Monthly Archives: June 2021

A Life in Guitars, part 1 – Acoustics

Here we go. The most self-indulgent series of I’ve ever written. Feel free to skip, unless you happen to be a connossieur of non-vintage, non-collectable guitars.

Over the course of more than 20 years of playing music, I’ve acquired a decent amount of gear, but it’s all workhorse-level stuff. Good quality, but modest in price. Nothing high end, nothing vintage.

For years, this was due to a lack of budget. I tried to make a living as a freelancer in my twenties, but with little financial reward. Later, it became more of a philosophical choice – two different less expensive guitars would give me more tonal options than one more expensive guitar, as long as those cheaper guitars sounded good in themselves and played well. None of which is to say I wouldn’t lay down big(gish) money for an instrument if one came along that I fell in love with, but it’s not something I’ve done up to now, and I think it would take something quite special to make it happen. A vintage Martin or Gibson acoustic – something like that.

I’ve written about my main acoustic before. A 1999 Takamine EN10, it’s been a constant companion for more than two decades, and is the instrument I’m referring to if I say “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, if Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. Cedar top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and that distinctive 1990s Takamine soundhole rosette that always looked smart and no-nonsense to me when I saw them on stage or in adverts, years before I got one. It’s nicely played in (it long ago “let go”, and acquired a woodier, mellower depth than it had when new), and is set up to accomodate heavy, low-tuned strings (I tune CGDEAD). I’ve written 99% of the songs I’ve ever written on it, and the idea of making music without it is close to inconceivable.

Takamine EN10 on stage at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent. October 2019

Its partner in acoustical crime is my 2001 Seagull S12+, bought from Rose Morris in Denmark Street in 2001, with some of the proceeds of a summer spent doing manual labour in the maintenance department at Westminster Cathedral. Unlike my EN10, this model has not not been discontinued and you can still buy something very similar today. It’s £150 more today than I paid twenty years ago, but still, it’s a damn fine guitar at the price. Mine’s got a lot of wear on it – for years it was my main live acoustic guitar in two separate bands – but it still sounds great, and it’s not all that hard to play for an acoustic 12. The string spacing is wide enough to accommodate fingerpicking, but the neck is not so wide that getting your hand around it is an insurmountable challenge. I tune it DGCFAD to avoid breaking too many high Gs.

Seagull 12-string. With James McKean, Dan McKean and Matt Lloyd (hidden) at the much-missed Gladstone Arms

A final flat-top spends most of its time in a cupboard. It’s a Jasmine TS70S from the late 1990s. Jasmines were – and I believe still are – beginners’ guitars made by Takamine. This one’s a dreadnought, laminate top, back and sides but not bad-sounding for all that. I often use it for Nashville-tuned parts, or occasionally for a contrasting tone in a mix that contains several tracks of acoustic. It has a somewhat honky, nasal type of tone that cuts through when paired with more mellow, woodier acoustic tones. It’s not much to look at, but it’s a useful instrument to have around, and it finds its way on to a surprising number of recordings. I also use it live sometimes if I’m playing a gig that, for whatever reason, I don’t want to take my Takamine to.

Jasmine dreadnought, pictured at the foot of the bed. The rug is grey, but looks rather blue here, oddly.

Next time, electrics.

Bad Times Good – Crowded House

A couple of weeks ago, Crowded House released a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first since 2010’s Intriguer. Basic tracks were recorded in LA before the pandemic started, with the rest being finished remotely last year during the pandemic.* The album features a new line-up of the band: founding members Neil Finn and Nick Seymour (vocals/guitar and bass/vocals respectively), along with Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy (guitar/vocals/drums, and drums/vocals/guitar/keyboards) and producer Mitchell Froom (keyboards).

Neil Finn is, of course, the band’s main songwriter, but this record is notably collaborative, with only six songs being credited solely to him. Liam Finn has one sole writing credit, and the other five feature the band members writing in various combinations. With Tim Finn also co-writing one of the songs, it’s a proper family affair.

My favourite, album opener Bad Times Good, is credited to Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn and Nick Seymour. That’s interesting, as there are elements here that feel new to the band’s music and two credited songwriters who’ve not written for the band before. I’ve not been able to find any articles or interviews that shed light on who was responsible for which parts, so at this stage we can but speculate on who contributed what, but it’s still worth having a poke around under the bonnet, so to speak, to see what makes the song go.

First up, it begins in 5/4 time. The chords are (essentially) F and G, with three beats on the F and two on G, but the voicings on acoustic guitar are extended to something that sounds closer to Fmaj7sus2 and G6, with a single note melody line on electric guitar that bubbles away throughout the verse, pattering toms (sounding as if they’re being played with mallets), and touches of keys and piano from Froom.

Frankly, this is not how you write a song if you’re going for mainstream radio play in 2021. The non-standard time signature means that the melody feels weightless and strange the first few times you hear it; emphases seem to be in strange places, and there’s an unresolved quality to it. The extended chords add to the dreamy atmosphere.

Eventually we move to an unstable-sounding E7 before shifting to C (perhaps revealing that we’ve been in C all along, and F and G are the IV and V chords, with E7 as a substitute for Em) and waltz time for the chorus. Still, though, the melody seems to be playing tricks. We’ve just established our key and a stable-feeling rhythm, but Finn answers the short line “Before we choose a path” with a much longer one “(Let’s spend the night at Los Campeneros, please” – a metrical pattern that doesn’t recur outside this line, with a rhyme that isn’t answered at the end of the chorus. The melody is gorgeous, but in a evanescent kind of way. It feels like it might disappear, or slide out of your hands if you try to grab it.

Via another unstable-sounding chord, this time a D major, we go back into the verse, which mirrors the first in form. The next time the chorus comes round, though, it will be extended and get really cool harmonically:

E7 | C | A7 | Dm | E7 | C | D | Dm | Em | Am | A | A7

These are the type of “songwriter’s” chords that anyone who learned guitar by playing Beatles songs will recognise. E7 and A7 as substitute iii and vi chords in the key of C crop up in numerous Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as in those by their conscious inheritors: the likes of Alex Chilton, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, and Neil Finn himself. What I particularly like, though, is the emotional journey you get taken on by the shifts from major to parallel minor, and minor to parallel major. Everytime you think you know where you stand harmonically, the ground shifts beneath your feet.

Major/minor games continue in the middle eight, with its twice-repeated Dm | E7 | C | D sequence. This is the section of the song that will sound most like Crowded House to the majority of listeners, with Finn singing up in his Not the Girl You Think You Are range (that is, his most Lennon-esque range), while the close harmony vocals take full advantage of the possibilties inherent in that D to Dm change halfway through the sequence.

It’s lovely, but the band don’t overplay it. It’s over before it outstays its welcome, and is genuinely only eight bars long (not all middle eights are). From there, it’s back into the verse, and a slow, atmospheric winding down of the song.

5/4 time signature apart, all the elements of the song – the clever chord sequences, the unshowy but intelligently written lyrics, the dreamy atmosphere – are frequently present in Neil Finn’s songwriting, whether for his main band, solo albums or side projects. But still, the song does feel like a subtle evolution for the band, and the shared writing credits may have something to do with it. The rest of the album is good too, if perhaps not quite at the level of Bad Times Good. Some of the more uptempo songs remind me a little of the Go Betweens, while the gentle, predominantly acoustic Show Me the Way (not a Peter Frampton cover) and Too Good for this World (co-written by Neil and Tim Finn) are both lovely.

*In all probability, the band always intended to work this way. A two-part tracking process – full-band basic tracks being recorded in a studio, overdubs recorded remotely by band members using home-recording equipment – is how most rock, indie and singer-songwriter records that feature live drums are recorded these days. Much cheaper than doing the whole thing in the studio.

Before they were famous…

Who’s the biggest artist you saw before they were famous, asked Drowned in Sound on Twitter the other day.

My answer would have to be Muse in 1999, I think. I saw them playing what was then called the New Tent on, if memory serves, the Friday morning of my first (and so far only) Glastonbury.

I try not to be negative in my blogs, only criticising elements in a thing that overall I do like. But, I suppose, some circumstances demand honesty. I didn’t like Muse then, and I don’t like them now. A cross between Nirvana, Radiohead and Queen sounds like a good idea on paper, but something about Muse repelled me and continues to do so. Matt Bellamy’s vibrato-laden voice sounds to me the way that I imagine Thom Yorke sounds to other people. Nails on a blackboard. And being a rather humourless young man (and I was young. Somehow I convinced my parents to let me go to Glastonbury aged 17), I found his wannabe-rock-star stage presence contemptible. The ambition just poured out of him. Urgh. So uncool.

My friends liked them, which just made it worse.

At the same festival, I also saw a similarly not-famous-yet Doves and, because no one else was on so early in the day, Toploader. For my American readers, who I assume escaped them, Toploader went on to release a ubiquitous and absolutely disgraceful cover of King Harvest’s Dancing in the Moonlight. Radio stations then took this ghastly, badly sung recording of what was already an annoyingly repetitive song and absolutely pounded it into the ground by playing it eleventy billion times in the next two years. Toploader remain, by some distance, the worst professional band I’ve ever seen live.

Here’s a crazy thing, though. Muse didn’t end up the biggest act who played the New Tent that year. At least if the poster is accurate,* there were bigger stars in the making at Glastonbury 1999 who I didn’t see. Briefly, the crown looked like it might go to David Gray, who sold five million copies of White Ladder in the UK and seven million worldwide over the first few years of the millennium. But longer term, the winner was Coldplay. I don’t need to tell you what they’ve gone to do. I’m not sure who I was watching while they were playing. If my memory is correct, 1999 was pre-Yellow, pre-Parachutes, so it’s probable I’d never heard any of their music.

I’ve hardly seen any band at a club or theatre gig who went on to great success. I’ve seen some good support bands who went nowhere, and some great ones who were already as big as they were ever going to be. But almost none who became famous. The closest might be Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro, who already seemed a band out of time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Garage at Highbury Corner, and unless I’m conflating two gigs (definitely a possibility!) they were supporting Echobelly. My college friend Ru had recently been drafted in on bass to replace Debbie Smith. I actually thought they were OK; certainly preferable to Matt Bellamy.

I’m unsure what this says about how frequently bands progress from support slots to mega stardom. It may simply be that the sorts of bands I go to see don’t get paired with young up-and-comers who have a genuine shot at a sustained career. Perhaps that’s because most of the musicians I go to see are at least my age if not older. People who go to gigs at the Barbican are not the sort of market that record companies and managers are trying to court for their hot new artists.

*The three artists I most wanted to see R.E.M., Elliott Smith and Sebadoh. The latter two both pulled out. Sigh. I did get to see Smith a couple of times before he died. Sebadoh I didn’t get to see until 2014.

Once Were Brothers – Robbie Robertson & The Band

A songwriter and guitarist of uncommon skill who networked well and has spent most of the last fifty years burnishing his legend when he’s not been composing/supervising movie soundtracks for Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson makes an easy figure to mock*. Even the title of his film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band, betrays his self-importance and his penchant for self-mythologising.

But even for those of us find some of Robertson’s pronouncements self-regarding and pompous (this is a man who once promoted a solo album by proclaiming in all seriousness “I am the storyteller of the shadowlands”), the urge to prick his balloon has to be tempered by recognition of his accomplishments: his guitar playing and the three-dozen or so fantastic songs he wrote between 1968 and 1975.**

All of which is to say, I went into watching Once Were Brothers with a sense of what the film’s line would be, particularly on why The Band broke up in 1976, how The Last Waltz came to happen, and the rights and wrongs of Levon Helm’s subsequent bitterness regarding songwriting royalties and credits. While the film invited contributions from a couple of Levon’s friends and collaborators, it only brought in people who agreed with Robertson’s version of the story, so it ended up as a film with only one voice.

But that’s what I was expecting, so I found it an enjoyable watch, with those caveats. The best thing about the film is the extensive use of candid photos and home videos of Robertson and his bandmates in Woodstock, but also welcome was the testimony of Robertson’s former wife Dominique, who shared her husband’s mix of love for his colleagues, and exasperation towards the drug and alcohol abuse of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.*** Originally a journalist, in the mid-1980s, Dominique qualified as a pyschotherapist, specialising in addiction. This combination of professional pursuits makes her better qualified to tell The Band’s story than anyone, including her former husband, and her input was among the film’s strengths.

If you don’t go into this expecting a balanced account of The Band’s story, it’s hard to be disappointed by Once Were Brothers. As I say, I’m more amused than angered by Robertson’s tendency to self-promotion and practiced humble-bragging; as Katie Erbland observed in a savage IndieWire review, “He’s the kind of guy who thought “The Band” was an “unpretentious” name for the group.” Robertson’s had basically the same shtick since at least the time Scorsese interviewed him for The Last Waltz. Nonethless, it’s a bit of a shame that a more balanced film wasn’t made while Danko and Helm, at least, were still alive to tell their sides of the story.

Incidentally, still the best way to learn about The Band is to read Barney Hoskyns’s Across the Great Divide, which taught me a long time ago that one should love the group’s music while not taking their guitar player at his own estimation.

*My friend Nick Elvin and I have made a sport out of coming up with parody Robbie Robertson song titles for his solo albums. My favourites, all Nick’s, are Fellowship of the Road, Can’t Love for Love nor Money, and No Cards Left to Play, which all capture Robertson in his Somewhere Down the Crazy River mode.

**Not all the best material on Music from Big Pink is Robertson’s, of course, as Manuel figured more as a songwriter on that record, and there are three Dylan co-writes and a cover of Long Black Veil. But The Band is mostly Robertson, Northern Lights – Southern Cross is all Robertson, and other than Manuel’s lovely Sleeping, so are Stage Fright and Cahoots, though the latter has little to recommend it for me.

***Garth Hudson is frequently mentioned as a musical driving force but only heard from directly once, in a 25-year-old interview clip. Presumably he declined to be involved).

Stay (Faraway, So Close) – U2

U2: a punchline for a couple of decades now, reviled for their singer’s messianism and (more pertinently) tax affairs. And truth to tell, never favourites of mine. I always preferred Michael Stipe’s enigmatic mumbling to Bono’s chest-beating. But you don’t get to their level of success without writing a good song or two along the way. Here’s a piece about one of their best.

Not every band that has a good year or two can turn that into sustained success, in which they plough on for a two or three decades, outlasting all challengers while the music scene changes endlessly around them.

It’s really hard. Even U2 – who did put it off – had their difficulties for a few years in the mid-1990s.

Over the course of their career, it’s probably fair to say U2 have been more of a people’s band than a critic’s darling, but for a few years at their peak they managed to pump out records that were both critical hits and a wildly popular with the public – chief among them 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung Baby. When the band released the latter, punters fell hard for One, Even Better than the Real Thing, and Mysterious Ways*, while critics responded positively to the band’s embrace of irony and European-style Po-Mo. After Rattle and Hum, on which Bono’s fetishising of all things American and rootsy and “authentic” had run out of control, Achtung Baby‘s hyperreality and gleeful inauthenticity was the absolute best way to repair their dented critical rep.

The band’s Zoo TV tour continued this new obsession with spectacle and knowing self-parody. The shows were elaborately staged to satirise television and media oversaturation. Bono made prank phone calls to local and national politicians. Giant screens showed constantly shifting images: video confessionals, a belly dancer and live satellite footage from Sarajevo, then under siege.

Conceptual and arty and maybe a little pretentious? Sure, but U2 leavened it with a level of self-deprecation they’d seldom seemed capable of up till that point. Bono played down his rock ‘n’ roll messiah act to portray a literal devil instead, singing a portion of the set in character as “MacPhisto”, complete with devil horns and a gold lamé suit, possibly borrowed from ABC’s Martin Fry.

Zooropa, the 1993 follow-up album to Achtung Baby, played with thematically similar material to its predecessor and the Zoo TV tour. But despite this, it was received more coolly by the public, selling only half as many copies as Achtung Baby. In hindsight, it set the stage for 1997’s even more disappointing Pop, which saw U2 encase their music within so many quotation marks it was hard to know how to take them or their songs. After which, the band dropped the flirtation with irony, costume and surface, and went back to foregrounding reliable old passion and authenticity (cue Beautiful Day, and their best sales figures in 10 years).

A shame, as Zooropa at least still contained good music. In fact, Stay (Faraway, So Close) – written for Frank Sinatra, and featuring in the Wim Wenders movie Faraway, So Close! – may just be the band’s best song. It’s certainly in the conversation, and it definitely has one of Bono’s best lyrics. He’s not a lyricist I’ve ever cared for particularly, but I remember being really struck by the line “a vampire or a victim, it depends on who’s around” when I first heard the song in 1993; it sounded very adult and complex that a person could be neither a goodie nor a baddie, but sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. The best part of 30 years on, I still think it’s a good line. As I got older, I found other lines well observed too, particularly: “Dressed up like a car crash, your wheels are turning but you’re upside down”. We’ve all, I’m sure, seen people go through rough periods when they insist they’re absolutely fine, but everything they do seems like a cry for help they’re unaware of.

That’s what’s great about Stay (Faraway, So Close). For all that he’s spent the bulk of his career dealing in grand gestures, Bono is good – perhaps better – when he’s working at a small scale and not reaching for the cheap seats.** In 1993, they felt brave enough to write a small song, keep it (fairly) small in recording and arrangement, and then release it as a single. But the relative failure of their Zooropa singles set the stage for a few years of declining sales and relevance. Few bands reascend to the top of the heap after losing their way like that; I don’t think it’s been done since.

*The first single from Achtung Baby, The Fly, was a huge hit in Europe, but stalled at 61 in the US. Possibly the American audience didn’t see the need for a U2 that sounded like Jesus Jones fronted by a chipmunk on helium. The American audience got that one right.

** Another U2 song I’ll go into bat for is The Joshua Tree‘s stark Running to Stand Still, for the same reasons that I like Stay (Faraway So Close).