of singers who are either unwilling to commit to any genuine emotion or can only emote in primary colours.

His guitar playing – in which his acoustic guitar was usually open-tuned, and held at such an angle that he could fret bar chords with his thumb over the top of the neck – came from the same folk-jazz school as that of Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, but even more than those guys he turned the seemingly mundane act of strumming with a pick into an art form. Watching the footage of his set at Woodstock reminds us once again of how intricate his guitar playing was, how free he was within the beat. For those of us who maybe haven’t given enough thought to our strumming technique (and I count myself amongst them), watching him play is inspiring, if a little intimidating.

Farewell to another one-off.

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Richie Havens. Note the left-hand thumb

George Benson – Give Me the Night

The CVs of George Benson and Quincy Jones are so absurdly overstuffed with accomplishments in jazz that their pop records can seem like mere trifles in comparison. Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning trifles.

Just another day in the office for Q, who won 27 Grammys during his career and more lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees than I can list. In fact, he’s probably won another award since I finished typing that last sentence. But for Benson, making the first record to be released on Quincy’s new label Qwest, this was the peak of his second career as an R&B singer and hitmaker, begun four years earlier with an early vocal performance, a cover of Leon Russell’s This Masquerade (a song that, in truth, Karen Carpenter had sung better. But she sang everything better than everyone else, so there’s no disgrace in that).

Benson had thitherto been known as a virtuoso jazz guitarist, who had played on Miles in the Sky and Songs in the Key of Life. He employed a picking technique adapted from gypsy jazz, and had a way with hyperspeed octave lines that even Wes Montgomery would have envied. If he veered towards the commercial end of jazz, it was by instinct, not because he couldn’t hang with the heavy players. He could play his arse off. But still, if around the time of Breezin’ (1976) you’d been asked which contemporary jazz player might also become a pop star, Benson would have been a good guess, a guess proved right when Benson recorded The Greatest Love of All for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest. I’ll quickly declare a prejudice here: The Greatest Love of All is high up my list of the worst songs of all time. Absolutely loathsome from the first bar to the last. I’m a forgiving guy and don’t hold it against George, Whitney or anyone else who’s committed the aesthetic crime of recording that most mawkish of instant showstoppers, but I’d be very happy never to hear that song again.

Jones clearly recognised a kindred spirit in Benson and so picked him as the first artist for Qwest, setting his A Team to work on the new boy’s next record: engineer Bruce Swedien and songwriter Rod Temperton, the blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. A typically strong Temperton song, Give Me the Night employed the arrangement style developed by Jones for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. Prolonged contact with Benson’s pop work might induce hyperglycemia, but as a one-off single Give Me the Night sits halfway between the revelation of Off the Wall and the apotheosis of Thriller.

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George Benson, octopus hands

Never Goin’ Back – The Lovin’ Spoonful

The conventional narrative tells us that country-rock was the invention of Gram Parsons and his pre-Byrds outfit the International Submarine Band, and that their debut LP Safe at Home was the first country-rock album, finished in 1967 but not released until spring 1968 (by which time Parsons had joined the Byrds, featuring on their seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo, contributing Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years From Now but having a far greater influence on the band’s sound than the songwriting credits and his limited number of lead vocals suggested).

Of course, conventional narratives often leave out thorny little details. Stephen Stills has long argued that the Buffalo Springfield were the true pioneers in the melding of country and rock, and not without some justification. No one seems to speak up for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s efforts in this area, though. From the very beginning of their career in 1965, country music was a recurring strand in the band’s sound. Johnny Cash covered John Sebastian’s Darling Companion (from 1966’s Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, which was recorded a few months before the first Buffalo Springfield album) at his performance at San Quentin prison without changing a single note or inflection in the arrangement. Country licks bubbled up constantly in guitarist Zal Yanovsky’s playing, and Sebastian had a grounding in folk, blues and country that made its way into his original songs as well as influencing his choice of material to interpret.

By the release of Never Goin’ Back, Sebastian had left the band and been replaced as lead singer by the group’s drummer Joe Butler. In addition to this, Yanovsky had been exiled for telling the police the name of his dealer after a marijuana bust (Yanovsky was a pariah in the whole music community for this transgression and he split for his native Canada as a result). In fact, the version of the band that cut Never Goin’ Back contained only Butler from the original line-up. If Darling Companion had been a rock and roll band playing a country song and doing it straight, Never Goin’ Back was a more artful combination of country and rock. The stabs of overdriven guitar from the second verse onwards (and the cowbell!) may signify rock music, but the song itself with its straight-outta-Nashville chord sequence, mournful acoustic guitar intro, its pedal steel its and lovelorn lyric is stone country. But it’s not hammy; there’s no theatrics here, and there’s no gimmicks. They’re not shooting for the same thing they did when they cut Darling Companion but the band’s collective love for country music – and their desire to play it straight – remained, and perhaps it’s because of this gimmick- and attitude-free approach to country material that they are still the key overlooked players in the evolution of country-rock.

I’m not suggesting that the Spoonful did anything as fanciful as ‘invent country-rock’. Even if you do think that genre labels like that have validity, it’s always a simplification to lay that kind of achievement at the door of any one artist. Just having a quick think about it, country songs had always been a part of the Beatles’ repertoire, so they’ve got a prior claim, and I’m sure there are umpteen country records from the fifties that had something close to a straight-eights rock beat rather than a shuffle. Then there’s the Everly Brothers’ entire body of work. But credit should go where it’s due, and the guys in the Spoonful never seem to get a mention in this debate. In fact, they’re overdue for a reappraisal more generally.

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The Lovin’ Spoonful – unacknowledged country-rockers

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 3

As mentioned above, you’ll probably find the results of double- or triple-tracking a rhythm guitar part are more satisfying (bigger, wider, more harmonically rich) if there are tonal differences between the tracks you lay down. So if you’re not Jerry Cantrell, you don’t have Dave Jerden to help you, and you don’t have a bunch of extra guitars or amps at your disposal, think creatively.

Something I’ve done in the past to get round this problem is to lay down the first track with a relatively hi-fi, unprocessed, full-range amp tone, a ‘bass on five, mid on five, treble on five’ kind of tone. This will probably be the bedrock of the overall sound, but not always. Then, for extra low-end grit or to make the blend more aggressive, try adding a second part using a grimy, dirty-sounding distortion pedal (Pro Co Rat, Big Muff, whatever you’ve got – I use a Boss Hyper Fuzz for that kind of tone, which is a pretty crazy-sounding pedal, especially in ‘Fuzz 1’ mode). Then to get a top end that really cuts, try using a wah pedal in a fixed position, not necessarily depressed all the way, but enough that the sound really starts to spit. You may get better results if this layer is less dirty and saturated than the others. Experiment, have fun with it.

Remember, too, that the sound coming out of the amp is just the starting point, albeit a very important one. If you’re recording with an engineer in studio, then you can rely on someone with good ears and a lot of experience to place the mic and negotiate gain scheduling (whether to tape or DAW). If you’re a home recordist, then it’s down to you to make sure that you’re actually capturing your guitar sound with the microphone. Two things: first, small differences in mic placement make an enormous difference to the sound of your recording. Maybe at first you won’t hear the subtle differences between ‘good’ and ‘great’. You will in time. And secondly, this is difficult to do well – don’t beat yourself up if your early experiments don’t go brilliantly.

Once the three layers are tracked, adjust the balance between them to taste. If you’ve got a second guitar, you could repeat the process. Make sure the performances are tight and check your tuning and intonation thoroughly as you go. The more precise you are in tuning and performance, the better the result will be.

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Pedals. Go crazy with them.

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 2

Thinking about it, the tones I admire tend to fall into two categories. There are those arrived by tracking lots of parts with distinct but complementary tones, in order to build up a sound that couldn’t be arrived at with any one guitar/amp combination. Others happen when a player simply has a great tone and the arrangements they’re working with give them the space to let it shine: Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Curtis Mayfield, Andy Summers, Jimmy Page, Roger McGuinn would all fall into this category for me. None of these players functioned in particularly dense musical settings, and certainly none of them (not even Page) made their trademark the kind of persistent, steady-state energy that happens when you put together a wall of a dozen or so distorted guitars.

However, the latter practice is ubiquitous in most forms of modern rock music. At some point – and I guess it happened in the seventies, as 16- and 24-track recording became pretty much standard in professional studios – someone realised that just because the band had, say, two guitarists, that didn’t mean they had to stop putting down rhythm-guitar tracks once they’d done one each. They could do two each. Four each, even. In fact, if they were needed you could bounce tracks together and just keep going.

I don’t know who it was who made this breakthrough, but the practice grew more and more widespread so that for getting on for thirty years now this is how the majority of guitar-based rock music has been produced: drums, bass, then big old wall of guitar, then vocals and solos and any extra bits. An awful lot of real estate, then, both in terms of tracks and in terms of space within a rock mix is given over to creating a bed of distorted guitars.

As mentioned above, a standard way of doing this is to blend together different but complementary tones: a classic example is doubling a powerful midrangey guitar, like a Les Paul, with something brighter and cutting, such as a Strat or Tele. This way you can get a tone on record that you can’t in real life. If there’s a guitar that gives you the sustain and creamy midrange of an LP with the clarity and cut of a Tele, I’ve yet to hear it.

I love this approach to recording guitars. I grew up with it. I do it myself. The first rock band I really listened to as a teenager was Nirvana and I loved the guitar sounds on Nevermind, so hearing Butch Vig take the rhythm-guitar bed on Drain You apart for the Classic Albums DVD was really cool. But Cobain was just the tip of the iceberg: I later came across the playing of Bob Mould, Jerry Cantrell, Kevin Shields and Billy Corgan, all of whom were great at creating a huge wall of guitar by various means. Of course, credit also has to go to the producers and engineers these players were working with: Dave Jerden, for example, who produced AiC’s Facelift and Dirt albums, had a technique whereby he split the guitar signal to three different amps, picked for their qualities in certain frequency ranges, so he’d have one amp to give him his low end, one for the midrange and one for the top. And anyone who appreciates a wall of blazing guitar will tell you that Cantrell’s sound on Dirt absolutely rules.

Other guitar sounds I really love? Angus and Malcolm Young on Back in Black. Bowie on Rebel, Rebel. Nile Rogers on anything. Various Beatles sounds, too: Lennon on Ticket to Ride (the first Beatles record where the guitar is pushed to the point where it’s starting to really saturate and come alive), Harrison’s distorted tone on Strawberry Fields Forever (about 2.55 in), the lead guitar on Fixing a Hole, McCartney’s solo on Taxman. Great stuff, all of it.

I’ll be back later with one little practical tip then I’ll give the guitars a rest for a while.

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Dave Jerden knows how to record guitars and he’s not taking any guff from the likes of you. ©Gonzo Sandoval.

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 1

When you plug an electric guitar into a pedal or two and thence into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier, you’re going to be working with a lot of knobs and buttons: gains, trims, tone controls, pads. Recording electric guitar, then, is an even more complicated endeavour than acoustic guitar. The variables are endless: all the elements I mentioned in the acoustic post still matter (yeah, all the way down to the thickness of the pick and the material its made from), but each element added to the system matters too.

Any young guitarist confronted for the first time by an amplifier with preamp and master volume controls will soon figure out that they can produce the same perceived output volume with wildly different tones by setting those two controls in different ways. Put the preamp knob at 3 and the master at 5 and nice clean tones are your reward; reverse them (that is, pre-amp at 5, master at 3) and perhaps you’re in Keith Richards territory. Go on, play the riff to Start Me Up. I’ll wait here.

OK, so that’s your introduction to gain scheduling. Now add in half a dozen pedals, each with level controls, blend controls, tone controls (yeah, gain scheduling is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal), and you’re now establishing the complexity of the system you’re working with. Scared yet?

I won’t go on about this in detail. If you want a how-to guide, there’s plenty available by folks who’ve done this longer than me. But one final point to get over before we move on. Imagine this scenario: you set up your rig in a room, get your guitar to sound just the way you like it and a sample audience is brought in to hear the fruits of your labours. You play them some riffs. One member of the audience is wildly enthused by what he hears. Another seems to be quite impressed too. Most look blank. A couple have their arms folded and a look on their faces that says, ‘Dude, really?’ One leaves in disgust.

And there’s the rub. At the end of this system, there are a potentially infinite number of human ears that all like different things and that all have their own thoughts about what’s cool, what’s heavy and what’s appropriate to any given style of music, and their opinions are all equally valid (well, some more valid than others perhaps, but in as much as they can listen to your music or not, come to your show or not, buy your album or not, they all have equal commercial power over you). So you might come up with an absolutely killer tone that you love, your bandmates love and that your engineer captures beautifully. Doesn’t mean anyone else will like it.

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Guitar amplifier, with knobs. Weeping sound engineer not pictured. ©Dan Keeble, 2007

Playful, sinister, vaguely surreal – Every Word by Belly

A few days back I spoke about Nino Rota’s Casanova soundtrack playing in ‘that space between the lulling and the nightmarish’ and being ‘playful, sinister, vaguely surreal’. I’ve been searching my iTunes library, trying to find more music that had a similar vibe, but my collection of orchestral/movie music only runs to a couple of dozen records and none of them really had that same feel. But I did remember a record that sparked in me the same kind of associations. It was actually a rock album, Star by Belly.

There’s a moment on Star, more than any other, that most powerfully creates that feeling of the childhood world being menaced by something adult and not fully understood.

Every Word, the fourth song on the record, starts unexceptionally enough, although it sticks with its basic E major to Eb major chord progression long enough for it to set up a palpable tension. But the strangeness really begins after the song’s chorus section (for want of a better term), when the whole things stops and, after the chord is allowed to ring out long enough to make you think the song might be over, it starts again at a crawl. The rest of the song is then taken at a really slow tempo. The sort that you don’t encounter in rock music very often. It’s amazing how you can make something familiar strange by the simple act of dragging it out, slowing it right down.

Over this, a high-pitched melody plays, on an electric guitar doubled by something. A theremin? Tanya Donelly’s voice, possibly, altered, manipulated or repitched? It’s hard to tell, which is the point. Familiar chord changes and rhythms made strange by playing them too slowly. Familiar sounds made strange by combining them with others, by filtering and processing them. Making the familiar strange is what this album does.

Every Word is only the most obvious moment of weirdness on the record. But this is an album that deals over and again with childhood exposure to the adult world, in which everything is weird because of its newness. Or rather, an adult imagining herself as a child, for Donelly was in her mid-twenties and had been a professional musician for seven or eight years at this point. For sceptics of the band, and there were a few, there was something off-putting about the distance between the physical reality of Donelly the grown woman and her child (childish? Childlike?) narrators, a distance made greater by the soft, high-pitched voice she sang the songs in. That vocal tone, which she hadn’t used on previous Throwing Muses or Breeders records and wouldn’t use for Belly’s second album King, was essentially an exaggeration of her normal singing voice. Using her head voice rather than projecting from the diaphragm, accentuating her vocals’ natural airiness and lightness, she made herself sound younger, which perfectly suited the Brothers Grimm world of the album.

But working with these kinds of conceits and affectations without explaining them can lead to misinterpretation, and Donelly came in for some unwarranted criticism from some within the riot grrrl scene for working with metaphor and symbols and allegory (and so obscuring her message), for some of her mannerisms and even for her stage clothes, and above all for failing to make herself and her songs immediately comprehensible.

Whether as a direct result of this flak or not, when Belly next made an album, the tinny, something-bad-going-down-in-Toytown sound of Star had given way to a muscular, live-off-the-floor directness. King was recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas by Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who) and featured minimal overdubs, hard panning, even live vocals. There aren’t many bands with such a small body of work who made two albums so different from each other. The songs were clearly the work of the same writer, but it was as if 10 years had passed between them rather than just two.

I like both albums equally, but Star I tend to listen to less. It has such a particular sound and mood that it doesn’t fit every occasion. When you’re in the mood for it though, it’s just the thing. There is nothing else like it.

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Belly on the beach, 1995. ©Stephen Dirado