Monthly Archives: May 2015

Give some to the bass player, part 6 – It’s My Life by Talk Talk

I live in London, I studied in London and have lived in London for seven of my 33 years, but I’m not really that metropolitan a guy. I come from a town called Leigh-on-Sea, which is the 20th-century outgrowth of a medieval fishing village nowadays known as Old Leigh, all of which has been absorbed into the larger unitary borough of Southend-on-Sea. Southend has a certain reputation amongst people who don’t live there, one it tends to embrace to its own detriment. I wasn’t born there, my parents don’t come from there but I’ve lived there for two-thirds of my life and in some fundamental way I still think of Leigh – oh, all right: of Southend – as home. London is 40 miles, and a psychological world, away. When I arrived at university, I couldn’t have felt more like a kid from the boondocks. Everyone, every single full-of-shit 18-year-old kid I met who lived with their parents the week before, seemed more sophisticated than me.

London’s musical history isn’t something I take any great pride in, then. As the capital and absolute centre of the UK music industry, London has some kind of claim on the vast majority of music that’s come out of these isles. And when you come from a town in the shadow of London, there aren’t many local heroes. In Southend we’ve got Dr Feelgood (actually from Canvey Island, but close enough), Eddie & the Hot Rods (ditto), the Kursaal Flyers, Gary Brooker and Robin Trower from Procol Harum, some of Busted, My Life Story, Tina Cousins, the Horrors (who got the hell out as soon as they could), a few members of Menswear. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about many of them.

We also have Talk Talk, whose connection is a little tenuous. Paul Webb and Lee Harris went to school in Southend, and Mark Hollis’s brother Ed managed Eddie & the Hot Rods.

Talk Talk are the best we’ve got, the only group in that list who have produced genuinely classic albums (apologies to Procol Harum).

Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are monumental pieces of work, deeply atmospheric and hushed, with songs that take days, or even weeks, to seep into you but will undoubtedly do so if you give them the time they need. They’re the band’s most celebrated work these days (amazing to think that the 1992 Rolling Stone Albums Guide gave Spirit of Eden precisely one star – “Instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year”), but the group are remembered, if at all, by more casual music fans for their early singles: Talk Talk, Today, It’s My Life and Life’s What You Make It.

The slowest burning of slow-burning hits (its highest chart placing – 13 – in the UK came the third time it was released, in 1990), It’s My Life, for all its synth hooks and seagull noises and Mark Hollis’s tremulous vocal, derives its force from the drive provided by Paul Webb’s fretless bass, the song’s restless heart. Without a guitar to compete with, the bass dominates the track completely. No Doubt’s flat cover, which replaced most of the keyboards with Tom Dumont’s guitars, only proved how good the original arrangement was. Credit, then, to the best rhythm section ever to come out of Southend, Essex.

Paul Webb
Paul Webb, Talk Talk’s bass man

Give some to the bass player, part 5 – Everybody’s Been Burned by The Byrds

When the Desert Rose Band’s Love Reunited reached number 6 on the US Country singles chart in 1987, to be followed shortly thereafter by number-two hit One Step Forward, it seems likely that few among his new audience recognised the group’s lead singer, Chris Hillman. Then 43 years old, he was an overnight success who’d already been a success for 20-odd years, having been a founding member of the Hillmen, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Desert Rose Band apart, Hillman has had a happy knack all through his career of putting himself where interesting things were happening.

Although the Byrds’ music was dominated by vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar, Chris Hillman’s fluid, jazzy bass guitar was a hugely important element of the band’s sound.

Hillman was not originally a bassist. His first instrument was the mandolin, on which he learned to play bluegrass as a teenager. None of the Byrds were rock ‘n’ roll players, really: perhaps that’s why the band’s take on rock ‘n’ roll was so singular. Hillman took up the bass guitar when asked by Jim Dickson whether he’d be interested in joining the fledgling rock group Dickson had started managing. The group already had guitar players in McGuinn and David Crosby (as well as Gene Clark, who played tambourine on stage but was a perfectly competent guitarist, too), but Dickson must have been impressed by Hillman’s musicality and figured that he’d be able to make the switch. Possibly this explains an approach that was far more concerned with melody than it was with locking in with the kick drum (although, pity the bassist trying to lock in with poor, tragic Michael Clarke, whose kick was never quite in the same place twice).

The Byrds are still, even today, a common reference point for other bands. Yet when music is described as resembling that of the Byrds, usually it’s the group’s early work that is being talked about: the 12-string-driven folk-rock of the band’s first two records. This constitutes a pretty small fraction of the Byrds’ output, and a tiny chronological span of around 12 months, from the recording of Mr Tambourine Man in January 1965 to when Turn! Turn! Turn! was released in December 1965. By the time their fourth album, Younger than Yesterday, came out in early 1967, the Byrds were all over the map.

McGuinn-sung Dylan covers (a reading of My Back Pages that is completely definitive – far better, if far less famous, than their Tambourine Man) were still part of the mix, but so was the satirical So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, with its Hugh Masekela trumpet solo, Crosby’s raga-like Mind Gardens and no fewer than four Chris Hillman songs, pointing forward to the group’s pioneering country-rock work, and back to the Beatles obsession that had drawn Clark, McGuinn and Crosby together in the first place.

It may be true, as my old college friend and all-round musical confrère James McKean once put it imperiously, that it’s no one’s ambition to one day be as good a songwriter as Chris Hillman, yet those songs of his on Younger than Yesterday are all strong efforts, and I imagine McGuinn was somewhat stunned to find his bass player writing or co-writing five songs on an album with only 10 originals on it. So Hillman was the album’s MVP even before one takes into account his sterling work on Crosby’s Everybody’s Been Burned.

Everybody’s Been Burned had, apparently, been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007 chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and had been demoed several times already for previous Byrds records. The one I link to, which you can find on Preflyte Plus, is stunning in its own right, but the take that made its way on to Younger than Yesterday is among the very best things the band ever did, with one of Crosby’s finest vocals, and instrumental performances by McGuinn and Hillman of intuitive genius.

It’s not exactly jazz, but the sensibility is close – Hillman seems less concerned with what Crosby’s chords are than he is with burrowing down deep into the song’s emotional core. His basslines are similarly wide ranging on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Renaissance Fair and Draft Morning from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but in terms of empathy and understanding with a singer and songwriter, this is Hillman’s most shining moment as a bass player, and he remains a curiously unsung figure.

Hillman
Chris Hillman, in his ironing-my-hair-straight days

Give some to the bass player, part 4 – How the West was Won and Where it Got Us by R.E.M.

Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.

Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.

These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.

Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.

But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.

But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.

It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.

The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).

There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.

r.e.m1996
R.E.M. circa New Adventures; l-r Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

Give some to the bass player, part 3 – What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson had no peer. Even at Motown, who could also call on the services of Bob Babbitt in Detroit and Carol Kaye and Wilton Felder in LA*, Jamerson stood tallest, at the apex of the art.

The factory ethic at Motown instilled by Berry Gordy militated against too much individualism on the part of its players. Stylistically, the musicians that came to be known as the Funk Brothers played in a house style. Jamerson was the wild card. Jamerson could not be constrained. His outrageously (in their context) chromatic, syncopated and rhythmically complex lines seemed to come from somewhere deep within him, and he was wisely given the freedom by Motown’s producers** to play what he felt. Any of the bass players associated with Motown could play tight, tidy, groovy lines. Only Jamerson could rip your heart out.

His bassline on the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been admired and deconstructed by fans for four decades now, and it remains a thing of wonder. The story, whether it’s true or not, goes that Gaye was determined that Jamerson should play on the track and tracked him down, already drunk, at a local club and asked him to come by the studio. Jamerson, too drunk to sit upright, played the line horizontally. Arranger David Van DePitte claims to have written a part for Jamerson , which the latter played verbatim. If so, he captured Jamerson’s style perfectly. Listening to the isolated part, I find it hard to believe that all the little Jamersonian licks were written by Van DePitte, but then we are talking about a couple of musicians of the very first rank.

The fluidity, the sheer ease, with which Jamerson plays these complicated runs (listen to the part he plays on the B chord at the end of the first verse to hear the sort of thing I’m talking about) is what defines him as a player. Most of us can’t get near this. When most of us play complicated stuff, we make it sound complicated. Jamerson made it sound beautifully simple.

*There’s an extremely long-running controversy over the authorship of bass parts on Motown records, with Carol Kaye laying claim to some parts that thitherto had been considered signature Jamerson performances (I Was Made to Love Her is the most contentious). Kaye has an impeccable CV, so one would assume no reason to fabricate a story like that. Still, it’s hard to give her story much credence when numerous Motown insiders have denied it. Can they all really be complicit in a cover-up?

**Jamerson had the great good fortune to work under producers and songwriter-producer teams including Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Henry Cosby and Norman Whitfield. None of them got where they did without learning to get out of the way of genius.
Jamerson
James Jamerson (left)

Give some to the bass player, part 2 – In Bloom by Nirvana

When discussing Krist Novoselic’s role in Nirvana, it’s tempting to fall back on the bass-player cliches: he was the steady one, he was the logistics guy, he kept the band grounded, and so on. All of which is true up to a point. He was a steadying influence, and his playing is probably the least crucial element of the band’s sound, by virtue of the fact that Cobain’s guitar took up a lot of sonic real estate and that the band had a virtuouso drummer. Yet Novoselic was a huge personality – a loudmouth who would say and do outrageous things behind a bottle of hard liquor or a case of beer – and it was Cobain who wrote all the band’s bios and cover letters and sent endless tapes off to radio and record labels.

But ultimately almost any musician’s main contribution to their band is musical, and Novoselic is by no means the one-dimensional player he’s sometimes perceived as. Sure within Nirvana, he mainly played root notes in eights, a technique we discussed in the previous post, or he doubled the guitar riff, but when he did he ever do so inappropriately? And when he took a different approach, he did so with a good ear and a sure touch. His lines on Love Buzz are the key to the song. He’s at the heart of Been a Son. His part in the verses of Lithium is a classic.

But he’s at his best on In Bloom, a song I’ve looked at before for its drum track. Now, I’m not going to condone piracy, but the multitracks for this song were leaked some years ago and are online if you’re interested in hearing just the rhythm section. Grohl and Novoselic cook up quite a groove in the choruses, and it’s a huge part of the song’s success (along with the instantly memorable chorus and the all-time-great drum arrangement created by Chad Channing and played by his replacement, Grohl).

The key to it is a change in feel, which occurs in both the bass and the drums. In the verses, the hats are played in 16th notes, the kick mirrors it with its stuttering 2-beat pattern at the start of each bar of the verse, and the snare is in quarters. In effect, the right hand and right foot are continually pushing the song forward, while the left hand pulls it back. Novoselic also plays in 16ths, tight little groups of them that follow the guitar part played by Cobain. In the choruses, though, the band loosens its grip. Grohl plays a really cool syncopated kick drum pattern but, cannily, Novoselic doesn’t lock in with it; he swings off it instead.That little jump up the octave when Grohl plays his triplet fills are another lovely touch – very playful.

It’s little details like this that turn a good track into a great one. I’d not call In Bloom my favourite track off Nevermind or anything like that, but when I listen to it, I do think it brought out the best in all of its creators.

Krist
In the 1990s, we wore our basses down by our ankles.

Give some to the bass player, part 1 – California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas

For years I disdained straight eights with a convert’s zeal.

I started playing bass at around 14 when it became clear that my high school friends did not want another guitar player in their band but needed someone to play bass. If I wanted to be in a band, and I did, bass it would be.

We played Nirvana covers and our own songs in that style, so the bass lines were very often nothing but straight eights, just the roots. A one-string version of the guitar part, an octave down – the simplest way to play bass. It worked for Krist Novoselic, it worked for Kim Deal. I was familiar with a few bass players who did more (people such as Colin Greenwood, Mike Mills, Leslie Langstone), but it was never really necessary for me to learn how to play like that.

Locking in to the kick and playing with fingers was something I learned later (when I played in a country/folk band called Great Days of Sail with my friend Yo Zushi) and to this day, even though I know I keep better time playing eights with a pick, I always approach a new song without a pick, and start by locking in with the kick and seeing how that sounds.

It’s needless purism. Plenty of truly great bass players have been primarily (or even exclusively) pick players: Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Rick Danko and Joe Osborn to name just a very few. Joe Osborn is a studio bassist, one of the so-called Wrecking Crew who played sessions in LA and New York for Phil Spector and artists like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Carpenters, the Monkees and Simon & Garfunkel. These folks – a loose network rather than a tight and consistent unit – were some of the best in the business: drummers including Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon; bassists like Osborn, Carole Kaye and Jimmy Bond; guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Barney Kessel; the list goes on. Heavy-duty players.

What’s great about Osborn’s bass line is the way he swaps between locking with the kick in the verses and a more propulsive straight-eights part in the chorus and under the flute solo. It’s perfectly judged, musically astute and surprisingly tough-sounding. However pretty the melody and vocal harmonies are, California Dreamin’ is a song with iron in its heart, and Joe Osborn knew it.

Joe-Osborn-studio

Mamas

top: Joe Osborn, 1967; bottom: the Mamas & the Papas

Pod by the Breeders

Hi there. It’s the day after the UK general election today, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel a great deal like writing anything other than a long, angry rant. But that would just have made me feel worse without actually changing anything. Instead I decided it’d be a good idea to write about something I genuinely don’t have a bad word for: Pod, by the Breeders, a subject I’ve been holding in reserve for a month or so. On another day, my write-up might have been more exuberant, but this is what I’ve got in me today.

A couple of years ago a bit of a, um, splash was made about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ second album, Last Splash. That’s the one with Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Saints on it. I remain unconvinced by Last Splash. I’ll go into bat for Divine Hammer and Cannonball, even if I personally have no wish to hear it again. The cover of Drivin’ on 9 is a career highlight for Kim Deal as a singer. No Aloha and New Year I’ll keep. That’s five out of 15. The rest I’d struggle to say anything about, good, bad or indifferent.

Pod, though. Pod sounds stranger and more wonderful every year. I never stop going back to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to write about it, it’s 25 years old this year.

OK, Mr So Deep, you say. Pod. The one with Tanya Donelly on it, recorded by Steve Albini? Pretty obvious why you like that one more, isn’t it?

Well, I can’t deny my fondness for those two artists. But Pod is Deal’s album. Literally so, as the plan that Donelly and Deal cooked up for the Breeders originally is that they’d make an album of Deal songs before then making a record of Donelly songs (they demoed some of the material that Donelly ended up using for the first Belly record, Star). Deal sang lead and wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod except the cover of the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun.

There’s nothing else like it; the closest I’ve heard is the Breeders’ own Title TK, but that’s a weak brew indeed compared to Pod. There’s a hint of the Pixies (still Deal’s main band at the time, and would remain so for another year or so after Pod’s release) in the way the songs put classic AB form in the service of some unlikely, surreal, subjects. The way that Deal’s and Donelly’s guitars play around each other sometimes recalls the interplay of Kristin Hersh and Donelly on Throwing Muses records (like Deal, Donelly had one more record with her main band left in her at this point).

But even with those precedents, it’s a singular album. The arrangements are sparse – there’s much less of that steady-state distorted guitar that you get on Pixies records – and the record is very “live” sounding: there’s background chatter audible at the end of songs, and all the way through the quiet, spoken intro verses of Metal Man; a spontaneous-sounding outro jam extends When I Was a Painter by over a minute (a long time when the record only lasts half an hour); Deal’s voice breaks into a squeal on Oh! and is left uncorrected. Overdubs sound few, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were none at all.

It’s far from passionless, but it is somewhat detached-sounding. Indeed the album’s most compelling music comes from the tension between Deal’s frequently blank delivery and the themes and ideas that the lyrics hint at but never fully reveal. While dark, the effect is always just short of menacing, since Deal and Donelly are not sparing with hooks. I’ve remarked before on how Donelly’s work with Belly played in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish. Deal’s songs on Pod work similarly. Perhaps this influence ran from Donelly to Deal because it seems to have departed from the Breeders when she left; it’s entirely absent from Last Splash and is only occasionally tangible on later records.

It goes without saying that Pod sounds great, too. Spacious and powerful. With the mixes left relatively sparse and the guitars frequently hard-panned, Pod is as good as it gets for fans of the Albini drum sound. Britt Walford, on loan from Slint and playing under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sounds enormous. And what drummer doesn’t want to sound enormous?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pod and have any fondness for the indie rock music of that era, you are missing out on one of the finest records of its type.

breeders
The Breeders in 1992, circa Safari: l-r Kelley Deal, Tanya Donelly, Josephine Wiggs, Britt Walford, Kim Deal (the Deal sister are identical twins, so if I’ve got them the wrong way round, do forgive me!)

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai featuring Aimee Mann

Unless you’re a fan of instrumental rock guitar music, Steve Vai is likely to be an unfamiliar name. In the 1980s, a school of intensely technical metal guitarists working in what we could call the post-Van Halen style, who came to be known as shred guitarists or shredders, colonised the pages of guitar magazines, defining the parameters of what was thought of as rock guitar, a situation that endured until the early 1990s. When we talk about shred guitar, we’re talking heavy distortion, fast tremolo picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sweep picking, dive bombs with the whammy bar, an exaggerated vibrato technique and 2-handed tapping. Essentially, lots and lots of notes.

Vai was one of the titans of this school of playing. While Vai’s one-time teacher Joe Satriani was given to a notable degree of lyricism in his playing, and Yngwie Malmsteen was identifiable from the pseudo-classical motifs in his work (and his absolute lack of humour about himself), Vai was the weird one. Vai’s the guy who created his own Xavian scale by dividing the twelve tones of the European tempered scale into 16 on a synthesiser and having a custom guitar made to allow him to play his new intervals. Vai’s the one whose career takes in work with Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd and, uh, Whitesnake.

If I’m honest, Vai is someone whose work I was passingly familiar with (one of my best friends in high school was a fan), but who I had put in the “Not for Me” box. There’s a lot of people in my Not for Me box, but nothing in this life is hard and fast: one-time residents of my own Not for Me box include Steely Dan and Neil Young.

Aimee Mann is very much For Me. Singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyricist, undemonstrative, almost conversational singer, big Beatles fan – this is stuff I get on board with. But for someone who’s often been accused of essentially making the same album over and again, Mann’s career is musically pretty wide-ranging, taking in the fractured post-punk of the Young Snakes and the MTV-friendly synth pop of Til Tuesday as well as her solo albums which are more musically diverse than is often assumed – 1995’s I’m With Stupid carried a discernible Britpop influence; 2005’s The Forgotten Arm is a 1970s-style southern rock record; Lost in Space, from 2002, plays with static, white noise and time-domain effects throughout its running time to suggest unknowable blackness and unimaginable distances.

What I’m getting towards is that Mann is an underrated musical force, as opposed to merely (merely!) a songwriter. She was at Berklee College of Music at the same time as Vai, initially as a voice major, before switching to bass and starting from scratch. Til Tuesday’s arrangements often leaned heavily on Mann’s bass playing, from the slap-and-pop riff of Love in a Vacuum to the subtly reggae-influence off-beat feel of What about Love (try singing and playing bass. Now try singing on the beat while playing bass on the offbeat). Listen to 50 Years After the Fair on Whatever where she has the unenviable task of hanging out on bass on while Jim Keltner plays drums; unenviable because, if it hadn’t grooved, only one person could have been responsible. It grooves. I imagine I’m not the only long-time fan who regrets the absence of Mann’s own bass playing on her more recent records.

So when Vai took the advice of his wife (an old college friend of Mann’s) and asked Mann to work with him on a piece he’d been writing, it wasn’t at all the unlikely partnership that it might have seemed on the surface. On No More Amsterdam (as the finished song was called), their approaches meshed beautifully.

The chief pleasure of No More Amsterdam is the contrast between the winding, slowly unfolding verse melody, with its time-signature changes and tricky syncopation, and the short phrases of the chorus that Vai and Mann sing in harmony, which keep climbing in pitch even as they repeat in phrasing. The two singers trade verses (and later on lines within verses), adding a layer of complexity to the narrative – are the “I” and “you” referred to throughout the song stable? In the verses, Vai seems to get all the “I” pronouns and Mann the “you”, suggesting that his character is the protagonist, with Mann an observer, but the song permits other interpretations – it’s a typically clever piece of writing from Mann, the intricacy of Vai’s music pulling something out of her that’s unlike anything she’s done on her own records.

It’s a lovely song, and it’s got me wishing that Vai did this kind of thing more regularly. I can’t think of anything else in my record collection that is comparable musically, and I’m not sure there is a singer-songwriter who has the instrumental chops and inclination to play on this turf. So Vai and Mann had better make it a full album next time.

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Vai & Mann

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton