Monthly Archives: March 2019

Scott Walker RIP

What Scott Walker meant to me is fearlessness, I think.

Several times in his career, Walker took the brave, adventurous road when he could have had an easier time sticking to what history had shown to work. First he ditched his “brothers” to make solo records that reflected his new and growing love of Jacques Brel. And then he stopped recording Brel to focus on his own material exclusively. Then, after a humbling period in the seventies when at his record company’s insistence he made throwaway light pop records (containing recordings of songs like If and Delta Dawn) and a reunion with Gary and John that had seen them score a big hit with a cover of Tom Rush’s No Regrets, he ripped up the rule book once again to make Nite Flights.

Yet, for all that Scott has been, and will continue to be lionised as an avant-garde talent, it’s worth remembering too just what a good singer he was. His wracked nobility on Make it Easy on Yourself, his bottom-of-the-ocean sorrow on The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, his distracted heartbreak on No Regrets, his provocative glee on Jackie, his simple tenderness on We’re All Alone* – Scott Walker would be one of the greats if we only knew him as an interpretive singer and he’d never written Montague Terrace (In Blue), Duchess or The Electrician.

Ah yes, The Electrician. Somehow it does all comes back to that one. His music got darker than that song. It got weirder. It got longer. But in no other song did Walker find a more perfect balance between his need to give voice to humanity’s darkest emotions and his ability to give those feelings beautiful expression. The Electrician, from its first tolling-bell bass note, casts its spell perfectly every time I hear it.

A fearless writer and a performer of technical and expressive virtuosity – Scott Walker was a true one-off.

*Yes, despite what you may have heard he did make good music between Scott 4 and Nite Flights. Just, not consistently.

 

 

 

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Never Any Clapton, Part 4 – Starless by King Crimson

I’ve written about this one before, so please excuse me for returning to a favourite.

Once again, we must confront the Dark Lord of Skronk. Dare ye look upon his face a second time?

fripp

Oh yeah, Robert Fripp: the gentlemanly looking guitar torturer behind some of the finest uses and abuses of the instrument in rock music.

Every solo I’ve looked at over the years has had an emotional point. I’ve never been a fan of shows of virtuosity for their own sake. Robert Fripp’s playing on Starless radiates emotion, though the feelings being communicated are, to say the least, ambiguous.

The song begins in a minor key, with held Mellotron chords. Fripp plays a haunting melody over these chords, demonstrating his total control over tone and articulation. Every note has the right amount of sustain and vibrato. His choice of which string and fret to play the notes is equally precise and assured.

After three verses sung by Wetton (the main writer of this section of the song), the band drop out and Wetton plays a 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, long past the point where it begins to make the listener uncomfortable. Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford go through the sequence a second time, and it’s only towards the end of this repeat that Fripp starts climbing, semitone by agonising semitone, upwards in pitch. As he and Wetton begin to play with more volume and distortion, Bruford (the author of that bass riff) joins in. After another repeat of the full sequence, during which Bruford has kept things moderately quiet, playing games with backbeat placement and generally adding to the rising tension, the band finally abandon restraint and go at it hard.

Fripp plays oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone, Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted, and Bruford switches to the ride, playing less abstractly and more like a conventional rock drummer (albeit one who can count odd-numbered beats in the bar), hitting hard and keeping things straighter. As Fripp goes higher and higher, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking. Finally the tension breaks, and the band goes into a double-time section, with saxophonists Mel Collins and Ian MacDonald playing dueling solos.

What does it all mean, this eight minutes or so of profoundly uneasy music? In an earlier piece on this song, I commented that while the lyric was straightforwardly about a personal pain so deep that the singer becomes unable to experience any other emotion and is thus alienated from everyone around him, the music was working on a bigger canvas:

“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.”

I’d pretty much still go along with that. This music has an evocative power I’ve not heard anywhere else. I’m not sure whether any of what Fripp and co did here was improvised or whether it was all through-composed. I suspect the latter, but either way, it’s guitar playing of the highest order, so far ahead of what the band’s contemporaries were doing in 1974, it’s untrue. It seems scarcely believable that the day Starless was released, the number-single in the UK was Annie’s Song by John Denver, having taken over the day before from Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.

Hal Blaine RIP

Hal Blaine, one of the most prominent members of the group of LA-based session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, has died of natural causes aged 90.

Blaine’s career was truly remarkable. Like the majority of the Wrecking Crew players, Blaine’s background was in jazz. He got his professional start playing with Tommy Sands, but, adaptable and open-minded enough to move into rock ‘n’ roll, Blaine began playing studio dates, and was soon the go-to guy for Phil Spector. His enormous intro to Be My Baby I’m sure you’re familiar with. OK, sure – it is to drummers what the Smoke on the Water riff is to guitarists, but it got to be that for a reason. Great music is about tension and release. That dropped backbeat on the two and the huge reverberant snap on the four is tension and release. That’s why it worked.

The keen student of Spector’s Wall of Sound that he was, Brian Wilson naturally wanted to hire the same musicians and studios as his idol had used, so before long Blaine was playing for LA’s next boy genius. It’s arguably those Beach Boys songs, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds, where you hear the best of Hal Blaine: his taste, his creativity, his avoidance of orthodoxy.

But if you’re not a Beach Boys fan, you can still hear Hal doing brilliant, innovative things in hundreds of different musical settings. You can hear him on records by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Byrds, the Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, Glen Campbell, the Mamas & the Papas, John Denver,  Sonny & Cher, the Association, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and Barbra Streisand. And that list is far, far from exhaustive. It’s tip-of-the-iceberg stuff, just what came to mind.

In interviews, Blaine always came across as a very likeable and humble guy. He spoke highly of the artists he worked with, always making a point of saying how much he learned from them playing with them all.

Farewell, Hal, and thanks.

Never Any Clapton, Part 3 – Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival

“It’s the economy, stupid”

That’s what political strategist and Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville said when asked what made John Fogerty a great guitar player.*

Economy – that is to say, careful use of resources – is pretty much the defining characteristic of Fogerty’s Creedence-era music. In this, the band was utterly unlike its peers from across the bay (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and so on), who lived to draw things out on stage, to explore their material from every angle over 10, 15, 20 minutes. Creedence on the whole got in and got out again quickly, and Fogerty was disinclined to include anything in a song that didn’t have to be there. OK, the band had their extended moments (most famously the 11-minute recording of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, but  I think the 4-minute edit with only one solo is self-evidently superior), but Fogerty’s songs are largely pared down to the bone: 2- and 3-minute affairs with two verses and three choruses, usually without a middle eight, and an arrangement based on little more than two guitars, bass and drums.

Guitar solos, too, are rarer than you’d think in Creedence’s music, and often they’re just a few bars long. A couple of bars of through-composed melody (semi-chordal or  pentatonic) to provide a change of feel or texture prior to the final verse or chorus.

A key solo in the Fogerty canon, partly because it was from a relatively early single and partly because it’s so illustrative of his style on so many CCR songs, is the solo from Proud Mary.

There’s a little lick that guitarists love. With your index finger, you play a triad on the same fret across the D, G and B strings (that is, the way you play an A chord), then add your middle finger on the one fret up on the B and your ring finger two frets up on the D. This gives you a triad a fourth above your base chord. You can use hammer-ons and pull-offs to give you all kinds of melodies – single note, double stop or triad- based. You can play this lick starting on any fret, so it works in any key. It’s in innumerable Keith Richards riffs. It’s the beginning of Robbie Robertson’s intro to The Weight. It’s the Rebel Rebel riff, the Block Buster riff. It’s everywhere.

Two thirds of the Proud Mary solo is just playing around with these ideas. The key isn’t the notes Fogerty plays, it’s the rhythm of them, especially when he plays melodic ornamentations like that sliding double stop and that delightful little hoppedy-skippedy tune that comprises the second half of the solo. He’s not just playing straight sixteenth notes or eighth notes with no swing or syncopation; Fogerty absorbed too much from Chuck Berry and Little Richard for that. With him, rhythm is always key, whether he’s soloing or not.

CCR

*I jest, of course. I’ve no idea what kind of music Carville is into. But he lives in New Orleans, so maybe he does like a bit of Creedence. After all, no band from California ever sounded more authentically Lousianian than CCR.

 

Never Any Clapton, Part 2 – Hello by Lionel Richie

I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.

By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louie Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.

The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco).

Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic

He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, I seldom add string bends to my lead playing, as my technique isn’t what it might be even when I switch to a 10-gauge-eqipped electric, so I love hearing a solo that avoids the technique entirely yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.

Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.

In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.

Louie SHelton

*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.