Monday, 24 January 2011

This week in music: unrequited love, a list, intimations of mortality, skullduggery, bratwurst etc. But first, a drink.

Pardon my French, but as a blogging arriviste, I’ve hit an impasse that doubtless must arise for everyone posting up their thoughts for the whole online community to read. On one hand, you want to tell everyone what’s been going on. Why bother otherwise? On the other, the worst thing in the world is for everyone to know what’s been going on. As Vito Corleone so memorably put it in The Godfather, ‘never tell anyone outside the Family what you’re thinking.’ 

So again, my plan to write something witty and wise on the vagaries of modern existence, the caprice of fate, the whim of chance and the passing week will have to wait, I’m afraid. That’s a sort of lesson in itself, isn’t it?

It’s not that life has been dull these past few days. Oh no, far from it. Unfortunately the events are mostly of an ongoing nature and are continually in the process of being digested and assimilated. It would therefore be premature of me to outline them now. Moreover, it would be gauche of me to divulge the sensitivity of my recent intelligence until sufficient time has passed. All you need to know is it runs to a veritable spectrum of fascination, encompassing corporate skullduggery, unrequited love and the worst intimations of mortality. Some of this concerns me directly, some of it thankfully doesn’t.

So, if you may feel that I am teasing you all with tiny droplets of detail flicked carelessly your way from the ocean of intimate information, I am sorry. Take heart in knowing that most things will manifest themselves on this blog with both subtlety and blatancy in the weeks to come. You know how it is sometimes.

One thing I can mention is that the majority of my intelligence has been gathered this past week in that most consistent, traditional and time-honoured fashion: I went to the pub. Several times. You may jump to an obvious conclusion from this, but I would argue — with vehemence, and probably plenty of unnecessary repetition — that I am a rather fiercely sociable individual.

I am of course neither the first nor the last to say that the boozer is one of the great social exchanges. Sadly it is becoming one of the last great social exchanges. Sometimes, there is nothing cooler than to take someone to a restaurant where you are on first-name terms with the staff and/or can order off-menu if need be. There is something immensely satisfying from knowing a shop where the proprietor has, over weeks or months of your custom, acquired a working idea of your likes, dislikes and requirements — to which end, their suggestions can turn you on to other things. Whether it’s a bespoke tailor putting something by in your colour or the butcher reserving an obscure cut of meat for you for the weekend, it demonstrates your willingness to engage with the world and what it can offer. An elementary, obvious sentiment, maybe, but one that is becoming less of a given as time wears on, I fear. 

I can offer up two practical examples of how this positive interest in the smaller, if not-always-so-convenient things in life can do you favours — and they both happened this very week. On Monday, I attended the pub that I consider to be the finest nearest my place of work. Those of you who know me will chuckle when I say with considerable understatement that I am very familiar with this tavern. In recognition of my regular custom I was awarded the right, under landlord’s orders, to purchase Guinness, in perpetuity, at the discounted rate otherwise enjoyed solely by the pub staff. When I tell you that this brings the price of a pint down to £3, you will appreciate, especially in these economically benighted times, what difference that can make to someone known to enjoy a pint of the Black Stuff. I shan’t tell you the name of the pub otherwise you’ll all be at it, so there.

On Saturdays in my local town can be found a German gentleman who sells a fine selection of tasty Teutonic treats: bewildering and ever-changing arrays of wurst, sliced meats, schweinshaxn, Bavarian noodles and Swabische ravioli. I have been to his stall on no more than half a dozen times and I have never walked away without being given something in addition to my custom, whether this be a weisswurst or frikadeller offered without prompting — on the haus as it were — or a sly rounding-down of the overall reckoning of my bill by a considerable saving. I suspect he gets a kick out of my game attempts to pronounce the names of the produce mit akzent perfekt, but whatever, I return most weekends. We all win.

Maybe it is worth reiterating several more times before we’re done. This decline in the social niceties that are bound up with the charm of retail individuality is a problem that affects us all. Tragically or fortunately, depending on your cynicism or faith, it is in our hands to resolve.  I feel we live in a world where markets are becoming a mere occasional novelty in town centres; where the centres themselves are left to rot at their core in pedestrianised mediocrity; where independent shops see their specialised knowledge and business taken away by mass-market concerns that specialise in nothing if not homogenisation, leaving every High Street a clone of the next; and where a good restaurant can often shut down within weeks because it suffers from slow-burn success…well, in this world, the pub is one of the few places left in the world where people — whether they know one another or not — can meet for the simple pleasure of each other’s company, and where a good relationship with the proprietor and staff of said establishment can be cultivated to mutual advantage. I like to do this very much indeed.

So — support small local businesses, be civil to people, make friends and cultivate good relationships with any places like these you are still fortunate to have where you are. Know what you like and why you like it. Life’s often nicer when you get what you want rather than what someone else thinks you should.

Anyway, in a tectonic shift of subject, here’s a list of five keyboard players I rate most highly. I’ve included examples of each candidate’s skill for you to look up, with the truly frightening detail of precise instances in minutes and seconds in certain examples. Don’t be afraid, they pass by quickly before they can offend. 

A word or fifty on selection criteria here. Vincent Crane, one of the greats listed below, was somewhat disdainful of his ability on the piano. He reasoned that a truly great musician — one of classical concert performance standard — would have put in hours of practice every day since childhood and through most of their professional adult life. Crane, by comparison had sold his anima to rock — and indeed, soul — and maintained that his talent, linked as it was to his lifestyle, was slack and undisciplined by comparison.

In other words: practice makes perfect.

Well, if only life was that simple. Thank God it’s nowhere near as dull.

I’ve confined this list to rock musicians. There are no concert pianists here. Don’t get me wrong, I like ‘em: however, to narrow down whether Jenő Jandó interprets Bartók better than Zoltán Kocsis (for example), would require a considerable amount of research with no guarantee of a satisfactory answer. It would be like arguing whether apples are better than oranges with no starting frame of reference. I’m just not ready for that just yet, dear reader. Furthermore I’m aware that I’m cutting into your quality time. So, enough!

Here they are, in no particular order:

Jon Lord (Deep Purple): he brought technical virtuosity informed by early training to his work on the Hammond organ and added a great deal of personality, good taste and humour. Also innovative: his organ was amplified, via some cunning rewiring, to a Marshall stack, creating a grinding, cutting block wall of sound — affectionately dubbed ‘The Beast‘ — that was more than able to hold its own against Ritchie Blackmore’s scything, supercool guitar. For me though, it’s Lord’s keyboards that define the major magic of the Purple sound. He plays lovely, lush piano too and seems like a really jovial gent into the bargain.

Sample: the almost Baroque solo (2:09) in Highway Star (Machine Head, 1972) that ends, to my ears, in a quote of The Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Suzy is famous, outstanding and rightly so. Do take time out to appreciate the less flashy aspects of Lord’s approach to keyboards elsewhere: his subtle climb to the sly, bluesy seventh chord that is simply the only place to start his solo (3:55) on Burn (Burn, 1974) puts a smile on my face every time; his clavinet playing on Dealer (Come Taste The Band, 1975) supplies the solid funk base that holds the entire song together, almost on a subliminal level. But I will offer up one — possibly the sole — example of where Lord’s tastefulness becomes dominated by his humour, with embarrassing results: Rat Bat Blue (Who Do We Think We Are, 1973). A promisingly funky groove in the middle section shifts gear into double-time and promises some keyboard fireworks, gaining momentum and power until finally, we get…a speeded-up blither of organ, piano and guitar widdling away in unison at who-cares-per-hour. It’s cartoon-daft and a classic example of a meretricious studio effect that must have sounded so good on the first playback, but palls considerably on repeated listening. Aw, it was great until then!

Graham Bond (The Graham Bond Organization): contemporary photos of Mr Bond in his heyday around 1965-66 show a sweaty, mercurial fellow with a Hitler fringe/drooping moustache combo and a tendency to run to fat. His unlikely appearance belied a total, consummate, hard-driving performer who left behind him some of the sexiest grooves of any white, British R’n’B band of the Sixties. Graham Bond was a barnstorming showman who would frequently play slinky alto sax with the right hand, stinky organ grind with the left hand and growl spiritedly into the mic with an endearingly flawed, fag-raddled singing voice marinated in purest Romford. He was ahead of his time in playing style and pioneering devices such as the Mellotron and the revolving Leslie speaker cabinet that became standard-issue rock equipment by the time Bond died in suspicious circumstances in 1974. You often get the impression that his solos are only just hanging together sometimes, making them as wild, unpredictable and exciting as the lad himself.

Sample: the typical Bond sound is exemplified on the instrumental Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (There’s A BOND Between Us, 1966) which has Bond on sax/organ double duty. His Hammond groove and gravel vocals work at their best on I Want You (The Sound Of ’65, 1965) and his frankly astonishing delivery on Moses In The Bullrushourses (as part of the Dick Heckstall-Smith Band, A Story Ended, 1972) which also features a keyboard part that bustles busily through the song like an extended, endlessly inventive solo, making the solo itself (1:58) seem simply like a moment when everyone stops singing and lets Bond go.

John Evan (Jethro Tull): while some people think Jethro Tull is the name of someone in the band, and other people think frontman Ian Anderson is Tull, their success has always rested on a equal division of quality musicianship. John Evan was brought into the band as an ex-school colleague of Anderson studying medicine at University and playing as a sideline to help out. He stayed for ten years and became an integral part of the sound, look and outlook of the classic 1970s Jethro Tull lineup. Live, he brought  visual humour into his performance, endearing himself to the fans, while never relinquishing his grip on good taste where the music was concerned. Also, scintillating piano, raving Hammond work and a healthy suspicion of synthesisers: a good thing, going on how things panned out for Tull in the Eighties.

Sample: Thick As A Brick (Thick As A Brick, 1972). Yes, the entire album, being one song across two sides. Evan plays through his keyboard arsenal, at first adding some lively, intelligent piano and later some of the aforementioned raving organ work (the solo at 3:42 on Side One is outstanding in this regard) and  a classy harpsichord part on Side Two (7:29). His introduction to Locomotive Breath (Aqualung, 1971) is much-imitated, never-equalled and requires no further analysis.

Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer/The Nice): Keith Emerson’s reputation is instantly divisive. Mention his name to anyone who knows it and you’ll get either an excited nod of appreciation or (more often, in my experience) a groan of remembered agony. It’s interesting that he described in an interview, over twenty years after ELP’s debut, how he fondly recalled the band possessing a ‘tacky, aggressive…almost  distorted sound.’ In that thumbnail, he gains marks for not only seeing the shortcomings, but blithely carrying on regardless. His output is patchy to say the least, but awesome when he's on form. He also writes music mostly showcasing the keyboards, necessitated by the limited instrumental array of both ELP and The Nice (bass, drums, keyboards). This casts him in a constant lead capacity, whereas the other guys listed here tend to be accompanists and aren't always carrying the music the way Emerson has to. Keith’s attitude is one of sheer, joyous bombast, a delight in his own skill and an overwhelming desire to impress and please you. It’s a measure of his brilliance when successful that the times when he fails are at worst hilarious, rather than hateful. He's a lunatic and the world would be less fun without him!

Sample: Ars Longa Vita Brevis (Ars Longa Vita Brevis, The Nice, 1968) the sidelong song suite from the eponymous album gets underway with some ur-prog, avant-garde keyboard work that culminates in a stunning glissando climax (1:35) to the first movement. Later in the song, Emerson demonstrates brilliant two-handed facility on a remarkable and deliciously groovy salsa-tinged piano part (8:28). Elsewhere in Emerson’s career, a tuneful, graceful, jazzy fugue provides a wonderful blend of serenity and joy at the heart (6:44) of ELP’s The Endless Enigma (Trilogy, 1972). Next, Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare to experience the amazing world of the Hammond organ on Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2 (Brain Salad Surgery, 1973. The solo occurs at (1:08) on the single edit and (9:43) on the unedited album cut. Which sort of says it all, really). Conversely, for a truly arse-clenching two minutes out of your life, try Are You Ready, Eddy? (Tarkus, 1971) — a sonic abortion that offers no counter to anyone arguing the case for Emerson as unrepentant tack-merchant.

Vincent Crane (Atomic Rooster/The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown): More people need to hear his beautifully understated, crisp, funky piano playing and percussive Hammond chops. A shame he's not with us. He was also that rarest of beasts: a keyboard player with a firm sense of quality control. A by-product of this is the not-so-well-known fact that Crane often eschewed the need for a bassist and in those cases would play the bassline himself on keyboard, to ensure concision. No one was a tougher critic on his skill and ability than Crane himself — albeit to the aforementioned unnecessary degree. He also owned Graham Bond’s Hammond organ later on down the line, and sadly joined Bond elsewhere in a tragic, untimely end.

Sample: Stand By Me (Made In England, Atomic Rooster 1972) shows off Crane’s effortless, funky piano chops throughout, plus his understated brass arrangement, which sadly is performed by the session players with a little too much drag in the tempo: shame on all concerned at (2:33). Close Your Eyes from the same album amply demonstrates Crane’s no-need-for-bassist policy to good effect. In other respects, hear the   creepy piano footsteps pursuing the magnificently hammy, Hammer Horror Hammond line on the intro to Death Walks Behind You (Death Walks Behind You, 1971) and the straight, no messing, heads-down riffola of Watch Out! (Atomic Rooster, 1980) which showed how Crane could ‘do a Deep Purple’ like a true-born Lord.

Before I go, some honourable mention to ivory smashers and pipe-prodders of renown who could easily have made the list on any other day: Kerry Minnear, the choirboy-voiced multi instrumentalist of Gentle Giant, Dave "Egg" Stewart (not the tiresome chap in the Eurythmics), Ian McLagan of the (Small) Faces, Rick Wakeman, professional Grumpy Old Man, mainly of Yes. William D Drake, the geeky professor and architect of the ‘television organ’, a defining part of the Cardiacs’ sound. Billy Preston, steady Sixties soul man, arguably the man who kept the Beatles together for longer than anyone else in their last days. Session giant Nicky Hopkins, responsible for the funky, confident pianistic sparkle of countless late-Sixties/early-Seventies rock songs. Finally, anyone who's played keyboards for Frank Zappa, especially Ian Underwood…oh, the list goes on, but I’ll end it here.

Gentlemen, I salute you.


Currently listening to:
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: Songbook 1 (various artists, 2010)
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: A Loyal Companion (various artists, 2010)

Currently reading:
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)

Currently watching:  
O Thou Transcendent: Ralph Vaughan Williams (Tony Palmer, 2007)
A Time There Was: Benjamin Britten (Tony Palmer, 1978)
Passchendaele (Paul Gross, 2007)
Red Baron (Nikolai Muellerschoen, 2008)
Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1999) - a palate-clearing guilty pleasure.

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