Jan 18, 2019

RALPH TOWNER - Solo Concert (ECM Records 1173, 1980)

Musical innovation is no easy feat. It not only requires an innate talent, but also a devotion to the art that is not blinded by the commercial glare of the popular culture. Ralph Towner is such an innovator on the modern musical landscape, his ideas ever fresh, though they span a career of more than forty years. Best known as the lead composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for the acoustic jazz ensemble "Oregon", Towner has also had a rich and varied solo career that has seen fruitful and memorable musical collaboration with such great modern musicians as Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Larry Coryell, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Gary Peacock. Towner was born in Chehalis, Washington on March 1st, 1940 into a musical family, his mother a piano teacher and his father a trumpet player. Towner and his siblings were raised in a nurturing and empowering environment that encouraged free musical experimentation and expression. In 1958, Towner enrolled in the University of Oregon as an art major, later changing his major to composition. He soon thereafter met bassist Glen Moore who would become a lifelong musical partner in the band Oregon.

It was about this time that Towner discovered the early LPs of Bill Evans, whom Towner emulated and whose influence he began to incorporate into his own piano style and composition. It was not much longer until Towner also bought a classical guitar on a lark and became entranced enough with the instrument that the early 1960s saw him heading to Vienna to study classical guitar with Karl Scheit. In 1968 Towner moved to New York City and immersed himself in the New York jazz scene, eventually landing a position with the Paul Winter Consort where the friendships and musical partnering with Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, and Collin Walcott were forged, a musical chemistry which was destined to alchemize into the band Oregon. Paul Winter also bestowed Towner with his first 12-string guitar. Towner has since coaxed the 12-string into imbuing his work with such a characteristic uniqueness that most jazz fans, given the two keywords "12-string" and "jazz" would immediately blurt the name Ralph Towner.

Towner’s working relationship with producer Manfred Eicher of ECM Records began in 1972 and would provide a forum for his growth as a leader and collaborator with other jazz giants, all while concomitantly breaking open musical frontiers with Oregon throughout the intervening years. ECM’s roster of low-volume acts was decidedly contrary to the amplified popular zeitgeist of the era, and provided Towner an opportunity to connect and create with some of the more iconoclastic and innovative artists of the musical culture in the 1970s. Towner’s ECM years also saw his most minimalist, yet most bold, endeavor. "Solo Concert", released in 1980 on ECM, was conceptually elemental, a solo live guitar recital. Yet, no one to date had ever synthesized classical contrapuntal composition with improvisational and oddly-metered jazz like this before, especially in such a risky arena as a live performance. Such solo work would later become Towner’s signature on recordings such as "Ana" and "Anthem", or augmented only by Gary Peacock’s bass on "Oracle" and "A Closer View".

Like any true artist, however, experimentation with technology was simultaneously and paradoxically leading Towner away from this bare-bones approach to composition and performance in 1983 when he began to incorporate the Prophet 5 keyboard synthesizer into his compositions, both with Oregon and his ECM recordings. The Prophet 5 afforded an entirely new dimension to his writing, as well as to the brazen and quirky character of the "free-form" improvisatory pieces for which Oregon had become infamous.

Just as Towner’s solo career has seen evolution, his partnership with Oregon would likewise undergo transformations as one might anticipate that any enduring relationship might do. Sadly, in 1984, percussionist Collin Walcott and manager Jo Härting were killed in Germany in a collision involving Oregon’s tour bus. Towner and McCandless escaped serious injury in the back of the vehicle. The emotional scars would however be deep, and it at first seemed doubtful that Walcott’s critical contribution to Oregon’s musical tapestry, lost so tragically, could ever be resurrected by any replacement. Time would luckily find that the intent of Oregon’s musical message was vehement enough to again find spontaneous expression after grief. Two subsequent world-class percussionists of a like mind, and gifted with rhythmic virtuosity, Trilok Gurtu in 1992 and Mark Walker in 1997, would share in and expand on Oregon’s vision. That vision would explode in an epic way in 2000 upon release of "Oregon in Moscow", an orchestral double-CD recorded with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, earning the ensemble four Grammy nominations.

Towner’s creativity and virtuosity into the new millennium retain all the vitality of his younger years, even now into his 70s. Always in service to the music, he continues to have a knack for fostering new musical relationships with those who share a mission to synergize art into a sum greater than its parts, recently and most notably with Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan, a trio colloquially known as "MGT." Likewise, his later jazz duos with Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Argentine clarinetist Javier Girotto have reaffirmed his unique niche in the international world of improvisational jazz. Ralph Towner has come full circle with the 2017 release of "My Foolish Heart," his 26th recording for ECM records, and an homage to the jazz pianist who inspired Towner on his original quest for compositional innovation, Bill Evans.

Jan 15, 2019

ICEHOUSE - Primitive Man (Regular Records RRLP1204, 1982)

One of the most iconic Australian bands ever, Icehouse, was formed by Iva Davies, the front man and musical creative force, that lead the band to an amazing 28 platinum albums, eight top 10 albums and over thirty Top 40 singles. Iva was born as Ivor Davies on the 22nd May 1955 in New South Wales, Australia. He later adapted to Iva after there was a misspelling on the label of a single released prior to the formation Flowers. The youngest of three siblings, Iva grew up in a musical household with both parents’ members of the local choir. When only 6 years old, Iva fell in love with his first of many instruments, the bagpipes, and after begging his parent’s for lessons, Iva had to wait till he was seven before his fingers could stretch over the chanter’s holes in order to learn how to play the instrument. Iva later made the move to the oboe with the help of his first year music teacher at Epping High. It was in July 1975 that Iva’s career really began with the release of his first single by RCA Records with "Leading Lady" and B side "I’m Gonna Give You All My Love". But it wasn’t until January 1980 that Iva put his name on the map when the successful pub band he founded, Flowers, signed a recording contract with Regular Records. In 1980 their debut album called "Icehouse" made it into the Top 5, becoming the highest ever selling debut album in Australia.

Icehouse’s success continued with the band performing their first overseas tour and the release of their second album, "Primitive Man", which surpassed the success of their debut album. It was this album that produced the anthem for Australians, "Great Southern Land", which made it into the Top 5. Whilst touring the band seized different opportunities that arose including Iva, who travelled to Tokyo in 1984 to write the song "Walking to the Beat" for the Yellow Magic Orchestra star, Yukihiro Takahashi. Two months later, Iva returned to Japan to tour as a member of superband, drawn from all over the world by Takahashi. Icehouse’s success continued with the album "Man Of Colours", which contained the hit singles "Crazy" and "Electric Blue" that topped both the US airplay and sales charts. This album became the highest local selling album by an Australian group ever. For "Man Of Colours" Iva himself created the artwork of a man clasping a bunch of coloured flowers by investing in a box of 5 crayons (which he still has till this day) and a black felt pen.

With a career spanning over 30 years, Icehouse has continued to delight millions with their music, wellknown and loved by audiences across generations. Icehouse has played to sellout audiences in Australia and has toured extensively. Icehouse began in 1977 as a Sydney-based pub rock band called Flowers, who were the highest paid unsigned act in Australia at the time. In 1980 Flowers scored a record deal with Regular Records and released their first album, "Icehouse", which received critical acclaim and reached multi-platinum status in Australia and New Zealand. It soon became the highest selling debut album in Australia. The iconic cover art for the album, featuring branches intertwined, was created by Flowers drummer John Lloyd, a former art student. After performing their song "Icehouse" at the Countdown Awards, the band was awarded with the Johnny O’Keefe Award for Best New Talent of 1980. In 1981, Flowers changed their name to Icehouse as it went international in order to avoid conflicts with another group. With their new name, the band embarked on their first overseas tour, taking on the US, Canada and the UK. The singles "Icehouse" and "We Can Get Together" were released in Europe and America, and the evocative Russell Mulcahey video for "Icehouse" generated much interest.

Icehouse’s second album "Primitive Man", produced the classic Aussie anthem "Great Southern Land" which reached number 5 on the Australian singles charts. "Primitive Man" also included the single "Hey Little Girl", a UK Top 20 Hit with Icehouse performing the song on Top of the Pops. The album sold over 650000 copies when released in Australia and is a favourite in Europe and the US, where Icehouse still has many fans. During this time Icehouse also supported David Bowie during Bowie’s European leg of the Serious Moonlight tour. It was the 1987 "Man of Colours" album, however, that made Icehouse a true international success, with smash hits "Crazy" and "Electric Blue" peaking near the top of both the US airplay and sales charts. "Man of Colours" became the highest local-selling album by an Australian band, and Icehouse's most successful album, selling more than a million copies in Australia and reaching gold status in Canada.

With as many as nineteen musicians who have been (or still are) members of Icehouse, it is songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist Iva Davies who is the band’s creative heart and driving force. Many of the musicians who have been a part of the band were from Australia, but several were from the UK, including bass player Guy Pratt, keyboardist Andy Qunta and Sax player and keyboardist Simon Lloyd. A famous guest artist was Brian Eno, who was featured on the 1986 album "Measure For Measure". Eno had previously worked with Roxy Music, David Bowie and U2. In 2006, Icehouse was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame, being described as one of the most successful Australian bands of the 80s and 90s. With an uncompromising approach to music production they created songs that ranged from pure pop escapism to edgy, lavish synthesized pieces. Beyond Icehouse Iva has, and still continues, to showcase his musical skills for films, ballet, television and special events. Over the years he has composed scores for two of the most successful ballets for the Sydney Dance Company, "Boxes" (1985) and "Berlin" (1995). True commendation for his works came when, after 30 years as founder and Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy chose to close his Directorship with a return season of Berlin in 2007.

Iva’s score "The Ghost of Time" was also performed with Richard Tognetti and Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Millennium Eve at the Sydney Opera House as part of International Millennium Celebrations telecast to over 3.5 billion people worldwide. In 2003 Iva also co-composed the film score for Peter Weir’s "Master and Commander" starring Russell Crowe. Critics from around the world praised his work with the Washington Post saying: an unforgettable score. Icehouse and Iva Davies have won many awards including the Countdown Award for the Most Popular Male Performer, an ARIA award for the Best Album for Man of Colours, an ARIA for Highest Selling Album for Man of Colours, and an ARIA Award for The Ghost of Time in 2000. The band was inducted in the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006. In recent years Iva Davies has maintained a presence in the Australian media with appearances in a variety of music & entertainment, TV and radio shows, and in interviews and featured press articles. 2011 and into 2012 saw Iva Davies and Icehouse headline a number of major music festivals in Australia and New Zealand including Homebake and the Breath Of Life Festival, which brought him more prime time media appearances including a number of on-air live performances. This coincided with the highly successful special release of the "White Heat" greatest hits CD & DVD which sold to Gold levels in just 2 weeks.

In January 2012 Iva was made a Friend Of Australia for the G’Day Australia campaign in the USA where he wined and dined with Hollywood stars, music celebrities and government ministers and performed a live set including Great Southern Land and Electric Blue. On January 26th 2012 he was honoured as official Australia Day Ambassador including featuring in a number of Tourism Australia videos. Iva was made an Australia Day Ambassador in 2001 and every year on Australia Day travels to a different region of New South Wales, on behalf of the Australia Day Council, to take part in and perform official duties for local Australia Day activities. Outside his musical activities, Iva has a long history of contributing back to the community from which he comes. Since the 1990s he has been, and remains, an Ambassador for the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Australia, a non-profit organization which assists in treating those with physical and intellectual disabilities via the power of music. He has a long association going back to the late 1980s with the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal where he works every year that he is in Australia, either door-knocking or at one of the events on the day. Iva is also a Patron of Entertainment Assist, the local arm of Music Cares which supports artists and their families who have fallen on hard times.

All albums in the Icehouse catalogue were re-released in May 2012 with a focus on the 30th Anniversary Edition of "Primitive Man" and the 30th Anniversary Edition of "Man Of Colours". Between October and November of 2012 Iva Davies and Icehouse performed to sell-out audiences on their Primitive Colours Tour which showcased the songs from the two Anniversary albums plus other favourites from the Icehouse pantheon of hits. Due to the success of the Tour, the band has been invited to present several ‘Encore’ performances in January 2013. Icehouse was also invited to perform several special events during the year. In June 2013 Iva was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the music and entertainment industry as a songwriter and performer, and to the community. Davies closed 2013 with a bit of fun called "DubHouse", where he and an expanded band rework the songs of Icehouse and some much-loved cover songs with reggae, bluebeat and dancehall feels and is looking forward to continuing his and Icehouse’s musical journey.

FRANK ZAPPA - Thing-Fish 
(Barking Pumpkin Records 1984 - Original Recordings from 1976-1983)

 "Thing-Fish" by Frank Zappa was originally released as a triple album box set on Barking Pumpkin Records in 1984. It was billed as a cast recording for a proposed musical of the same name, which was ultimately not produced by Zappa, but later performed in 2003, ten years after his death. The album's storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theater critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into "Mammy Nuns" led by the story's narrator, "Thing-Fish". The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda (actually played by Italian-Americans), who attend a play performed by the "Mammy Nuns", and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life.

The story was constructed during the recording sessions, which included producing new overdubs for recordings which previously appeared on Zappa's albums "Zoot Allures", "Tinseltown Rebellion", "You Are What You Is" and "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch". The release of the album was delayed when Barking Pumpkin Records' previous distributor, MCA, refused to distribute the album. It was instead released by Capitol Records in the United States, accompanied by a "Warning/Guarantee" written by Zappa himself. "Thing-Fish" was initially received poorly by critics, who criticized the use of previously recorded material, but has since been reappraised for its highly satirical content. Before leaving for London to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, Frank Zappa was home during Christmas season in 1982, and kept busy by writing, producing treatments for three films and a Broadway musical called "Thing-Fish". Between 1981 and 1982, Broadway theatre had shifted from conservative musicals to experimental plays that were viewed as either being pretentious or vulgar. "Thing-Fish" satirized statements made by theater critics at the time, as well as arguing against the dumbing down of American culture. Previously, Zappa unsuccessfully attempted to stage two musicals on Broadway, "Hunchentoot", which formed the basis for the compact disc reissue of "Sleep Dirt", and a musical adaptation of William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch. "Thing-Fish" also drew conceptual themes from AIDS, feminism, gay chic, conspiracy theories and issues of class, greed and race.

The script was developed by recording songs beforehand; much of the songs in the play were previously recorded for other albums, including "Zoot Allures", "Tinseltown Rebellion", "You Are What You Is" and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch". New vocals were combined with previously released tracks and new Synclavier music. In addition to the new songs, the previously recorded songs include new overdubs moving this storyline forward. As the recording process continued, Zappa brought in revised scripts and improved the work by editing or changing aspects with which he was dissatisfied. Zappa attempted to produce "Thing-Fish" as a Broadway production. In promotion of the planned musical, a photo sequence based upon the "Briefcase Boogie" scene was shot for the pornographic magazine Hustler, accompanied by plot excerpts from the scene. The sequence was 28 pages long. While the album was released, Zappa was unable to raise the $5 million budget in order to produce the play, and shelved the project. Subsequently, "Thing-Fish" dialogue appeared on the album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, during the piece "Porn Wars". The album was adapted for a limited stage production that took place in England in 2003. Many elaborate details were changed due to the small scale of the production.

Frank Zappa stated: "The simple thought behind Thing-Fish is that somebody manufactured a disease called AIDS and they tested it. They were developing it as a weapon and they tested it on convicts, the same way as they used to do experiments on black inmates, using syphilis. That's documented. They used to do these experiments with syphilis on black inmates in US prisons. That's fact. So we take it one step further and they're concocting the special disease which is genetically specific to get rid of 'all highly rhythmic individuals and sissy boys.' So I postulate that they do this test in a prison and part of the test backfires and these mutants are created." The "Thing-Fish" characterization was performed by Ike Willis, who helped shape the dialogue himself using African American Vernacular English According to Willis, "in my family, we sort of joke around with dialects, and what it sounded like to me was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I asked Frank if he had ever heard of this guy, and he said, 'No,' so I started giving him examples of Dunbar's work, and eventually, that ended up being a big influence on the Thing-Fish dialect."

Minstrel shows served as a source of satire within the storyline. The "Thing-Fish" characterization is also seen as satirizing Amos 'n' Andy, a successful radio series and controversial television series which drew protests from the NAACP, who perceived the dialect spoken by the main characters and supporting character Kingfish as being portrayed as being "too dumb to speak English." Additionally, Zappa satirized the Mammy archetype; the AIDS-like disease in the storyline turns prisoners into "Mammy Nuns" which are round and dress like Aunt Jemima. The Mammy archetype derives from the fictional character Mammy, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the film Gone With The Wind. "Thing-Fish" is delivered as a story within a story, focusing on a spoiled White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play that initially begins as being about and starring the Mammy Nuns. The story ultimately ends up following these characters through a series of ideological fads. It is revealed that Harry had become a homosexual as a result of the women's liberation movement, which caused him to lose all sexual desire for women; the younger versions of the characters are portrayed in the characters "Harry-As-A-Boy" and "Artificial Rhonda", with the young Rhonda being portrayed as a rubber sex doll, while her older counterpart becomes increasingly fascistic and feminist towards the end of the story.

The concept of Thing-Fish satirized minstrel shows. "Mammy Nuns" resemble blackface performers. The prologue is delivered as a spoken monologue over an instrumental piece with a heavy rock guitar riff. It is followed by the song "The Mammy Nuns", which originated as a hard rock instrumental, which appears in a live recording as "The Mammy Anthem" on "You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1", and opened performances in June and July 1982. "Galoot Up-Date" is an altered version of the recording "The Blue Light", which appeared on Zappa's album "Tinseltown Rebellion". As Harry and Rhonda express admiration for the "performance" of the Evil Prince, an early version of Zappa's Synclavier composition "Amnerika" is heard. "Clowns on Velvet" was performed live as a spirited, playful instrumental. A recording of the instrumental version featuring guitarist Al Di Meola was planned for release on the album "Tinseltown Rebellion", but DiMeola refused its release. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, appearing as the character Brown Moses, delivered running commentary in the song "He's So Gay", and sang the song "Brown Moses", which was influenced by soul and gospel music. The play's first act is concluded with "Artificial Rhonda", a rewrite of the song "Ms. Pinky", which appeared on "Zoot Allures".

The next track begins with early Synclavier music by Zappa, and the computerized voice of "The Crab-Grass Baby", followed by the Mammy Nuns singing "The White Boy Troubles". The Evil Prince, defeated at his own hands, delivers a soliloquy in the form of a Broadway piano ballad, "Wistful Wit a Fist-Full". The "Thing-Fish" album was identified as an 'original cast recording'. Barking Pumpkin Records prepared to release the album with distribution by MCA Records. MCA produced a test pressing of the triple LP set, but withdrew their distribution after a woman in their quality control department became offended and upset by the album's content. A deal was quickly made with EMI Records, which would allow "Them Or Us" and "Thing-Fish" to be distributed by Capitol Records in the United States. Zappa wrote a "warning" which appeared on the inner sleeves of these albums, as well as Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which stated that the albums contained content which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress, and a "guarantee" which stated that the lyrics would not cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business.

"Thing-Fish" was poorly received by critics upon initial release; a common thread of criticism was that many of the songs on this album derived from previously released recordings, and some detractors considered it to be nothing more than a compilation album. Barry Miles found it to be one of his least substantive works. More recently the album has been reappraised, described by Kevin Courrier in Dangerous kitchen: the subversive world of Zappa as a compendium of Zappa's most explicit attacks on political and sexual hypocrisy in American culture collected together in one huge volley. In Frank Zappa and musical theatre: ugly ugly o'phan Annie and really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism, "Thing-Fish" is described as an extraordinary example of bricolage. As reviewed by François Couture for the website Allmusic, Couture described "Thing-Fish" as Zappa's most controversial, misunderstood, overlooked album, stating that it was not a masterpiece, but more than rehashed material.

Jan 11, 2019

GENE CLARK - Flying High (A&M Records 540 725-2, 1998)

There's not many that could write a song like Gene. Take one song, "Spanish Guitar". A song that which no less than Bob Dylan said was 'something I or anybody else would have been proud to have written'. We open with "You Showed Me" a song never properly recorded by The Byrds but turned into a hit by The Turtles a few years later. And by The Lightning Seeds in England many years later. The guy could write songs. We have a couple of Gene's finest Byrds moments before we move onto the solo material. "Set You Free This Time" is just so good. That slight quiver is his voice is everything. He wasn't a fabulous singer I suppose but he could sing and that quiver in his voice invested everything he did with a tremendous emotional quality. Besides, the likes of "'Set You Free This Time" contains some of the greatest lyrics written by anybody. No wonder Bob admired his song writing. "She Don't Care About Time" is a superlative Byrds single that inexplicably was never included on a regular Byrds album. Its just fabulous, the guitars jangle away and it's pop music. Prime Beatles influenced music that in turn influenced The Beatles not least George Harrison who was a huge fan of The Byrds.

Moving on through the first couple of solo records i've already covered we have highlights with the ridiculously happy "Tried So Hard", the stone cold classic "Train Leaves Here This Morning" and the simply brilliant "Why Not Your Baby". And, on this compilation at least, a couple of rarities. Rarities ? Gene recorded a single "The French Girl" / "Los Angeles" after his solo debut. The single never gained release and Gene ultimately decided to ditch that particular style and move more towards a country rock style. "The French Girl": this is such a fantastic song. Supremely melodic, the quiver in his voice present and correct and some fantastically romantic evocative lyrics. This song gets to me every time. It was never released ? It should have been number one! Really. And, "Los Angeles". Rock and Roll. Sorry, i'm getting carried away, but really, these songs are just so damn good and grin inducing. Everybody should get hold of these two songs. They really are that good.

More quality out-takes here. Gene had a bunch of them. "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" - a great Dylan cover given a rock beat but still retaining a country flavour. "Something's Wrong" from "Fantastic Expedition" sounding as great and wondrous as ever. The decent "Polly" (later covered by Ian Matthews) and "Dark Hollow" - yet more Gene Clark out-takes better than most writers best moments. A special mention for the two songs at the end of the first disc. "She's The Kind Of Girl" and "One In A Hundred" were Byrds re-unions. The mixes here are different to those that later emerged and were recorded with Jim Dickson The Byrds original mentor. They are simply fantastic, far superior to anything The Byrds were doing at that stage. The jangle is present, the harmonies are stupendous. Really. And, "She's The Kind Of Girl" is simply beautiful.

Highlights of the second disc of course include the songs taken from his classic "No Other" album from 1974. We open with some beautiful acoustic songs, "With Tomorrow" and "Spanish Guitar". "Spanish Guitar" especially is a thing to behold. A wonderful song, heartbreaking and beautiful again. A number of pleasant songs pass by until we reach the next moment of pure genius. "Full Circle Song" - the version here is different to the version on The Byrds largely disappointing 1973 reunion album. This is Gene's original version and dammit if it isn't wonderful! Wonderfully recorded and performed, a little Byrds jangle in the guitar and its just so uplifiting and happy. No wonder The Byrds wanted it to open their reunion album. This song always makes me smile and makes me happy. "I Remember The Railroad" is so atmospheric, wonderfully desolate in feel. Skipping the "No Other" songs for the moment, the remainder of the record is tasteful, quality but never again reaching heights of genius. Gene had something of a bad lifestyle and a drinking habit that ultimately cost him his life. "Fair And Tender Ladies" however is late period Gene Clark and does send a chill up the spine. A beautiful folk song with added female harmonies.

"No Other" was the album Gene recorded for Asylum Records with a budget that went way over what had been originally allocated. The production was state of the art, experimental. The songs were all 5, 6 and 7 minutes plus and daring in their ambition. They remind me of Bob Dylan's "Desire" album which was released in 1976. "No Other" came out in 1974. "Silver Raven" and "The True One" are both amongst the best songs Gene ever wrote. And, then ? "Lady Of The North". This is the one. The emotional quiver, fantastic vocals actually, some of the best he ever did. Soaring musical parts, a song in sections each one adding to the last. Violin! Desire! "flying high, above the clouds. we lay in grassy meadows, the earth was like a pillow - for our dreams". Wonderful lyrics, great piano. One of the finest six minutes in musical history. It's 4.30pm in the afternoon. I'm half way through the song. I've not drunk any alcohol, i'm sober and sane. One of the best songs and performances of all time. And of course of of the greatest so called "Best Of" albums ever released. A collection worth to have.


Jan 10, 2019

SHAWN PHILLIPS - At The BBC (Hux Records HUX102, 2009)

It’s something of a cliché to say it but unbelievably Shawn Phillips remains on the periphery of mainstream rock, despite selling hundreds of thousands of albums and singles since he first came on to the scene in the 1960s. Once famously described by the late rock impresario Bill Graham as ‘the best kept secret in the music business’, Shawn has collaborated with the good and great, from Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton, to Donovan and Bernie Taupin, was cast to play the lead in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he had to pull out due to his other music commitments), written soundtracks for and starred in movie,s and yet he’s as far as ever from being a household name. Born in Fort Worth, Texas on February 3, 1943, Shawn was smitten by pop music from an early age. ‘My father gave me a Stella guitar when I was six, and it started there’, he recalls. ‘ Texas blues and rock’n’roll on the radio - "Rockin’ Robin" for one, and the Everly Brothers and such’. In 1959 he left Texas, ‘because the police wanted me for my automobile. It was fast’, and he ended up in the US Navy for the next three years until he was discharged. ‘Honorable discharge’, he now quips, ‘it was due to medical reasons. I had too much cartilage in my knees (it’s called Osgoodschlatter’s Disease. A lot of young sports people get it). I later had it corrected’.

As fate would have it, he ended up in Southern California where he befriended singer/guitarist Tim Hardin. ‘I met Tim in LA around 1962’, he recounts, ‘after we had known each other for several weeks, he suggested we go to New York ’. The folk revival was in full swing and Greenwich Village was awash with a wave of new talent, they were soon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fred Neil, Ritchie Havens and a young Bob Dylan. As he later joked, ‘I played every class A club that exists in the United States from the ‘Hungry I’ on down to the other end. The best gig I ever had was the Café Au-Go-Go when it opened, with Lenny Bruce’. But there was obviously a bit of the Woody Guthrie in Shawn, he’s always been a travelling man. Whilst in Toronto he met the classical Indian musician Ravi Shankar and ‘he set me off with the desire to play sitar. I left the States to go to India to study the instrument. I got waylaid in London by Denis Preston, who heard me sing at a party and asked me if I wanted to make a record. I told him sure as long as there’s no time clause to the contract. Never got to India but I learned to play the instrument anyway’.

It was in London in Ivor Moraint’s famous Music Store that Shawn met Donovan Leitch, who was just enjoying his first taste of fame and they shared a fruitful if brief relationship, with Shawn touring America with the young guitarist, they even played the Pete Seger TV show, where Shawn was interviewed by the great ex-Weavers singer about the sitar and mentor Ravi Shankar. But the relationship with Donovan was rather one-way and in 1971 Shawn would observe, ‘we wrote a lot of things together and there wasn’t over much said about my part. The only thing I ever got credit for was "Little Tin Soldier" on the "Fairy Tale" album. We co-wrote "Season of the Witch". We were sitting there on the floor and I was playing my guitar and Don started making up words to what I was playing. And I made up that funny little riff that you hear on the original ‘Season of the Witch’. The "Sunshine Superman", I co-wrote most of the stuff on that’. However, Shawn’s stay in the UK was cut short by the Home Office, ‘the English government said my work permit had expired and I must leave England for three months’, a short bout in jail in Dublin and a stay in Paris followed, before Shawn found a new base in Italy. ‘My friend Casy Deiss told me to go to Positano and return after three months was up. I didn’t’. This little Mediterranean fishing village was to be Phillips’s home for the next 13 years, and its friendly, gentle atmosphere would provide him with the perfect environment to write and develop as a musician.

He’d already recorded a number of singles and albums for various EMI imprints, but in 1968 he signed to A&M and embarked on a project which should have cemented his reputation as not only a gifted composer, a fine singer, highly innovative guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, but also as a musician willing to take chances. It should have catapulted him into the big time. Recorded at Trident Studios in London with producer Jonathan Weston, Shawn began his most ambitious work to date, Trilogy. Unfortunately as he later opined, it ‘took me four and a half years to make and it took them (A&M Records) about two weeks to take apart’. All that music that he’d been soaking up since his first got into the business five years before poured out in an amazing splurge of creativity and originality, written against that sweeping psychedelic backdrop of the late 60s, it combined elements of jazz, rock, folk, blues, gospel, classical and his love of Indian music to stunning effect. It should have been his masterwork, his "Solid Air" or "Sgt. Pepper". It was a tragedy that the work was never released as it was intended. As Shawn recounted to Goldmine in 2006: 'the Trilogy was actually made and presented to A&M Records with the stipulation that each album would be released separately so that people would not have to buy all three at once. Everyone at A&M said yes to this project except one man, an executive at A&M. He considered it was unrealistic and looked at it solely from a financial standpoint, never even considering the artistic endeavour involved. He was the comptroller at the time. He made me take the Trilogy apart and put eight of the songs on to one album, which became "Contribution". The rest, with the exception of one or two songs, went on to "Second Contribution". This man was one of the forerunners for the desolate miasma the music business is today’.One can only ponder on what might have been had the original concept prevailed.

Even so these two records, which eventually emerged in 1970, are not without their pleasures, the first LP featured some great Phillips songs and also superlative playing not just from Shawn but from old ‘Slow Hand’ himself on "Man Hole Covered Wagon", and Messrs Winwood, Capaldi and Wood (Traffic) on ‘For RFK, JFK and MLK’. ‘Every single song was recorded in less than three takes and the master vocals were not overdubbed later but were done in the same moment’, says Shawn. Second Contribution was more experimental and abstract with fabulous orchestrations from Paul Buckmaster. Despite these major frustrations with his record label, Shawn came to record his first Peel session on something of a roll. Although never well marketed, "Contribution" was described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘one of 1970’s better efforts’. On Saturday afternoon 29th August he’d played unbilled to an audience of some 500000 people at the third Isle of Wight Pop Festival. The previous December he had also released a well-received Yuletide 45, "A Christmas Song". Indeed, side by side with the broadcast of his first BBC session, Rolling Stone had also just given him a highly positive centre spread, written by noted critic Chet Flippo. The timing could not have been better.

Phillips’s staunchest fans already know what a treat these Beeb recordings are, but with 38 years of hindsight it strikes this scribe somewhat odd that in the realms of ‘legendary sessions’ done by ‘Auntie’, this is never mentioned in despatches. To these ears at least, it’s up there with the likes of Tim Buckley’s legendary 68 recordings for the corporation. Kicking off with "Hey Miss Lonely" which he would later re-do in 1972 in LA with highly regarded session men Lee Sklar and Sneeky Pete Kleinow as part of the sessions for Faces, this gets us off to a cracking start. Shawn’s memories of this session are at best sketchy but he wryly adds, ‘Fuck me! Did I do that ? OK, the acoustic tunes are what they are, and I notice I flat picked "Hey Miss Lonely", I finger pick it now, and can’t remember when I started doing that’. The version on Faces is a gentler take with a country lilt rounded out by Sklar’s lovely bubbling bass and Pete’s sweet steel. The Radio 1 recording here maybe a rawer snapshot but both versions work equally well. In contrast "Spring Wind" is a reading take of the 9 ½ minute full-blown electric epic found on 1971’s "Collaboration" - an introspective, brooding piece which features some incredibly dexterous picking from the man and the lower range of his wonderfully elastic voice. "Salty Tears" is a bluesy number, with superb harmonising between his guitar lines and voice, Shawn could flick from a low rumble to a soaring falsetto in the blink of an eye, this is a performance of one of the more obscure songs in his catalogue that only ever saw the light of day as the flipside of the 1974 single "All the Kings and Castles" - and it’s the only number on the session to use an electric guitar and the way he wields his Fender Telecaster is just jaw-droppingly brilliant.

For most musicians a performance like that would be hard to top but the last two numbers from March 1971 are just as potent, and both taken from the aforementioned "Contribution" LP. Shawn’s driving 12-string playing is given full flight on "Withered Roses". The song starts with a stunning raga-like sequence - shades of the great Fred Neal and David Crosby here - before a full onslaught of super-fast picking. In 2008 Shawn observes, ‘I have a conundrum. I’ve been thinking about playing "Withered Roses" again in concert, but instead of an acoustic 12-string, I would use an electric 12-string. Peter Robinson has my original Gibson 12 string at his home in LA. He sampled it for use on his New England Digital Synclavier. I would rather it be in safe place, as it is the second 12 string Gibson made, after the prototype. Barney Kessel got the first one. We played a session together once, and he played mine, and I played his, and he offered to trade mine for his, with $500 on top of that. I said, “Don’t think so. Thanks anyway”’. "L. Ballad" is just gorgeous, one of his best - a song brimming with mystery and imagination that has undergone various transformations. Here somewhat reminiscent of the best work by the Tims (Hardin, Rose and Buckley), it was later re-done for Faces where Shawn was backed up by Skaila Kanga on harp and the 85-piece David Katz Orchestra with a haunting, majestic arrangement courtesy of Paul Buckmaster. Even so, this unadorned solo version is hard to fault, it’s the real jewel in the crown of this first BBC set. By the time he came to do the next BBC session for Bob Harris in March 1973, Shawn was regularly working with a backing band which featured

Drummer Barry de Souza, guitarist Tony Walmsley and keyboard player Peter Robinson. As Peter recalls, ‘I met Shawn in the autumn of 1971. My long standing friend and fellow Royal Academy of Music alumnus, Paul Buckmaster, had met Shawn during the recording of Contribution and took me over to see him at his flat located in one of London ’s famously secluded squares. We instantly hit it off and we all talked endlessly until the wee hours. It was during these dialogues that Shawn asked me to play keyboards on his next album. We took the songs from "Contribution", "Second Contribution" and "Collaboration" on the road and I played with Shawn for the next five years in concert. On the Bob Harris Show we had no bass player at that time and so I played all the bass parts on Fender Rhodes bass keyboard. The only other group I knew about that utilised this instrument was the Doors’. First up is "Spaceman", done for the "Collaboration" album, a number says Shawn ‘prompted by my getting hit on, on the street, by various sundry Jesus freaks, whom I would invariably leave standing speechless, because I would remind them of the origins of the bible, and the myriad cultures that actually contributed to its writing, much of which was long before Jesus. For someone who loves Jesus so much, they weren’t real happy with the truth. Also contributing to it was a blonde lady (now long forgotten), that piqued my fancy’. "Not Quite Nonsense" was another song from the Contribution record – something of a humorous break-neck tongue-twister - ‘”will the lady in the rear please be kind enough to take her lovely hat off”’, was actually the line that set the writing of the song off’, he says, ‘I like the ending as well, “and we’ll call a stop to all that’s not harmonic”. There wasn’t anything left to say. Dead stop’.

There is a pair of aces from the Faces record: "Anello" has a Donovan flavour particularly in the vocal phrasing, not surprising given their earlier friendship, whilst "I Took A Walk" shows the more political side of Phillips’ song writing. Talking now of the versions recorded for Bob Harris, Shawn says: ‘OK, what you have to remember is that in the studio when you’re trying to make an album, you have time to create several different moments, whereas in the radio studio you’ve got to get it right the first time. Each situation is different’. The take of "Took A Walk" is certainly faster and snappier, with Robinson’ electric keyboards adding a funkier edge compared to the one on the record. The final contribution to this session is another gem: "Dream Queen", later recorded for 1974’s "Bright White" album, is pretty much another solo performance. Phillips adds, ‘I think the guitar I was playing was a Fender 6-string bass. I had turned the bridge around, so I could put guitar strings on it’.

When Phillips came to do his second Peel show in October 1974 former Big Three bassist Johnny Gustafson had replaced Tony Walmsley. Gustafson had already played with Shawn on "Spaceman" and had been in the prog-rock organ-led power trio with Peter Robinson, Quatermass, and they’d co-headlined concerts together so this was a grand reunion. The funk elements that had been peeping through on the Harris recordings were now given full reign. Phillips’s music was now following a heavy jazz-funk direction. Peter Robinson recalls, ‘we recorded an album called "Furthermore" which made several musical turns to funk and extended improvisations. We were asked to record again for the Beeb in 1974, for John Peel. What a gentleman. He treated us so well and, I think, it made us play better. Thank you John!’ The final tracks on this Hux release are all based on tracks recorded for that LP. Talking about this change of style, Phillips now observes, ‘Truthfully, I have to pass the buck on to Pete (Robinson) and Paul (Buckmaster). They opened my mind to soooo much music: Stockhausen, Miles, Penderecki, composers who made music that made you run out of the fucking room.’

About that final Peel session, he adds: ‘I have to say that I think they were amazing moments. Dude, Miles would be proud. The jam on "See You / Planscape" is wonderful. ’92 years’ is funk personified, and "Talking in the Garden" / "Furthermore" just flat out smokes. I can’t believe the tempo on "January 1st". Great energy by everyone involved’. Gustafson adds: ‘It’s difficult to say how the music evolved, but Shawn was always open to ideas as long as it didn’t interfere with his original concept. For instance, when we rehearsed "January 1st" in Los Angeles, there wasn’t an arrangement as such so after a few attempts I tried something quite fast that I thought might fit in with Barry’s drum pattern. It was just a repeated bass riff spread over an A flat minor 7th scale. It seemed to work after it was played more staccato’. Peter Robinson, who played B3 Hammond Organ, Moog and ARP synthesizers, Fender Rhodes piano, clavinets ‘and the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure’ says, ‘Everything was done in one take! At the end of the song "Planscape", one can distinguish a somewhat truncated version of a tune that Paul Buckmaster wrote for Miles Davis. I think secretly Paul’s a little pissed off that Miles never credited him with the composition so here it is, quoted as if to quietly cock a snoot.’

Going by these recordings, live gigs at the time must have been extraordinary - there’s an incredible electricity to them that had not been over evident in his earlier work. Shawn’s fixation with this type of music would see him go on to work with various ex-Herbie Hancock Headhunters sidemen, on records like "Rumplestiltskin’s Resolve", whilst the spaced out jazz-funk jams would reach their zenith on 1977’s "Spaced" and the 16-minute "Came To Say Goodbye". Sadly he has as yet never returned to the portals of Broadcasting House, but he has gone on to enjoy a long career as a musician and continues making interesting records and playing gigs to this day. He’s currently living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa , where in between writing and touring, he works as an emergency medical technician and fire fighter. He remains outspoken too - when I spoke to him about the BBC sessions, he finished with a typically forthright burst of Phillips insight - ‘now I got a question for you. Why don’t we hear music like this today ? Where are the artists and musicians that create at that level ? Seems everybody wants to play rock, blues or pop. For me today rock is standard chords with amps at 11, and no substance, and pop is oversimplified, and panders to the raging hormones of adolescent teenagers, and I don’t play blues, because I’m not black, and have no conception of the depths of despair those people suffered under such oppression, and never will. Any white guy that says they can identify with that is deluding themselves’.