Tag Archives: RIP

Nanci Griffith RIP

Few artists have straddled the worlds of folk, country, rock and pop as easily and gracefully as Nanci Griffith, who died on Friday 13 August, aged 68, with no cause yet confirmed.

The ubiquity of From a Distance, force-fed to me by the folk choir at mass every Sunday evening for a year or two in the early 1990s, soured me on Griffith for a while. I knew she’d recorded it; I assumed she had written it. To this day, I still don’t care for it, and it put me off listening to more of her music at the peak of her mainstream visibility – around the time of the release of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993.

The song that made me get Nanci Griffith – why musicians from fields as far apart as Irish folk, stadium rock, bluegrass, indie, and mainstream country would come together to work on her records – was On Grafton Street. But it happened slowly, and without me knowing.

In 1994, my mum was into a record called Talk to Me by Irish folk singer Frances Black. I didn’t know who wrote the songs on the record (Griffith wrote or co-wrote three), but one of them struck me and stayed with me. Black’s recording of On Grafton Street was how I first heard that song, but when I heard Griffith’s reading of it – particularly a lovely live version from a New Year’s Eve gig in 1994 – Black’s version paled a little.

Something magical can happen when the right words meet the right snippet of melody and are sung by the right voice.

“Funny how my world goes round without you” – the opening of On Grafton Street’s chorus – is one of those. Whether that chorus was written by Griffith alone, by her co-writer on the song Fred Koller, or by the pair of them together is relatively unimportant – it’s the alchemy of voice, word and tune that makes the song what it is. It’s a fine song when Frances Black sings it. When Griffith sang it, it became transcendent. Now, if someone begins a sentence “Funny how…”, my brain will immediately add “…my world goes round without you”. The words belong to that melody now.

I can’t claim encyclopaedic knowledge of Griffith’s music. I’ve heard Flyer*, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Last of the True Believers. But even that much – two albums of mostly original songs, one of covers – is enough to know that we lost a major songwriter when Griffith passed last week, the kind that don’t come along that often.

*It’s not easy to hear Flyer. You’ll look for it in vain on Spotify. If anyone needs an object lesson in why Spotify is the enemy, not just of dedicated archivists but anyone with more than a passing interest in music history, well, there you are. A Grammy-nominated album by a substantial, major-label artist – not available, presumably because of rights issues.

Roger Hawkins RIP

The great Roger Hawkins has passed away at the age of 75 after a long illness.

A member of the famous Swampers rhythm section that made their name at FAME studios, becoming so sought-after that they went on to cofound their own place – Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – Hawkins was one of the very greatest studio drummers. Mustang Sally, Chain of Fools, Land of 1000 Dances, Respect, When a Man Loves a Woman – all Roger Hawkins. Ditto Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, the Staples’ I’ll Take You There and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock & Roll.

The thing that set Hawkins apart was feel, judgement and discipline. Don’t play a tom fill while the singer is singing, said Hawkins in an interview when asked about what it takes to be a studio drummer. It sounds a simple enough maxim to live by, but few enough do. Even fewer can pair that taste and restraint with a backbeat that simply compels you to move.

Hawkins was inimitable, and like many of the truly great musicians, he was incredibly modest. When asked what made him a successful studio drummer, he always said that he was a better listener than he was a technician. But really, listening is the whole thing. In a small-group context, whether it’s folk, jazz, metal or R&B, there’s no great musician who isn’t first and foremost a great listener. Hawkins’s ability to listen and feel, to channel emotion through a musical performance, was rare and unbelievably special. He was one of the best there ever has been, or ever will be.

Bruce Swedien RIP

Bruce Swedien, who died on Monday at the age of 86, is straight-up one of the greatest to ever move a fader or hang a microphone.

He’s best known, of course, for his work alongside Quincy Jones recording Michael Jackson, but his career stretches back to 1950s Minneapolis, where he ran the recording studio owned by the Schmitt Music Company while still in his teens. He did well enough to buy it from them not long after, recording artists including Tommy Dorsey there. In 1957, he moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and then Universal (at the invitation of the legendary Bill Putnam), working with numerous jazz legends in the process, among them Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, with whom he forged a partnership that would endure for the rest of his career.

In the 1960s, he moved into pop and rock ‘n’ roll, recording Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as collaborating with Q on his soundtrack work. In the 1970s, he recorded the Brothers Johnson and Chi-Lites, and did his most enduring work with George Benson and Jackson.

I understand that many are queasy talking about Jackson’s music, in the light of 2019’s Leaving Neverland. Swedien’s legacy being tarnished through no fault of his own is of course nothing compared to what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. But almost no music is made by a single individual, and those records by Jackson are the product of extraordinary labour by a whole team of vastly talented individuals, most of whom are blameless.

Off the Wall and Thriller, in particular, are wondrous sonic achievements, and for all Jackson’s own artistry, they are what they are because of the contributions of Quincy Jones, of songwriter Rod Temperton, and of gifted musicians such as drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Steve Lukather and pianist Greg Phillanganes. And, bringing everything together, the audio engineering and mixing of Bruce Swedien himself.

If you can’t listen to Jackson anymore (and if so, I understand; I don’t either*), try the work Swedien did around the same time on George Benson’s Give Me the NIght. Throughout that album, Swedien and Jones employ the arrangement style they developed for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. The drums, meanwhile, have a glorious, irrepressible energy that just leaps out of the speakers because Swedien, more than almost any other engineer, refused to rely on compression to make his drum tracks fit inside the mix. He always retained the belief that the transient energy of uncompressed percussion was where the excitement in music lived. If you compress that, you start to suck the life out of it. He was unrepentant, and would pretty much write off modern mix topologies as bad – or at least amateur – engineering. “Compression is for kids,” as he was fond of saying.

That philosophy is immediately apparent when listening to any of the records he recorded or produced, whether they’re big band, or pop, or R&B, from the fifties through to the nineties, when he began to slow down. Swedien stood among the very best, an artist and an artisan, a genius of microphone and mixing desk.

*I’m not going to get into any debates about “cancel culture”. Too many people take bad-faith positions to make it worth the time. I understand and have some sympathy with the idea that one should be able to separate the art from the artist. If you can, I don’t have a problem with that. I read, watch and listen to plenty of art by creators who didn’t lead morally pure lives. I think probably most of us do, even if unwittingly, because we simply don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But I simply can’t feel the way now about Thriller and Off the Wall as I did when I heard them as a child, and that’s despite knowing about and wanting to celebrate the achievements of Bruce Swedien and the extraordinary musicians who played on those records. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now that’s how it is.

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.

 

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.

Scott Walker RIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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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