Monthly Archives: December 2013

Trouble in Paradise – Randy Newman

Irreverent, Snide, Acerbic, Bitter, Cerebral, Confrontational, Cynical/Sarcastic, Ironic, Stylish, Wry, Tense/Anxious

All Music Guide’s ‘Album Moods’ for Trouble in Paradise

Randy Newman has always maintained that a professional songwriter should be able to write songs, any kind of song, to order. This willingness to put his own aesthetic preferences to one side and get to work on whatever his commissioners want, coupled with his facility for the job of writing and arranging scores and songs, have made him one of the busiest soundtrack composers in Hollywood for around thirty years now. But it does lead to a huge gulf between what his long-time fans love him for and what he’s known for by a more general audience. It surprises me that to this day there’s not a Randy Newman best-of on the market featuring just his Disney/Pixar songs. Anyone buying Rhino’s 2001 retrospective The Best of Randy Newman hoping for 20 more songs like You’ve Got a Friend in Me will find themselves confronted by Rednecks, Sail Away and Little Criminals. Whether they conclude that Newman is racist, a satirist or a troll may depend on their sensitivity to irony, but still, they’ll get more than they bargained for.

Whatever happened to the old songs, like The Duke of Earl?
Hey Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking Duke of Earl?

Mikey’s

All of which crossed my mind while watching Toy Story 3 on Christmas Day, then I thought about Trouble in Paradise. I couldn’t honestly claim it as my favourite Randy Newman record (that would be a toss-up between his debut and Good Old Boys, which are both of such sustained, stupendous quality that I feel humbled in their presence, when I’m not laughing myself silly at them), but a record with I Love LA, The Blues, My Life is Good, Christmas in Cape Town, Same Girl, Song for the Dead and Real Emotional Girl deserves more press than it gets. That’s a batch of top-drawer songs, whether or not you would listen to Toto guitarist Steve Lukather’s playing in any other context.

Trouble in Paradise is an on-the-nose title for this record. Most of the characters in these songs come by their situations by their own inadequacies; given every advantage, they squander them through stupidity, selfishness and greed. They are the most despicable bunch of creations in popular music, with the possible exception of the losers, dealers, pimps and idiotic cuckolds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho. Like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on that album, Newman does give us a couple of sympathetic characters to cling on to (the put-upon Mexican maid of My Life is Good; Marie – surely not the same Marie from Good Old Boys – who seems to have left the narrator of Mikey’s, and not before time; the addressee of Same Girl, ruthless exploited by her pimp boyfriend), but the songs themselves are narrated by the assholes who abuse and take advantage of them.

The unthinking yuppie of I Love LA, the entitled Hollywood bigshot of My Life is Good (the middle section of that song – the ‘Springsteen’ passage – when Newman lets on that the narrator happens to share his first name and may or may not be himself, is one of the record’s most audacious and funniest passages), the nostalgic racists of Mikey’s and Christmas in Cape Town – these are a grotesque but recognisably human collection of individuals, and they deserve what Newman throws at them. Don’t be fooled by the argument, often used against Randy’s work from Good Old Boys onwards, that these folks are soft targets for Newman’s scorn – not much has changed in 30 years and the world is still full of these people. The shame of it is that while Newman’s doing his stellar soundtrack work, adding to his enormous haul of Oscars and Emmys, he’s not writing more songs like these, and there’s no one else who can do it like him.

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Randy Newman, some time in the eighties


No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 5

5) Revelator – Gillian Welch (solos by David Rawlings)

I love every note that David Rawlings plays. Every clanking, honking, midrangey note. The man’s a genius.

Rawlings is Gillian Welch‘s lead guitarist, harmony singer and husband. The entity that releases records under the name ‘Gillian Welch’ is actually composed of two people: Welch and Rawlings. When singing together, their voices blend seamlessly; when playing guitar, their two approaches mesh perfectly.

Let’s start by talking guitar sounds (always a favourite place to start for me). Welch plays a Gibson J-50 from the 1950s, a spruce-and-mahogany, slope-shouldered dreadnought with the standard upside-down bridge and an enormous pickguard that looks out of proportion to the body. It’s a classic guitar with a classic tone. Rawlings’ choice of instrument is more idiosyncratic: a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop (mahogany back and sides, spruce top). This is not a typical singer-songwriter guitar. It lacks the depth, the roundedness, the woody bottom end, that you’d look for in guitar were you looking to accompany yourself solo. Archtops are thinner, more pinched-sounding, more brittle and louder. They were a response to a particular problem in the pre-amplication era: how to make the guitar audible in a big band. The answer was to incorporate violin-style construction concepts (an arched top, f-holes) to give the guitar more focus in a narrower range, in effect to make it more banjo-like. Now, I’m not a big fan of the banjo sonically, but I love what Rawlings can do with an archtop in the context of Welch’s songs, how the two guitars blend tonally and how Rawlings expertly weaves in and out of Welch’s vocals

This is the essence of being a soloist who plays with a vocalist: knowing when to play and how much to play without taking the listener’s ear away from the singer. David Rawlings walks this line brilliantly. He’s a busy player; he’s not a restrained or minimalist kind of guy. But he plays tastefully. He knows that while every Gillian Welch gig will have a few dozen idiotic guitar fanboys who just want him to play licks (these are the people who’ve sent the prices of second-hand Epiphone Olympics rocketing in the last ten years, because they can’t think of an original idea for themselves), the majority want to hear Gillian sing songs, and so he plays with that end in mind.

So he knows when to play, but how about what to play? I like how little bits of jazz and rock music make their way into his work, how you can always hear in his playing that rock music is where he comes from. When he toured his David Rawlings Machine record a few years ago, he covered Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. It comes as no surprise that the guy who began the third solo on Revelator by playing a repeated aggressive, obstinate Eb over an A minor chord is a Neil Young fan. The whole song, coiled and twisted with tension as it is, has been building up to this one outburst, and when Rawling hits it it’s like an explosion. Time (The Revelator) is full of little moments like this. In fact, they crop up in all Welch’s albums. But this tiny little snippet of music, just a few seconds long, is my favourite in Welch and Rawlings’ whole body of work.

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David Rawlings – he knows how to rock and roll

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 4

Everything you’ve heard about King Crimson is true. It’s an absolutely terrifying place.

Bill Bruford

Blues rock with a contemporary grammar.

Robert Fripp, on his guitar work on Fashion

4) Fashion – David Bowie (solo by Robert Fripp)

Robert Fripp is the Dark Lord of Skronk. The King of Evil Guitar. Dare ye look upon his face?

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This is the mild-manned, gentlemanly-looking guitar wizard who fried the minds of thousands of hippies when King Crimson supported the Stones in Hyde Park a few days after Brian Jones’s death. This is the man whose raging lead guitar on David Bowie’s Fashion is still divisive 30-odd years on, and was trimmed right back for the single mix.

What makes Fripp such a glorious guitarist is his absolute lack of interest in the established grammars of lead playing. Listen to everything he recorded with King Crimson, everything he did with Bowie, with Eno, all his production work with Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and Talking Heads – find me just one blues cliche. Find me a convention that he doesn’t pull apart just for the fun of it before putting it back together with its legs where its arms should be.

The spirit of Fripp is apparent in many guitarists. There’s some of that Frippian bloody-mindedness in Neil Young, in Johnny Greenwood, Andy Gill, Graham Coxon, Joey Santiago. But Fripp’s commitment to his path is so thorough-going as to make him an almost entirely different sort of musician. Not for nothing did he name the first King Crimson album of the 1980s Discipline. Robert Fripp would be nowhere without it. He’s the guitar hero as research scientist rather than Dionysian mystic.

But most Fripp-watchers recognise that while the reputation he has for severity and dedication to his craft and his muse is a justified one, audible in much of his playing, especially his playing outside King Crimson, is the joy of experimentation, the thrill of transgression. His solo at around 2.40 on the album mix of Fashion is the perfect exemplar of this. It’s a solo that could only be played by a tone-deaf beginner or someone who had mastered the instrument back to front and inside out. No one in the middle of those two extremes would begin to play such a solo. It has most of the elements we would associate with lead guitar playing: an ear-grabbing sound, some fast tremolo picking, interesting textures, string bends. Yet the result defies description and sounds like nothing else in rock music.

If you’re not familiar with the man or his work, stop pussyfooting – get some Fripp in your life!

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Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 3

I’ve talked about this song before in more general terms, but this time let’s just focus on the guitar

3) Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay (solo by Jerry Donahue)
I first became aware of Jerry Donahue as one of the Hellecasters, whom I just knew as three older guys pulling cheesy poses in a guitar-magazine advert for some cable they were endorsing. It would never have occurred to me as a sixteen-year-old that any of these old geezers could have made music worth listening to, let alone that the more studious-looking one with the beard and the glasses would end up being one of my very favourite guitarists, the player of one of my favourite guitar solos.

Most of what you hear in Donahue’s guitar playing is country music, and his extraordinary string-bending technique (Danny Gatton called him ‘the string-bending king of the planet”!) allows him to imitate steel guitar phrases very closely, but also in his style is some of that modal, folky weirdness that characterises Richard Thompson’s playing. Donahue is, then, a seamless blend of US and UK, which was what made him so perfect for Fotheringay.

Silver Threads and Golden Needles is an old country-music warhorse that just about every major female singer has recorded, and several of the male singers too. Yet all have taken it in 4/4 at the vigorous tempo of Wanda Jackson’s version. Sandy Denny, when looking to record it with Fotheringay, slowed it down, put it in waltz time, and emphasised the song’s loneliness and dignified vulnerability.

These are the qualities to which Donahue’s two solos respond. His string-bending is rarely better showcased: it’s so human-sounding, plaintive little cries that come from a wound deep within the song. I don’t know whether he recorded those particular solos during the song’s original 1970 session, or more recently, when he produced and oversaw the ‘finished’ version of Fotheringay’s second album that came out in 2008. If they were his original solos, they were amazingly mature and empathetic for a young man. Even if they were later additions, they are still about as lyrical as guitar playing can be. If there were a syllabus for lead instrumentalists, to show them how to respond to the music they’e playing and avoid clichés, this should be on it.

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Jerry Donahue (left, with Telecaster) with Fairport Convention in 1974

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 2

It occurs to me that from the title of these posts, people might think I don’t like Hendrix or Steve Vai. Far from it. I like Hendrix plenty, and I don’t dislike Steve Vai although I wouldn’t want to listen to the majority of his music. I have less than no time for Clappo though)

2) The Tourist – Radiohead (solo by Jonny Greenwood)
If you played guitar in the late nineties, you worshipped at the altar of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead were one of those bands that transcended tribal boundaries. Metal kids liked them. Grunge kids liked them. Punkers liked them well enough too. It seemed like everyone who was into rock music, and certainly everyone who played it, liked them.

For guitar players, the interplay between the group’s three guitarists (Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Thom Yorke) was one of the chief reasons. The other was Greenwood’s furious lead guitar, which was in the tradition of such post-punker players as Keith Levene, John McGeoch, Johnny Marr, J Mascis and Robin Guthrie, and eschewed fast scalar runs and blues licks for textures, noise, dissonance, modal melodies and sheer squonkiness. True, he made use of oblique bends and octave chords – which in lead guitar terms were popularised by Hendrix and Wes Montgomery respectively – so he wasn’t inventing a new grammar of lead guitar out of whole cloth. But he was adventurous, dissonant, unconventional, angular and popular. There are hundreds of thousands of people my age who learned the Complete Works of Greenwood as 16-year-olds. Levene and McGeoch were great players, but in comparison, they are unknowns.

My favourite piece of Greenwood guitar comes at the end of The Tourist, the closing track on OK Computer, when his raging guitar solo shatters the uneasy calm of the song’s previous three and a half minutes. It’s a moment as raw and exciting as his infamous muted grunts just before the chorus of Creep. It’s often said by folks who dislike fast guitar playing that if you can’t sing along to it, then it’s not a good solo. You couldn’t sing along to the solo on The Tourist. It’s not without melody, but the importance it places on tunefulness is way below that which it places on noise, on jaggedness, on impurity of form (remember that The Tourist mixes up bars of 12/8 and 9/8, so the song’s very form resists the deployment of easy riffs and phrases). It’s like some sort of unstoppable eruption.

For a generation of guitar-playing kids, the solo on The Tourist was just the final piece of awe-inspiring guitar playing on an album full of them. And not that Radiohead haven’t made good music since, but the disappearance of Jonny Greenwood the guitar hero is a continuing source of regret to many of us.

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Hurray for Jonny!

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos – part 1

Hi all. I’m working on some longer form pieces for various Christmas-related things, and I don’t want to reprint them here, so I find myself unable to write a standard post this morning. Instead I’d like to talk about guitar solos in series of looser posts over the next few days. I hope you’ll indulge me!

I’ve been playing guitar since 1995. I’ve got a bag of tricks that’s reasonably broad and eclectic. But I can’t play really fast and my string-bending technique isn’t what I’d like it to be, so to my way of thinking, I’m not a real lead guitarist – I’m a good rhythm player who can give you the odd solo.

I’d love to be a proper lead guitarist, to have David Gilmour’s compound-bending ability, to be able to summon up Hendrix-like pyrotechnics, to have the imagination of Tom Morello, the lyricism of Robbie Robertson, to be able to play slide like Lowell George or Bonnie Raitt. It’d be awesome.

I can’t do that stuff, but I spend a lot of time listening to great players, great soloists. Let’s talk about some of them. I’ve resisted any overly obvious choices, or any excessive fret-wankery, so they’ll be no Clapton (if I have to explain why, you’re reading the wrong blog), no Joe Bonamassa, no Satriani, no Vai, and – of course – no Yngwie Malmsteen.

1) Shutout – The Walker Brothers (from Nite Flights. Solo by Les Davidson)
Nite Flights marked Scott Walker’s return to adventurous music-making after an alcohol-sodden mid-seventies lull. He made some great records during this period, but seemingly only by accident, through his undiminished voice and a still-functioning ear for a good cover. But as a songwriter, he was becalmed.

His four songs on Nite Flights (the last Walker Brothers album), then, marked his return not just as a maker of vital music but as a writer of vital music. The Electrician is the song most predictive of his latter work, but Shutout is the ear-grabbing album opener, the statement of intent.

Other than The Electrician, about which a whole volume could be written, Scott’s songs on Nite Flights are built on the ubiquitous late-seventies disco beat, but this is avant-garde disco, post-apocalytpic disco. How else are we supposed to take the gnomic lyrics, of which few lines make much immediate literal sense (these lines include ‘Something attacked the earth late last night’ and ‘There were faces bobbing in the heat)?

Les Davidson was the guitarist given the job of playing the song’s solo. Having to make your guitar sound like Bad Things Are Happening is always a fun challenge, and Davidson takes an ear-grabbing approach. Rather than go for sheets of noise and texture (perhaps he would have done if it had been made just a year later), he instead goes for face-melting speed. He’s present at the start of the song, playing a howling, string-bending lick in the intro, with its piercing feedback-laden sustain, but it’s at 1.03 that he really makes his presence felt, with a solo so unexpected that you’re left stunned at the inappropriateness of it all. Within a few years, every single note of Davidson’s 27-second solo would be a cliche – every idea, every phrase, every legato run pounded into the dirt by overuse. But in 1978, high-gain, high-speed soloing was still novel (Nite Flights was recorded the same month that the first Van Halen record was released), and in the context of this sort of record, vanishingly rare. Obviously enjoying it, the producers (Scott Walker and Dave McRae, though I suspect that Scott took the lead when producing his own songs) push the solo proudly to the front of the mix, almost as a provocation.

Davidson went on to a stint in Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and has played guitar with Joan Armatrading, Donovan, Mick Taylor, Paul Rogers, Pete Townshend, Rumer and Laura Mvula. It’s this solo, though, that will be his epitaph.

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Scott Walker

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Les Davidson

Five tips to help you record better drum tracks

OK, so I’m no Steve Albini, but I’ve learned a thing or two about recording drums these last few years, and maybe I could help you if you’re starting out with this stuff.

1) Check your phase relationships
The more microphones are pointing at the same sound source, the more you’re going to battle with their phase relationships. (Which are frequency-dependent!) You can’t assume that more mics on the sound source will make it sound bigger. There’s a good chance you’ll make it sound smaller. When you’re putting eight or so close mics on a drum kit, which is a biggish but not huge sound source, you’ll have to pay very close attention to the relationships between the mics. This isn’t merely a case of, say, making sure your snare mic plays nicely with the overheads. What’s it doing to the rack tom? What’s the tom doing to it? If you increase the high end on the tom, what’s that do to your snare sound? Too wiry? Too much hi-hat? This stuff is crucial.

2) Don’t default to using every mic you have access to
Think about the demands of the ensemble you’re recording. Do they need a hyper-modern, very controlled and processed 16-mic drum sound? Maybe they’d sound better with Bonham-style drums? In which case, keep four of them and forget about the other twelve.
And it’s not just a case of different set-ups allowing you different sounds. A 4-mic set-up of close kick and snare mics plus a stereo pair – not necessarily overheads; perhaps one in front looking down and one over the floor tom looking across will sound better – with its simpler set of phase relationships will very probably give you a more focused drum sound than an 8-, 12- or 16-mic set-up. Maybe that’s what the song needs?

3) Use room mics (or not)
If you want an ambient sound – or you think you might need one and want to keep your options open – try recording real ambience rather than adding digital reverb effects. If you’ve got access to a good room and you put a good drum set in it, with a good drummer playing it, your work is done for you. Walk around the room while the drummer plays and listen. Put a mic in a spot where it sounds good. Repeat.

4) Tune
Learn how to tune a drum kit. It takes a bit of time to learn what to listen for and to know how to produce certain effects. But using half a ton of moongel, or tightening the skins up so they sound like timbales, won’t cut it. Make sure the heads are fresh enough to be worth bothering with and learn to hear when a drum is in tune. If you’re an engineer who can tune drums, clients will love you for it.
I took lessons from a drum teacher to help me with this. Just something to consider.

5) The best-laid plans of mice and men
Maybe you have a set-up you like. Maybe you record your own band’s drums a certain way, and it’s always sounded good. Maybe you’ve recorded 10 different drummers in different rooms playing different kits, all with this one micing plan, and it’s always sounded good.
That’s great!
But the next drummer who walks through your door could have a crazy set-up. Maybe he puts his ride cymbal half an inch from the floor tom. Maybe she has a rack with six toms and a set of rotos. Maybe he plays two kick drums, and now you need a mic for both. Arrgghh.
Drummers are entitled to put their stuff where they want to, so you’ll have to work round them. Be ready to improvise, don’t get flustered. Blind dates can be scary, but you might learn something you can use again in future. How much you can stumble on and then remember is key getting good at this.

And here’s a bonus tip.

6) Don’t process needlessly
When you mix, don’t smash your drums out of habit, or a sense that you ‘have’ to. The excitement in a recording comes from the transients. If the drummer is consistent in performance, why compress the tracks to within an inch of their life? The only good reason would be because you like the sound of them that way. In which case, smash away, with my blessing. But maybe the song would sound bigger and more exciting with an uncompressed drum sound?

Enjoy!

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This is how they did things in Ringo’s day

Nighthawks at the Diner/Small Change – Tom Waits

An inebriated good evening to you all. Welcome to Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge.

Tom Waits, Opening Intro, Nighthawks at the Diner

It’s somewhat predictable, I suppose, that when I’m in the middle of a recording project I tend to listen to music in an even more drily analytical way than normal, and that I become fascinated by the technical details of recorded music.

I’m once again in the middle of a little spate of recording – working on my own stuff, some finer details of James McKean’s next album, and the beginning stages of some songs with Sumner – so my mind turns to the minutiae of recording processes again. I’m also in the middle of a little Tom Waits binge, having put a CD of some favourite Waits stuff together for Mel, who (like me) loves The Heart of Saturday Night but (unlike me) hasn’t heard too much outside that, or been too keen on what she’s heard. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change, the two albums that came after Saturday Night and which, taken with it, make up the crucial three records of Waits’s 1970s career.

The two albums see Waits diving further into his persona as hard-drinking nighthawk, with a humour that grows increasingly dark and suffocating during Small Change. It’s a pretty hard-going album for one that contains so many belly laughs (and if you don’t find nine-tenths of Step Right Up, The Piano has been Drinking and Pasties and a G-String hilarious, Tom Waits is probably just not for you): Tom Traubert’s Blues and (while a much less successful song) Bad Liver and a Broken Heart constitute a pretty heavy pair of emotional statements, all the more impressive when you read on the sleeve that Small Change was recorded live to 2-track.

If this doesn’t mean much to you, let me explain. Records, since the 1950s, are customarily multi-tracked. Whether recording to 4-, 8-, 16- or 24-track tape or to a computer, multi-track recording allows you independent control of the elements that are recorded. Say you’re recording a band to 16-track tape and you want to get a live basic track and do no bouncing. You might set up 6 mics for the drums, one each for guitar and bass amps, two on a piano and one for, I dunno, saxophone, and you’ve used 11 tracks of your allotted 16, leaving you five open tracks for vocal overdubs and maybe a solo or some percussion. Then you mix down the recording to another tape machine, this time a 2-track machine, creating the final mix in the process. What Waits and producer Bones Howe were doing was collapsing all of this into one process. Waits, his piano, band and orchestra, all in one room, all miked up, but printed to 2-track tape there and then (the two tracks referred to here being the left and right tracks of stereo) rather than at a later date. This was old-school recording – the take had to be nailed when played or the clunkers would be audible in the finished version, unless you had a very similar take from which you could edit in the necessary parts, which is difficult to do seamlessly, particularly on live-performance takes. That Waits was able to nail whole takes of emotional, lyrically complex material live in a room with a band and orchestra says a lot about his skill as a performer, and a lot about the trust that he and Bones Howe had in each other. Small Change, then, for all the questions the listener might have about the ‘reality’ of the Tom Waits persona and vocal style, is musically speaking exactly what it appears to be. What you’re hearing is what happened.

In contrast, Nighthawks at the Diner, the live record that preceded it, isn’t quite what it appears. It’s a high-concept, highly produced studio concoction. ‘Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge’ was in fact a studio in the Record Plant, done up with tables and a bar for the occasion, the punters friends of Waits and his manager Herb Cohen. The band included Jim Hughart (also on Small Change) on bass and Mike Melvoin (the father of Wendy Melvoin, of Wendy and Lisa, and the late Jonathan Melvoin, the keyboard player who died of a heroin overdose while touring with the Smashing Pumpkins) on piano. The record was recorded over two nights, two ‘shows’ per session, the best performances making it to the record. At its best it’s a really fun album – the intros are very funny (often more compelling than the songs they’re introducing), and the set-pieces, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I, are the absolute best examples of Waits’s small-band-jazz-plus-beat-poetry thing. But as a whole it’s too long, and the songs with tunes don’t really have tunes, not like Tom Traubert’s Blues has a tune, say. If your patience for Waits is limited, or you’re too busy to hear both, get Small Change and let Nighthawks alone if you must, but you’ll be missing out on Nighthawk Postcards’ uproarious used-car-salesman bit, and that’d be your loss.

So Nighthawks is somewhat less a live album than it appears to be, and Small Change somewhat more. Never trust a record producer is today’s moral, I think.

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Bones Howe’s set-up diagram for Nighthawks (reprinted from Sound on Sound)

The lay of the land, 6th December 2013

It’s the end of another working week, but this is an important day for me for deeper reasons than that.

A year ago today – Thursday 6th December 2013 – I was in Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire having a CRT pacemaker fitted. This was to cure an arrhythmia that I had been left with by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, without any obvious cause, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. It’s a disease that kills people. It killed professional footballers Marc-Vivien Foe and Miki Feher while they were on the pitch. It killed a young player named Mitchell Cole, brother-in-law of Joe Cole (their shared surname was a coincidence). It nearly killed Fabrice Muamba while playing for Bolton against Spurs. The list of US sportspeople it’s killed is long and, frankly, pretty scary. It killed the peerless Leonard Rossiter just before he went onstage in London in 1984. It’s pitiless in its ability to kill suddenly, with no warning and no prior symptoms.

I was very, very lucky, because I did present symptoms. They were mis-diagnosed at first. The primary symptom was a very painful, distended abdomen, along with fatigue and shortness of breath. The swollen belly was diagnosed by a locum at my GP’s practice as acid reflux for a while, until 23rd December 2011 – my 30th birthday. I’d called the doctor in a panic and begged for an appointment, as this was very close to Christmas and my legs had now swollen up too. I hadn’t slept properly in a few weeks, was now at a stage where I couldn’t sleep at all (because I couldn’t lie on my back without coughing, and in any other position my stomach was too painful to allow me to sleep) and was terrified of being stuck in this condition until after Christmas. When she saw me stagger in, breathless, I saw her reaction, and I’m pretty sure we both knew I was in trouble. I was advised to go to hospital straight away, where I was admitted and where I stayed for 12 days while my condition was stabilised with medication, the fluid I had retained drained from me with loop diuretics (I came out of hospital about 20 pounds lighter than I went in – no exaggeration) and tests run on me to see what was going on, and while I tried to get used to the idea that, at just 30, my heart had failed.

It didn’t look all that positive. Gently, with a compassion that still makes me emotional, the staff at Southend Hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit tried to bring me to an understanding of what this meant: I would be greatly physically impaired, I shouldn’t expect to ever work again, to have a family, to reach old age. I might need a transplant, if I could get a donor organ.

I was eventually discharged, and I tried to live as much like before as I could. I went out for the pitifully slow and shaky daily walks I’d been advised to take – half a mile long, or less – which tended to wipe me out to the point of needing to sleep straight after. I looked into what financial safety nets there were for someone who couldn’t work, only to find they were being taken away. I got angry about that. About everything else I was just numb.

But all through this time, though I couldn’t yet feel it, my heart – quite against statistical probability – was healing, and six months later the tests that had been done on me (echocardiograms, MRI scans, endless ECGs and blood tests) revealed definite progress. By the autumn, it was clear I’d got a lot better, but still having an arrhythmia, my heart had plateaued. So I was offered the chance to have a CRT pacemaker fitted. This thing sends electrical signals to put my heart back in synch with itself, and this, exactly one year on, has allowed further healing. I go running – slowly, and not far, but I go running. I lift weights – not heavy weights, like before, but I can do dumbbell curls. The last echo scan I had done suggested an ejection fraction of around 50%, which is the lower end of normal, but is normal. When I was discharged from hospital, it had been 15% (my blood pressure had been so low my GP’s equipment couldn’t measure it, and when I stood up, my heart rate was 120 bpm. My resting heart rate is now 60 – again, low, but normal).

All this is a lot to take in, and a lot to go through, but the key fact of it is that I’m still here, and I bear remarkably few scars for it, of any sort. I’ve been unbelievably lucky. I owe everything to the skill of my doctors, the care of my nurses, the support of my family and friends and to luck. Luck most of all. I am reminded of that every time I go to a cardiac clinic and sit in the waiting room with people, some younger than me – not even in their twenties – who have been less lucky.

And my life now is completely unrecognisable from 18 months ago, entirely unlike what I had been preparing myself for. In the last few months I’ve started a new job in London, moved into a flat in south London on my own (something else that looked unlikely two years ago was that I’d ever again have that kind of independence) and started playing drums in a new project. I’ve also had the good fortune to meet Melanie, the most wonderful person I know, whom I love and am loved by, and whom I gain strength from every day. So a year on, this is how it stands. I’ve never been happier, and am damn near as healthy as I ever was.

To bring things back to this blog for a second, the events of the last two years are why I seldom write about music I don’t like here. The world is full of that stuff, and after all of this, I’m really not that negative a person any more. I prefer to celebrate the things I think are great. I hope that at least some of you are enjoying it, at least some of the time!

And if proof were needed of my restored physical vigour, this is me at The Music Room yesterday, recording drums for Sumner and giving the drums a bit of a battering!

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