Tag Archives: In memoriam

Peter Green RIP

Peter Green passed away yesterday at home in his sleep.

Green was probably the greatest blues guitarist the UK has ever produced. The man’s playing with Fleetwood Mac (the band he founded and named after its rhythm section) in the late 1960s is exemplary. His tone, note choices, phrasing, string bending, vibrato – all absolutely first rate.

Earlier during lockdown I was playing a lot of guitar, trying to sharpen up my lead playing by learning a couple of solos by Green and Mark Knopfler. It was an eye-opening, not to say humbling experience. Yes, I learned the intro and mid-song solos from Need Your Love So Bad and got them to sound passable, but in my hands they sounded like quite generic blues licks strung together over a nice chord sequence. With Green, the genius didn’t really lie in the notes themselves. It was in the phrasing, the split-second placement of the notes. His feel is inimitable. None of his contemporaries – not Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Jimmy Page, nor even Jeff Beck – quite had what Green had. There was an emotion and a lyricism to his playing, a fragility almost, that was both utterly distinctive and completely heartbreaking.

Green was not only first among equals as a guitarist; he was also a writer and a singer of rare talent. Any singer-songwriter would kill to write something as good as Man of the World, but balladry was not the only string to his bow. His work also included Albatros, possibly the greatest instrumental in the history of rock, the Latin-flavoured Black Magic Woman (covered memorably by Santana, of course) and the proto-metal The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown), as well as numerous strong blues tracks like Looking For Somebody and The World Keep on Turning.

Green suffered greatly with his mental health toward the end of his time in Fleetwood Mac and for many years afterwards (he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1970s, and both he and some of his friends believed it was linked to a particularly intense and nightmarish LSD trip in the late 1960s). He gave up music for a time, saying in interviews that he deliberately grew his fingernails very long so he wouldn’t be able to play the guitar. He worked regular jobs where he could to make ends meet, and spent periods completely destitute.

Yet he never went under. While fragile, he survived, relearning how to play guitar after not touching it for many years, and re-emerging into the spotlight to find that he was still loved and admired the world over, including by some of the musicians who inspired him in the first place; his 2000 album Hot Foot Powder, with the Peter Green Splinter Group, featured contributions from Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Buddy Guy, as well as Dr John and Joe Louis Walker. Green was outshined by none of them.

Few guitarists in any idiom have said more in their playing than Peter Green. I’ve no doubt he’ll be remembered and his playing will remain a source of inspiration.

 

Bill Withers RIP

Bill Withers died today of complications related to a heart condition.

Just 14 years separated Bill Withers’s 1971 debut studio album, Just As I Am, and his final record, Watching You Watching Me, which has been more or less written out of history (Withers referred to his career as only being seven years long). His life as a professional musician was neither abbreviated by tragedy like Marvin Gaye’s and Donny Hathaway’s, and nor did it comprise dozens of albums over five or six decades like that of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. At a certain point, after his relationship with his label Columbia had soured to the point that he didn’t enjoy it anymore, he just walked away.

That makes him essentially singular. Fred Neil, who Withers covered on Just As I Am, pulled a similar move, but Neil was never famous like Bill Withers was. Withers would have known that he’d have been welcomed back any time he chose to make a comeback, and been certain of a recording contract and sell-out theatre tours. He chose to stay home. The documentary Still Bill, released in 2009, showed that he still made music, but he was content to share it just with those closest to him. He professed not to miss performing.

No popular musician, it seems, was as unaffected by his success as Withers. He grew up in a West Virginia mining town, a childhood stutter setting him apart and making it hard for him to make friends. His father died when he was 13, and his grandmother helped raise him, as he explained when introducing Grandma’s Hands on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and in several performances on TV. He spent a spell in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer when Sussex Records released his first album and its deathless single Ain’t No Sunshine broke. He was in his mid-thirties, a fully formed adult, sure of himself and not liable to be taken in by anyone’s bullshit. The cover of that first record shows Withers standing outside the factory with his lunchbox in his hand, like knocking off an album with a couple of instant classics was something he just did over a couple of lunchtimes.

That average-Joe quality is key to Withers’s enduring appeal. As Questlove said in a Rolling Stone profile of Withers, “He’s the last African-American Everyman… Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” His music was, like the man himself, without pretension or fuss. He’s the only major soul figure (at least, the only one I can think of) whose music is based primarily on (and is reducible to) strummed acoustic guitar, and his melodies were seldom ornate or intricately decorated. Anyone can sing Lean on Me or Grandma’s Hands. OK, there was that famed lung capacity that gave us the 18-second held note in Lovely Day and the “I know, I know, I know” bridge in Ain’t No Sunshine, but Withers’s voice was not virtuosic. It was warm, soulful and profoundly relatable. It spoke truth, and made that truth powerful through its restraint and simplicity.

We need that voice right now, more than ever. It will live on.

Here’s a truly wonderful performance of Ain’t No Sunshine from the BBC’s archive. Everything about it is perfect. It is, I should say, my profound and long-held ambition to one day be as cool as the bass player we see 1.15 into the song.

David Roback RIP

David Roback has died aged 61.

Between the records this most reticent and enigmatic of musicians made as part of the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star, his legacy as the master of Lynchian, gently psychedelic, neo-classic rock is assured.

Roback started out in LA’s Paisley Underground scene – a close network of post-punk bands whose response to punk was to return to the past, to mine records by the Byrds, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, the Velvet Underground and Love, as a way of moving beyond the musical limitations of much first-wave punk.

Roback was guitarist/vocalist in the Rain Parade, having already been in a band called Unconscious with his brother Stephen and Susanna Hoffs, later of the Bangles. There are traces of his later songcraft on the Rain Parade’s album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, but it was missing something: a great voice to sing the songs. Perhaps Roback knew it, as he left the Rain Parade to form Opal with Dream Syndicate veteran Kendra Smith (a feature of the Paisley Underground was the extent to which everyone played in bands with everyone else – hence the existence of this).

During the tour to promote Opal, Smith left the band, and looking for a replacement singer, Roback called on a vocalist whose folk duo he had produced. No disrespect to Kendra Smith, but when David Roback met Hope Sandoval he found the perfect singer to bring his songs to life. To mark the break from Smith, Roback and Sandoval abandoned the Opal name, and called their revamped duo Mazzy Star.

Mazzy Star got their sound down right off the bat. Halah, the opening track from their debut She Hangs Brightly, will sound immediately familiar to anyone whose only exposure to Mazzy Star was seeing Fade Into You on 120 Minutes: strummed acoustic guitar in the key of A, drums augmented by tambourine, simple Neil Young chord changes, simple Neil Young melodies, and Roback’s slide-guitar swoops, all of them bathed in cavernous reverb*.

Halah is my favourite track from She Hangs Brightly, but it’s not the only good one. Ride It On is also great, and I’ve got a soft spot for Be My Angel, which anticipates the 6/8 swing of Fade Into You.

Which, of course, it does come back to. Fade Into You is Mazzy Star’s legacy. It has a sort of alchemy. It’s one chord sequence all the way through. Its verse is one melody line repeated four times. Its chorus is a different line repeated three times with a slightly different closing tune. It could have been written in five minutes. But that’s entirely unimportant. What matters is the tone of Sandoval’s voice. The swooning slide guitar. The hushed, almost tentative drums. The narcotic reverb that swaddles the whole song. It’s a romantic song. People fell in love to it, and in love with it.

Mazzy Star had excellent timing, and they were beneficiaries of the alt rock boom. OK, their work seldom featured the wind-tunnel distortion and aggro vocals of Nirvana, Soundgarden, AIC and the rest, but perhaps the best thing about Nirvana’s success was the space it opened up on MTV and radio for semi-popular indie bands, especially female-fronted ones, at a time when Top 40 radio programmers still argued vehemently that only one record by a woman could be in heavy rotation at one time. Fade Into You and its parent album So Tonight That I Might See emerged into a new world where people like Roback and Sandova, shy and undemonstrative people, could be successful musicians, not just indie cult figures working a day job or two to keep a roof over their heads.

After Around My Swan, released in 1996, the band wound down, with Sandoval releasing solo records and guesting on records by Massive Attack and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Roback got into production (including work with Beth Orton), moved to Norway and made arty, experimental music for installations and films. The band reformed and released Seasons of You in 2013. While the band had never worked quickly, a new record seemed more likely than not until Roback’s death from cancer was announced on Tuesday.

 

 

 

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

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.

Mark Hollis RIP

Anyone hearing The Party’s Over in 1982 might not have seen it coming, but Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis was a rare thing in pop music: a genuine original. Over the course of five albums, from The Party’s Over to 1991’s Laughing Stock, he guided Talk Talk’s evolution from Duran-aping synth-pop B-leaguers to avant-garde experimentalists.

Throughout it all, Hollis never lost his compositional savvy, even as the structures of the songs became looser and more extended. You can’t write It’s My Life, I Don’t Believe You or Life’s What You Make It and be deaf to the charms of melody. Nevertheless, the Talk Talk that made Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock placed more emphasis on mood, atmosphere and texture than immediately accessible tunes. Consequently, even as their art became more powerful and distinctive, the group began to fade commercially, and found themselves sneeringly dismissed by critics who didn’t like (or in some cases even get) what they were doing.*

Mark Hollis passed away on Monday at the age of 64 after a short illness. Tributes poured in from musicians and fans, a real gamut-running selection, a who’s who of the last 20 years of music. Talk Talk do seem to have inspired a particularly passionate devotion in a lot of people. It’s not just the gorgeous, detailed arrangements and the loving care lavished on instrument sounds by engineer Phill Brown. It’s the vulnerability of Hollis’s voice, I think. An unusual voice – quavery, a little thin, a little forced-sounding, and consequently very human. His voice made more sense the more records the group made: by Spirit of Eden it was impossible to imagine any voice inhabiting those songs but Hollis’s.

After Talk Talk released their final album, Hollis made one solo record (after a gap of seven years), and was then basically done. He wanted to concentrate on being a father and couldn’t do that as a working musician. What an admirable choice to make, and how admirable the resolution he showed in sticking to it. Hollis’s life in music was exemplary in many ways, and perhaps in that way most of all.

RIP, Mark.

*Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock both made the top 40 of the albums chart in the UK, but the group had no hit singles with new material after Life’s What You Make It. So it’s not true to say that SoE and LS sunk without trace, which is an implication I’ve seen a lot over the last few days.

**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”

George Michael RIP

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When I was a kid my mum had Wham’s The Final on double cassette (I think it was double anyway), so George Michael’s voice was an integral part of my childhood. But in truth it would have been even if The Final hadn’t been a regular car-journey companion. Michael was a huge, huge star in the late eighties, never off the radio and almost certainly Britain’s biggest pop star on the global stage. Faith is certified Diamond in the US – 10 million records sold – and was already 7x Platinum in 1990, two years after its release. Even Phil Collins didn’t sell that many records that quickly. But then, George was rather easier on the eye than Phil.

OK, so that gets us to the nub of it quickly. George Michael’s early success owed a lot to his (and Andrew Ridgeley’s) appearance. That’s always been true in pop, from the time when pop singers were also film stars and all-round entertainers. But Michael’s world-domination era was marked by his battle to be accepted just on the strength of his music and leave his Club Tropicana days behind him.

That he succeeded, despite the efforts of many who just wanted to score cheap laughs at his expense (and not realising that Club Tropicana and its video were supposed to be ridiculous), was testament to his talents as a writer and a singer.

And Michael was vastly talented. Few singers are granted George Michael’s creamy timbre or unerring pitch; few writers are capable of penning totally convincing dance tracks and genuinely moving ballads. Michael has half a dozen of both to his name, as well as Jesus to a Child, his greatest achievement – a tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and a song of almost miraculous grace and warmth.

Others will write from much more informed positions than mine about his wider legacy – what he has meant to the LGBQT community, for example. I only know what I’ve taken from his music down the years. But it’s been heart-warming to read in the papers today so many stories by those who’d come across him, all saying how generous George Michael was, how many small and large acts of charity he was responsible for. Not merely the big stuff that made the papers (the free concert he gave at the Roundhouse for NHS nurses; the money he donated to the Terence Higgins Trust, Childline and Ethiopian famine relief), but the little (at least for a man of his wealth) things too. It seems we’ve lost a good man, as well as a very special singer and writer.

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Wham! – Andrew Ridgeley & George Michael in 1986

Down Down – Status Quo (Rick Parfitt RIP)

2016 just won’t go quietly. Carrie Fisher in intensive care and Rick Parfitt dead on the same day. What a year. Status Quo are not favourites of mine, but I do think their best records are undervalued, so by way of tribute to Parfitt, here’s a piece about my pick of the Quo’s many records.

It’s been easy to take the mick out of Status Quo for, what, thirty years? In 1985, Bob Geldof asked them to play at Live Aid because in his mind they were almost a cartoon of the idea of a rock band, and they seemed to him like the only men for the job of opening the concert. But the public perception of loveable old salt-of-the-earth Francis and Rick – your embarrasing uncle’s favourite band – and the music they were capable of making at their peak are a whole world apart. Status Quo and the Beach Boys doing Fun Fun Fun in 1996 is one thing; Status Quo doing Down Down in 1974 is quite another.

Down Down is the sort of music that hooked many of Quo’s life-long fans: stripped-down, fuss-free rock ‘n’ roll, all sinew and muscle. Yes, it uses the Chuck Berry-once-removed boogie riff of several dozen other Status Quo songs, but the amount of variety and interest crammed into the song – the sparkling semi-clean guitar breakdown sections; the chromatic ascents from B back up to E halfway through each verse; the way that Rick Parfitt’s bass-string, Chuck Berry-style riffing in standard tuning complements Francis Rossi’s wiry open-tuned Telecaster – for me makes it the standout Quo single, and one of the best rock records full stop.

Down Down’s greatest pleasure, though, is the glorious texture of those guitars.

There’s something magical about the sound of an electric guitar that’s really cranked up loud, so it’s just on the edge between clean and distorted. That’s where Francis Rossi’s guitar on Down Down lives. It’s clean but with an aggressive edge to it, and when you play that kind of blues-rock riff at 180 bpm while the drummer plays big smacking quarter notes on the hi hat, it’s got all the rock ‘n’ roll attitude in the world without needing loads of gain to prove its point.

Rossi’s tone on its own is ear-grabbingly gorgeous, but what makes Down Down really great is the blend of Rossi’s sound with Parfitt’s. Parfitt’s tone is fatter, more distorted and fills in the bottom, underneath Rossi’s guitar. The extended intro keeps you guessing as to what kind of form the song will take when it properly begins, but when the drums and bass (yeoman work from John Coghlan and Alan Lancaster) come in along with Parfitt’s fatter and more distorted boogie riff, and the song proper reveals itself, it’s a glorious moment.

No wonder John Peel’s 45 of Down Down was in the box where he kept all his most treasured singles. If you needed a record to try to explain to an alien visitor what rock ‘n’ roll music is, you could do a lot worse that reach for Down Down.

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Leonard Cohen RIP

And so we say farewell to another great. If the very first song on his new album contains the line “I’m ready, my lord”; if his letter to Marianne Ihlen – made public a few months ago, and remarkable for its tenderness and wisdom – suggested that Cohen knew he was dying (“our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”), it doesn’t much lessen the sadness. This after all is a year in which we’ve lost too many, and some far too early. Leonard Cohen going too just feels like the universe aiming another kick into 2016’s stomach as it lies prone on the floor.

In light of the week’s really big news, the blows will continue to come for some time yet.

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A cover I recorded of A Thousand Kisses Deep:

 

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

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