Tag Archives: Peter Gabriel

NYCNY – Daryl Hall

We’ve talked about Daryl Hall before, and even relatively recently. But there was only room in February’s entry on She’s Gone, which you’ll remember I put forward as one of my absolute favourite records, to touch in the briefest possible fashion on Sacred Songs, Hall’s first solo album, recorded in 1977 and eventually released by RCA in 1980.

Hall was not the only prescient musician who appears to have felt the tides turning against them around 1976 and 1977 and responded by reinventing themselves (Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and to some extent David Bowie did likewise), but when listening to Sacred Songs, Lindsey Buckingham always comes to mind.

But Sacred Songs is stranger even than Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly rewarding Tusk. Despite the note on the sleeve that said “Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham”, Tusk is not an auteur work. Buckingham may have wanted Fleetwood Mac to become the Clash, but that was never even close to possible. The band contained two other singer-songwriters, neither of whom had any real wish to follow him down that road. And so when producing Stevie Nicks’s and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham dutifully gave them relatively straightforward treatments, only occasionally lacing them with the off-kilter touches that characterised his own material on Tusk. So Buckingham pulls in one direction with his songs, Nicks and McVie pull in another with theirs, but the mediator between the two factions is, strangely, Buckingham himself. One moment he was cackling his way maniacally through the bizarre What Makes You Thing You’re the One, the next he was empathetically layering endless delicate guitar and vocal overdubs on to Nicks’s oceanic Sara, possibly her masterpiece.

Sacred Songs covers similarly broad territory. Hall allows himself to be everything he can be on the record. A ballad like Why Was it So Easy could have fit happily on any Hall & Oates album, but NYCNY is genuinely startling in its aggression. This song would certainly not have fit on Abandoned Luncheonette.

The standard critical line on Sacred Songs is that it’s the result of exposure to art rock, punk and new wave while living in New York and hanging out with Robert Fripp. And that seems almost certainly true. But, as with Buckingham’s Tusk-era material, NYCNY is fascinating in the ways it fails to be punk rock; after all, an imperfect copy of an original idea tells us as much, maybe more, about the copier than the copied. NYCNY is mixed dry and close, the musicians’ playing is clipped and precise, Hall hits too many notes over too many octaves to ever be confused with Johnny Rotten, and he can’t sneer like Tom Verlaine. Above all, he’s exuberant in a way that few punk rockers would have allowed themselves to be.

Sacred Songs isn’t a classic. Ultimately Daryl Hall was a soul man, and anyone with working ears would rather hear him sing She’s Gone than holler and squeal his way through NYCNY, however much fun it is. But Sacred Songs is an noble attempt by a substantial artist to push themselves beyond anything they’d done before, and it remains completely fascinating.

hall

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Fairlight CMI

By its sounds shall ye know it. By its oohs and aahs, its orchestra hits and its handclaps.

On the records of Kate Bush shall ye hear it. Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder, and, yes, Yes.

It is, of course, the Fairlight CMI, one of the mighty achievements of late-1970s, early-1980s synth technology, the other major triumphs being the Synclavier and the Emulator. These three machines were transformative pieces of technology, the most transformative in popular music since the invention of multitrack recording.

The Synclavier was a synthesiser, the Emulator a sampler. The Fairlight was something of both, as well as an early software sequencer, via its Page R function – the first example of a computer music GUI.

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Page R

It did all of those things at what today seems an incredibly basic level, but it helped to open up a new world for musicians, especially for musicians who didn’t come from a background in old-school analogue synths.

I’m an acoustic guitar player, and know comparatively little about synths and programming. When recording, I treat the DAW as essentially an intelligent tape machine, using very few VST instruments and getting most of my sounds in front of the microphone with analogue instruments. The world of synthesis and sampling is one where I know enough to be intrigued, and not nearly enough to claim anything like an understanding. I know just enough to be completely in awe of the people who had to do this for real, whether with a room-sized modular synth in the 1970s, or with a Fairlight or Synclavier in the brave new world of the digital 1980s.

In 2016, records made at the very start of the 1980s can sound very strange indeed: dated, yes, but tremendously exciting in the fearless way they look to the future and incorporate all kinds of new ideas – textural and rhythmic – into their basic frameworks. The most fascinating moments come when the new technology meshes seamlessly with the old.

Consider Kate Bush’s Never for Ever.

Listening to the record, you hear a mix of traditional analogue instruments and cutting-edge sampling and synthesiser technology, filtered through Bush’s one-of-a-kind melodic and lyrical sensibility.

The Fairlight had been demonstrated to her halfway through recording sessions for the album, so while she immediately grasped the machine’s potential, she initially used it to augment songs that had already written and were partially recorded – the famous breaking-glass noise in Babooshka, for example. As such, Never for Ever is a fascinating tipping-point record: you only need to listen to the first few tracks of her next album The Dreaming to hear the profound effects that composing with Page R sequencing – in effect, using the Fairlight as a compositional tool – had on her music. The traditional drum kit (and most notably its cymbals) are entirely missing, with all kinds of sampled percussion and found sounds assembled into rhythm tracks, instead.

But as innovative as The Dreaming is (or Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo record – sometimes called Security but officially titled Peter Gabriel– to take another example), there’s something about that moment where the emerging technologies were employed at the same time as the old that really speaks to me – the stuff I’m familiar with in dialogue with the stuff I don’t understand and find eerie and uncanny. It’s the tension between the two that’s so thrilling.

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Kate Bush with Fairlight, early 1980

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Unsatisfied – The Replacements (repost)

I’m seeing the Replacements at the Roundhouse tomorrow night, so I’ve decided to take a break from our bass-player series and repost this piece from a year or so back on my favourite Mats song. More bassists on Thursday, unless I decide to write about the show instead.

To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes everyone else look careerist by comparison. Such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether or not they got ahead – after all, it’s difficult to end up signed to Warner Bros. by accident. But when I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band weren’t widely known, but well-known enough for their records to be available, and they had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them: Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life. In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.

Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.

None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.

The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line “Are you satisfied”, in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved “I’m so” – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.

Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.

Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Replacements  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Replacements live: Tommy Stinson (seated), Chris Mars (drums), Westerberg (horizontal), Bob Stinson (guitar)

*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: “We were all nowhere – we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.”

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.

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Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime – Beck

The original Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime was by the Korgis, a group formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a 1970s prog band. The Korgis, then, in 1980 were a little too old, a little too bald, a little too paunchy for their new wave suits. They were far from the only group shedding their old fanbases and trading in student union worship for mainstream acceptance (at this point, Gabriel and Collins were already huge stars, Fripp was producing Daryl Hall and playing guitar for Bowie and Talking Heads; in two years Asia would have the best-selling album of the year). But still, even in times that were sympathetic to their cause, the Korgis were made to be forgotten. Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime hit big (number 5 in the UK, number 18 in the US) and still gets radio play, but no one remembers who made it, and everyone has their own favourite version, often not the original. The song, sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is nothing more than pastiche), is ideal for cover versions. It’s been done as breakbeat house by Baby D, as adult-contemporary dance-pop by Yazz and by Italian rock singer Zucchero (a typically over-the-top reading). The song is almost a blank canvas.

Beck cut it with Jon Brion for 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It starts out with him alone at the electric piano, singing in his deepest, most mournful register. The bass and electric guitars slide in almost unnoticed, joined by a drummer at the first chorus. The drums are muffled, damped, it’s very seventies. All the bells and whistles of the Korgis’ version (the delays and echoes on the piano and voice, the electric sitar playing the riff at the end of the chorus, the icy synths that play the three-note hook in the chorus) are gone: we get strings instead. The prankster Beck of 10 years before is nowhere to be seen. He’s playing the straightest of bats. He sounds invested in what he’s singing.

Jon Brion, it has to be said, lets the side down a little bit. Listening to this, it’s small wonder that Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple had ended their partnerships with him by this time – he’s on autopilot. The song’s said all it really has to say by around 2.30. But instead of wrapping things up, we get three minutes of The Jon Brion Show: every analogue keyboard, every guitar pedal, every fairground noise in his collection is pulled out of the cupboard and strewn over the studio floor. There’s not an idea here he hasn’t already worked over past the point of diminishing returns on Mann’s Bachelor No.2 and Apple’s When the Pawn… A carnival-esque soundworld was not what was called for here. Some attention to the mood of the song proper would have been infinitely more desirable.

I’m sure Beck had some input into the long instrumental coda, and he’d sung the song so well that that the record finishes with plenty of money in the bank. Perhaps, too, if you hadn’t heard Jon Brion’s other work, you could find his work here charming, or moving, or compelling. I find it a little bit redundant; it takes over and spoils the mood. Beck’s reading of the song, though, is excellent.

beck

This is Beck

Brion

This is Jon Brion