Tag Archives: John Leckie

The Posies @ The Garage, 19/10/18

The Garage is my kind of venue for a rock show. A well-proportioned room, no seating and a stage only a step or two up from the audience. It’s small, sweaty and intimate – not ideal for anything other than loud rock gigs, but great for those.

Fortunately, that’s what the Posies had in mind. Always a tougher proposition live than on record, they came out in purposeful mood, smashing into Dream All Day with a full arsenal of scissor kicks and windmills. The mix was loud but pretty well balanced. If the vocals were occasionally a little on the quiet side, it was no big. It was a rock show, after all, and thanks to a good relationship between guitars and drums, the music had all the physical impact you’d hope for.

Next up was Dear 23‘s Any Other Way. The recording of that song is gorgeous, with rich reverb and a lovely depth to the guitar sound. On Friday, the band attacked it hard, giving it a feral edge. Ken Stringfellow even broke into Grohl-style screams. Not subtle, but very effective. Please Return It, one of my very favourite Posies songs, was excellent too, but I was a little sad they didn’t pair it with Throwaway as they did when I saw them two years ago at the 100 Club. The sequencing of those two on Amazing Disgrace was perfect, and Throwaway was a surprise non-inclusion in the set. Perhaps Jon Auer’s just a little tired of singing it.

A brace of songs from Frosting on the Beater – Definite Door and Love Letter Boxes – went down very well with the crowd, who were mostly long-time fans, and showed the band’s ability to be heavy and fluid at the same time. Both songs feature surprise rhythmic changes in their choruses, and the rhythm section handled both with aplomb.

An excellent version of Auer’s World slowed the tempo and sonic assault, and was followed up by possibly the highlight of the night. Jon and Ken explained how they came to work on Dear 23 with producer John Leckie – veteran producer of XTC and Magazine albums and then at a career highpoint with the success of the Stone Roses’ debut – and then dedicated an unamplified version of You Avoid Parties to Leckie, who was standing in the audience a few feet away from us. It raised the hair on my arms.

The contrast between that naked performance of what is a pretty stark song and Auer’s So Caroline (a highlight from the brilliant Blood/Candy) only made the latter sound more celebratory, although one of the guys (I can’t remember whether it was Jon or Ken) undercut it by joking they’d detected a collective wince every time they sang “close enough to remain“.

Next was a surprise. Mike Musburger, who was authoritative and powerful behind the kit all night, was replaced by Posies fan Lawrence Salisbury for a version of Going, Going, Gone from the Reality Bites soundtrack. Salisbury had backed the band’s reissue campaign on PledgeMusic and his reward was to be a Posie for a song. He did a pretty great job of handling all the changes in dynamic and the big fills at the end of the choruses and was obviously having a blast doing it. The audience was noisily appreciative of his efforts.

Support act Anna Wolf then joined the band on stage to guest on two Blood/Candy highlights: Licenses to Hide and The Glitter Prize. I’m a big fan of both songs and was pleased to hear them, but while, Wolf’s presence did add an extra something to the vocals, her rather theatrical singing voice didn’t blend all that well with Jon’s and Ken’s, and was sometimes a little distracting.

Everybody is a Fucking Liar (from Amazing Disgrace) and two more from Frosting on the Beater, Flavor of the Month and the deathless Solar Sister, brought the great set to a strong end; the latter two were particularly strong, and, for those paying attention, ensured that the encore would end only one way.

The band came back quickly and ground out a fuss-free version of Song #1, a twisty-turny track from Amazing Disgrace that itself would have made a good set closer. Another highlight followed: the band’s wonderful cover of Chris Bell’s shattered, shattering I Am the Cosmos, possibly the best song Bell ever wrote (and that’s saying something). Few singers could inhabit that song and do the intensity of its emotions justice, and Auer is one of them. He and Stringfellow are still ludicrously underrated as singers.

They then played a frantic, lightning-speed version of Grant Hart from Amazing Disgrace, the band’s tribute to the late Hüsker Dü drummer and singer. The tempo, while impressive and fitting for a song about a legend of hardcore, was possibly too brisk for its own good; the band made such a racket that the vocals, for the only time that night, became indistinct. Anyone not familiar with the song would have struggled to identify it amid the white noise.

Not to worry, though. Burn & Shine finished things very strongly. Auer’s pysch-grunge epic is a perfect set closer, and manages to encapsulate so much of what was great about the Posies in the 1990s: the muscularity of the drumming, the intensity of the guitars, the indelible melodies, the peerless harmony singing and, when the occasion warranted, the scabrous lead guitar playing of Auer. By the end of the song, his guitar had no strings left on it and Musburger’s cymbals had taken a hell of a beating. My eardrums, too.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned Dave Fox’s suit. He had quite the suit. I wish I had a picture.

 

 

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Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

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Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk

I May Hate You Sometimes – The Posies

Before prosumer digital recording gear became available, a home recordist working in rock or pop was a lo-fi artist whether they wanted to be or not. Whether you were working with a Portastudio or some kind of reel-to-reel machine was only part of the story: compared to the folks doing it all themselves at home, an artist hiring a professional studio had access to better tape machines, better microphones, better-sounding rooms, better consoles, the recording know-how of trained audio engineers and the technical know-how of maintenance engineers. A home-recording rock musician looking to get close to what could be accomplished in a pro studio would need to be committed, prepared to lay out some pretty serious money and possess the patience to learn a lot of technical skills that are quite far removed from the ones needed to write and perform music. And even then, they could only get so close. No home recordist ever made Rumours or What’s Going On.

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the guitarists and co-lead vocalists of the Posies possessed the talent and tenacity needed to give it a go, and they had an advantage over their four-tracking peers in that Auer’s father had installed an eight-track home studio in his house (with a reel-to-reel eight-track machine, not a cassette-based one), which Auer and Stringfellow duly made use of to record their debut album as the Posies, Failure.

Between them, the two played all the instruments and handled all the engineering. My sense is that, since Auer was the principal engineer, the drum tracks and many of the bass performances are Stringfellow’s, although Auer is listed as contributing keyboards and bass as well as his usual guitar and vocals. Stringfellow’s work as an R.E.M. touring band member, during which time he handled piano, organ, bass, banjo and guitar certainly proves he’s an adept multi-instrumentalist, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’d be a reasonable drummer too (and since I can’t imagine these guys ever got into analogue-domain editing of drums, which involves cutting the master tapes up and splicing them back together, he’d have needed to be). [See comments below for true credits, from a reliable source]

So Failure is an impressive achievement for a couple of guys barely out of their teens. But for all their skills and hard work, Failure doesn’t sound like a professionally recorded album, doesn’t have the richness, detail and texture that they created for their second album, Dear 23, which was recorded and mixed by John Leckie (who’s perhaps most famous for the Stone Roses’ debut, Radiohead’s The Bends and the first two Muse albums, but whose career stretches back to the early seventies, when he worked as a tape op on Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass).

The sonic differences between the two records – Failure and Dear 23 – are stark. While I’d love to hear Dear 23 remixed a touch drier, it remains a fantastic-sounding record, shimmering and clear as a bell. In comparison, Failure is bass-light and skeletal. But Auer and Stringfellow undeniably caught a vibe on that record, and the immediacy of its best tracks makes Dear 23 sound a little considered, a little fussy. No track on Failure is more immediate than I May Hate You Sometimes, the song from that record with the most mainstream visibility (having been included on Children of Nuggets and used over the credits of a Daria TV movie).

While much more clean and professional-sounding than much of what is traditionally considered lo-fi, like all the best lo-fi material the strongest songs on Failure bust through the limitations imposed on them by the manner of their recording, and seem to be animated from within by the excitement and sense of fulfillment attained by their creators. It was not easy to do what Auer and Stringfellow did in 1988, and for that and much more they deserve far greater credit and recognition than they’ve ever received.

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The Posies: Ken Stringfellow (hoodie) and Jon Auer (long hair, glasses), 1996.