Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 3)

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: We’ve touched on this a bit already: there’s absolutely no guitar on the album. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to arrange the music without the use of guitar? As I mentioned earlier, I come from a rock background, so I’m still learning about jazz. And one thing I’ve learned is that, as often as not, the beat in jazz is implied rather than explicitly laid down. What I find on Worlds Around the Sun is that guitars are almost implied.

Todd Cochran: Yes. And that came from the Clavinet; that’s what I was thinking about. And the Fender Rhodes electric piano allowed me to dictate that rhythmic aspect much more clearly. The colors that the Rhodes gave to the music were pretty new. Some of those records that you were speaking of by Cannonball Adderley – “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and that period – feature Josef Zawinul on keyboards. He was using a Wurlitzer [EP200A]. The Fender Rhodes wasn’t happening yet. The Wurlitzer wasn’t as full and rich as what the Rhodes became. So with that instrument, the music was much more intense. What really changed were the rhythms that the drummers were playing. You’d be immersed in these rhythmic environment. And what the Rhodes and the Clavinet did was provide colors, with a precision that helped define the music more rhythmically.

And you had people who had been used to playing the piano; I had been playing since I was about three years old. So take someone who’s been playing and studying piano most of their life. Then they go into an instrument that’s not an organ, not a Wurlitzer, but something that has almost the full range (the 88-key Rhodes came later). So they’re taking a pianistic approach and applying it to something electric. You had a different kind of sustaining factor, and you might not have the harmonic interaction you’d have on an acoustic piano. But you could adjust volume, phasing, vibrato. And for a pianist, that was a fascinating world to enter.

We’d have these instruments modified – at no small expense – to make them more responsive, to make the attack more precise. And we’d work on the electronics, to make, for lack of a better word, an artist’s instrument.

BK: Sort of like a guitarist changing out his instrument’s stock pickups…

TC: Yeah. And they do things like shave the frets. The same idea. So we were getting into some areas that were pretty exciting. And the drummers were playing much louder to get the sounds that they wanted out of the drums. You would hear the drums on a rock record that you liked, but you would not get drums like that at a jazz club volume; forget it. So when they did play louder, that made it hard for pianists. Club pianos were not that great, so you’d bring in an electric piano, and create your own audio environment. And that had a lot to do with where the music went.

BK: Not that it’s the be-all and end-all of things, but at present there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for Worlds Around the Sun. I suppose that’s because it was unavailable for so long. Used copies of the original LP start at $60. Why do you think it went out of print, after receiving such good critical notices and selling reasonably well?

TC: I think that the company [Prestige], which was owned by Saul Zaentz, was a privately held company. So they had certain assets that they worked on. They could only give certain records a certain level of attention. They were not signing new artists, and I think eventually the company was sold to Concord. And so not only did they get the prestige of having this great jazz catalog, but I don’t think they knew everything that was in the catalog. And I don’t think Prestige was ever in the business of making jazz stars, either.

They weren’t doing tour support or any big promotional campaigns. They worked really well with the press, but they weren’t in the business of out-marketing their competitors. But that’s me speaking with an executive hat on.

The thrust of the company was not that. When you get in that business, you have to have a steady stream of product that represents the brand. They had a great art department, though. It was there in Berkeley, so it had to be hip to a certain level. So that’s a second sort of what-if question.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is an undiscovered gem that can now be discovered. And it’s great to see Omnivore Recordings doing it; they have quickly developed a reputation for very thoughtful crate-digging, for lack of a better word.

TC: Curating.

BK: Yes, curating: that’s a better word.

TC: And I think that has everything to do with the times. The music that I made at that time, 1972, the music of that time was so different from the expressions that had come before. I don’t think the social commentary and critics of that time fully understood where the music was originating. So it’s really great to be able to revisit it, and talk about it in an expansive way.

People are talking about some of the concept albums that the art rock bands were making; people are very interested in old Genesis records. I went on to work with Peter Gabriel, too. People are interested in Pink Floyd albums, and in these bigger concepts. Those are records that were talking about the emotional and psychological frame of mind of the times. And that’s still interesting to people as we ask ourselves: How did we get where we are right now?

For me, it’s always been about dreaming the life you want to live, and always being curious. When original thoughts are made into something musical, if it’s well done, there’s a reward for the curious.

And I’m excited to the point where I shot a video for one of the tracks from the record. The track “It Ain’t” is basically about the song from Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It ties into the idea of mythologies. It’s a big thing to go against those, because people have a whole lot of views about music, about people’s aspirations. And the revolution that the we attached to music in the early 70s meant that we were all looking at society and allegiances differently. And that’s fodder for some high creativity. And I’m very appreciative to have been a part of that. Because it set the trajectory of my musical ideals.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 2)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Todd Cochran: And I worked with John Handy, who was on Columbia. To digress a bit back to your earlier question, which is still going around in my head…John Handy had done some very interesting music with Ali Akbar Khan, who played with Ravi Shankar. Some very interesting music. So there was jazz being blended with East Indian classical music.

Bill Kopp: I didn’t realize that hybrid had happened! There was an album that came out about five, six years ago called Miles From India. But I had no idea such a thing had been explored that far back.

TC: Yeah. John Handy, who had been in Charlie Mingus‘ band, was really a very special player. He played all over the world, and he taught for a time at San Francisco State University. I played with John for about a year and a half. I worked with Woody Shaw; I played with Joe Henderson briefly. I kind of circled Blue Note, but it never “happened.” I ended up producing Freddie Hubbard for Blue Note many years later; I wrote an album for him called Times are Changing.

I’ll give you one little insight here. That record I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson, Head On, was produced by George Butler; Butler went on to be a very powerful A&R guy at Columbia. He was Miles Davis‘ A&R guy, and he also signed Wynton Marsalis. I did a lot of projects with George Butler with CBS/Sony. And it was really something I learned way down the road that Head On was the first record that he had produced!

But yes, to answer your question, Blue Note would have really changed my trajectory. It had a lot to do with the fact that I was in San Francisco. I learned my art there, and I’m very happy to have grown up in that environment. Again, it was about the balance of cultures. Haight-Ashbury, the free speech movement coming out of Berkeley, City Lights Bookstore, the American Conservatory Theater. It was the beginning of a lot of what we’re experiencing now: gay rights and such. It was all there. It was a place for ideas. And everyone was interacting with each other, because it’s a much smaller city, geographically, than, say, Los Angeles.

BK: I hadn’t really thought about the way that a city’s geography can affect its musical character…

TC: Absolutely. Very much so. In San Francisco, The Grateful Dead were playing. The [Jefferson] Airplane. There was Bill Graham, David Rubinson. So much energy. I would say that it was the centerpiece of the American cultural revolution. Forward-thinking ideas were driven by the intellectual community. And there was money there, too. And the money went into these great academic places, so this place that was rich with ideas meant that everyone could have their curiosities satisfied.

But a lot of people felt completely put off by it; it was too intense. People don’t realize just how much came out of that scene. Cal Tjader was there. Dave Brubeck came out of that.

BK: The whole West coast jazz scene…

TC: Vince Guaraldi came out of that too. And Duke Ellington did his spiritual concerts there, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Cornel West had a series that he toured with, with Rabbi Lerner; that was a great, powerful dialog. Everything was there for the taking.

BK: Your wah-wah work on the Hohner Clavinet D6 is a highlight of “Free Angela.”

TC: You must be a keyboard player…

BK: Yes, I am. The vocal chants add a great texture, more musical than lyrical to my ears. I know that there’s a point to what’s being sung, but I hear those vocal lines as a purely musical component. When you composed the track, was the idea of employing the wah-wah pedal – because you’re really pumping it – so prominently part of the original idea, or did it develop in the studio?

TC: I was fascinated by the guitar. I always loved guitar. I’m a pianist, and I come from the classical world. But people were doing such amazing things with that instrument, and then they figured out how to modify the sound electronically. And I’m sure it was some great accident of mis-wiring, but then they created this pedal where you could control the variations in that signal. And it became a complete sound experience. I liked that it gave me the opportunity to get close to what I loved about what guitarists were doing. It’s a bit like what people were doing with brass instruments, using a plunger or other hand mutes. So it became a sort of vernacular expression. You could do it rhythmically, or you could just slowly adjust it. A closed sound would be like the downbeat, and the open sound on two and four would be like the backbeat.

Another thing that I was just learning it that when it was amplified, when you’re in the proximity of the amplifier, you could actually sustain sounds. Feed back sounds. That’s something I explored a bit down the road. But it was a lot of fun.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun is wonderfully difficult to classify. There’s out-there avant jazz, soul, funk, rock texture, pop melodies. There’s something for everyone. You were only 20 when you made the record; what were your thoughts going into the sessions? Did you want to make a record that explored your interests and abilities, to have commercial success, or just to best deliver the set of songs you had written?

TC: All of the above. It was really important to me to be authentic musically. I enjoyed so many musicians, and been inspired by so many great players. I played the Hohner Clavinet with Herbie Hancock on a film called The Spook Who Sat Behind the Door. I was really proud of that; Herbie conducted and I played keyboards on the film score. And the film has gone into the National Film Registry as a representation of the period. I was exploring the D6 a lot on that.

And that’s what the film needed to have, to be fully relevant. I came up at a time when folk music was great, and r&b was moving into these wider expressions where it was not just relegated to subjects of love.

BK: Right; it became much more personal-to-the-universal.

TC: The whole range of expression was opening up, particular for African Americans. And commercial success was important, because that allowed you to be able to go out and play your music. Commercialism was perhaps secondary, as the idea was to make a connection with an audience.

The songs themselves on Worlds Around the Sun had a thematic conceptual approach. Songs like “It Ain’t” were about looking at certain mythologies. The light was shining much more brightly than it had previously; the main commitment was to playing the music as well as it could be played. And the desire to communicate was very, very important. There was music being made at that time that was very technical. It may have been brilliant, but it was not necessarily inclusive; it didn’t invite you in. You might see musicians playing, and you’d be taken in by this mighty relationship they had with their instrument, whereas my interest was to make music or art that was inclusive, that brought them into the melodic and thematic dimensions of the music, where it created a space where maybe we could think about an idea, together. That was what was important to me; not a display of brilliance and technique.

BK: A balance between appeals to the head and the heart…

TC: Absolutely. And I think that’s really important.

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“How did we get where we are right now?” A Conversation with Todd Cochran (Part 1)

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Earlier this year, I spent a delightful and fascinating afternoon in conversation with Todd Cochran, aka Bayeté. His 1972 album Worlds Around the Sun has just gotten the deluxe reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings.

Our discussion began informally as we discussed where I was coming from. As a relative newcomer to jazz, I approach most everything new I hear with the ears and sensibility of a rock fan. That has led me to two specific types of jazz: the highly melodic, pop-leaning work of Cannonball Adderley, and the fusion-leaning experimental jazz of the late 60s and early 70s. As it happens, the latter genre is well-represented by an Adderley album, Black Messiah, recently reissued by Real Gone Music. I wrote the liner notes for the reissue, and a brief discussion of that project helped establish some common ground between Cochran and myself. That said, we quickly discovered we had much more than a love of that album in common, but it served as a touchstone to get our interview going.

We began the more structured part of our conversation discussing the philosophical framework and outlook that Cochran brought to Worlds Around the Sun. — bk


Todd Cochran: The thing that we all come in touch with, once we’re touched by a piece of music, by something that the player wanted us to experience, is that we’re breathing the same air. And the day cycles are the same. We live in parallel existences. I came to a realization, summed up in one sentence: there’s a ring around the world. All of it can be reached at the emotional level. And it’s very exciting when we reach that place.

All creative musical forms are only one generation away from extinction. So they have to be explained and described in a way that people can absorb the important aspects of the forms. Like folk music: to really understand that it’s a fundamental type of creativity. So it’s important that we understand how it came into existence. When we try to represent that experience, we’re really re-creating something. And then it takes on an art form in and of itself. And I feel that’s the foundation of jazz, soul, r&b and rock. They take those folk elements to the next level and interpret them.

Bill Kopp: For a brief period – probably no more than a few years – in the early 1970s, there was a rich cross-fertilization between jazz, rock, and what we now call world music. You were in Automatic Man; Stomu Yamashta did his Go albums with some of the same artists; and people like Cannonball Adderley were enlisting musical help from Mike Deasy, Airto Moriera and so on. What do you think it was about that era that provided the fertile ground for these sorts of hybrids to occur?

TC: I feel that it originated with the intensity of the times. There were many different aspects in the cultural stream, all intersecting at the same time. What we saw with younger people – of which I was one; I was very young at that time – were ideas that were new, and a lot of assertions that were often completely opposed to those of our parents. I think that what we experienced on the outside, the expression of that, was revolutionary. And the rebellious part was us reacting to our parents’ outlooks, and their attitudes about us coming into our own, finding our own ways to express ourselves.

The punk music that came forth in the late 1970s and early 80s was an expression of that rebelliousness very directly, whereas the music of the late 60s and early 70s was actually an expression of revolutionary ideas. We all eventually come into a time in which we want to feel something very deeply, and the massive shift in the social dynamics of this country allowed a lot of people to have that deep feeling. And it was certainly transferred into musical forms. And when you have things that are impacting each other, the operative response is to try to find balance. And there were a number of people who were working to find that balance. And that resulted in a lot of experimentation. And one thing that made it very interesting is that a lot of people were able to follow this change in musical tastes; that wasn’t true with the events leading up to this period, with the avant garde. Because these were not avant garde, margin ideas.

BK: Worlds Around the Sun was initially released on Prestige, and had a relatively low profile in the commercial world. Adderley was on Capitol, Miles Davis was on Columbia. I wonder if your album had been on a more mainstream (as in, less associated with jazz) label, if it might have gotten wider notice.

TC: It probably would have. I was on Prestige at the time, along with Hampton Hawes, and Bill Evans had been there. I was signed by Saul Zaentz, who went on to become and auteur in filmmaking. He had tremendous taste; of course everyone knows him for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The English Patient and Amadeus; he had really very refined and sophisticated tastes. And he’s known for Fantasy Records, and his association there with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Saul was married to Charlie Mingus‘ second wife.

My first recordings were on Blue Note, an album I wrote for Bobby Hutcherson called Head On. That featured a twenty-one piece orchestra. And then I did a record with Duke Pearson on Blue Note. I was never signed with Blue Note, though; I wrote a record for Hadley Caliman on Mainstream Records, where I worked with producer Bob Shad.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part Two

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Your album The Universe of Geoffrey Brown is very “visual,” in that it creates a mind movie in the listener’s head, much like old radio programs. Were you looking to put something together that was in line with radio dramas of old, or did that not figure in to your thinking?

Captain Sensible: Yes, I love radio. But I don’t care for film and TV too much, it has to be said. You sussed that did you? Movies did hit all up for you: you’re a passive sponge soaking up whatever you are given, reacting in exactly the way the film creators intend, and your emotions are prodded and controlled at will.

I feel very strongly that we should all be more aware of how we are being manipulated by what we watch. Audio leaves more to your own imagination and your thoughts can wander into areas of your own choosing. Much better, in my opinion.

I listen to BBC Radio 4′s Archers soap about rural English farmers. It’s a bit boring at times, but it’s brilliantly done and it makes me laugh. Some of the characters have been going for 40 years or so! Not the cows, though; they all ended up in pies years ago.

BK: You played some of the Universe songs in the concert documented on Live at the Milky Way. Did it ever occur to you to mount a live-performance version of Universe?

CS: Yes, the songs worked great live. But I feel the audience needs to know the story for interest to be held in some of the more meandering pieces, so I will probably only perform the album in its entirety if we’ve either staged the whole thing theatrically or – cue cries of “hypocrite” – gotten Geoffrey Brown made as a movie prior to gigs.

BK: Copies of The Universe of Geoffrey Brown are not easy to find. For that matter, none of your albums is particularly easy to locate in North America. But of course you’ve enjoyed much greater success in the UK. What do you say to the argument that your work it “too English” to be assimilated by American audiences? (The same argument is sometimes leveled at The Kinks, Small Faces, etc. so you’d be in good company.)

CS: Maybe…I dunno. You won’t find me complaining that I could’ve been a contender or whatever though, as I’ve had a pretty fun time as a muso over the years. I was crap at getting up in the morning, so the jobs I attempted upon leaving school generally only lasted a few days owing to poor timekeeping on behalf of my laziness. Thankfully I am not usually asked to work until the evening these days…although I have missed a few flights over the years.

BK: Your last studio release was in 2002. What are you up to musically these days?

CS: Funny you should ask, as I’ve (laughs) just made a concept album with ex-Damned bassist Paul Gray entitled A Postcard From Britain. It was written and recorded with the aid of some of the acoustic instruments hanging on his living room wall, like bouzouki, sitar, mandolin, et cetera.

We decided to write a bunch of songs which have as their theme things about the UK that we find annoying, amusing, or plain daft. So there’s plenty of potential for material there! The lyrics were mainly written in Paul’s local pub, so as you can imagine we had a real laugh naming names and poking the occasional accusing finger.

Plus of course being a closet progger there’s no shortage of acid tinged guitar solos on the record! Postcard was recorded in a garage in Wales; we love the finished lo-fi feel. Vinyl copies are now available from Easy Action Records. Or as is more normal these days, MP3s from Amazon and iTunes.

BK: What was your reaction when you learned that Aggronautix was doing a Throbblehead of you? Do you think it’s a good likeness?

CS: Yes, not too bad at all! They got the nose right, anyway (laughs). They worked from a picture of me onstage, giving the audience the finger.

But doing one of Captain Sensible? What the makers were thinking, I dunno. But it gave me a good laugh when I saw the Throbblehead for the first time, as can be seen in the video on Aggronautix’s website. And to be in the company of maniacs like GG Allin, Roky Erickson and Jello Biafra is good stuff in my book.

I dig the sales pitch too: “Let the good Captain tell you to ‘sod off’ on a daily basis as he gives you the ole two finger salute. Limited to 1000 numbered units he’s accurately sculpted right down to the beret, seething sneer, and leopard-print pants.”

My own one will blend nicely in a display cabinet with current residents the Dalek, Zippy, Dennis the Menace, Betty Boop, some Homepride Flour men, Doraemon and Commander Shore from Stingray. Which dates me nicely, as you have to be a certain age to know most of those!

Once described by a music paper as “one of the world’s most disgusting slobs,” I see myself as a possible antidote to the slick choreographed mainstream so-called entertainers that make you wanna hurl a brick at the TV screen every time they appear. So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse this excellent new Sensible figurine. Every home should have one.

The Captain Sensible Throbblehead is available from Aggronautix.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part One

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Concept albums have been around for quite awhile. Opinions differ as to which was the first of the lot: some say The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow, while others pick the most obvious and high-profile release, The Who‘s Tommy. Still other insist that Freak Out by Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention deserves the nod.

All of these are valid choices, as each holds together – to varying degrees – in one form or another. And the “concept” form remained semi-popular through rock history, applied to projects as diverse as Rick Wakeman‘s all-instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The TubesRemote Control, and XTC‘s Skylarking. But one thing that all of these albums mentioned so far lack is a narrative story line. The interspersing of dialogue between songs is thought by many to diminish the flow of a record, and to make it something other than a standard “album” that can be listened to while driving, working out, whatever.

And when artists have attempted to go that music-and-dialogue route, the commercial and critical response has been divided at best. Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds employed an all-star cast including Richard Burton, and the resulting 2LP set has its fans (me among them). But it didn’t sell in droves. Pete Townshend gave it a serious go with his 1993 Psychoderelict, the (fancifully autobiographical?) story of a washed-up rocker’s attempt at a comeback. Most critics went on record characterizing Psychoderelict as dreadful; me, I loved it and thought it quite entertaining.

Townshend himself thought enough of the work to mount a stage presentation of Psychoderelict, complete with actors reprising their spoken bits onstage. But he (or his record company) also thought little enough of it to release an additional “music only” version of the album, stripped of all the narrative. (I found that version to be stripped of its power and impact as well.)

But the most notable – and for me, successful – of all attempts to fuse story and dialogue with rock music came from a somewhat unlikely source: Captain Sensible, then best known as bassist for seminal UK punk group The Damned.

The Universe of Geoffrey Brown (like Psychoderelict, released in 1993) wasn’t a massive commercial success, and perhaps it didn’t even do well enough in the marketplace to be labeled a cult favorite. But it remains one of my favorite albums. A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with Martin Newell about his role in the creation of the album. And now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak directly with the man behind the project – Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns – about The Universe of Geoffrey Brown. We also chatted a bit about his latest project, and a new limited-edition bobblehead that immortalizes the good Captain in plastic resin.

Bill Kopp: There’s really nothing – at least nothing of which I’m aware – in your music prior to The Universe of Geoffrey Brown that tips your hand as having interest in the sort of concept-album that Universe is. How did the original idea for the album come about?

Captain Sensible: I consider myself incredibly lucky as a music fan to have grown up in the 60s / 70s at a time when rock n roll had just grown up – via Dylan and The Beatles, mainly – and some incredible records were being made. Bands pretty much did whatever they wanted in the studio, which cannot be said of today. Even The Damned had visits from label A&R people occasionally, but we usually sent them off with a flea in their ears.

The first time I heard The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, I was transfixed. The concept nature of the album took me on a musical journey…a mind trip, even. It was hugely engrossing, and I started seeking out other records of this kind – like The Moody BluesDays Of Future Passed and Tommy. “One day I will make an album like this,” I promised myself. And that’s how Geoffrey Brown came about.

I took my inspiration from the Cold War rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher. The question the album asks is, “How did we go from the beautiful love and peace dream of the summer of ’67 to public acceptance of the Dr. Strangelove world of mutually assured nuclear annihilation?” My main character Geoffrey works at the Ministry of Defence, plotting targets for destruction in a nuclear attack. He considers his job normal until his head is turned by a hippie chick one day on a bicycle ride; he decides to do something more creative with his department’s missile tracking technology.

My poet chum Martin Newell – being of the wordy persuasion – brought the characters to life with some excellent scripts, and we got proper actors to perform the between-song dialogue. It all works splendidly if you ask me, although the whole project took two years or so to complete!

BK: When I asked Martin Newell about the album, he told me that you did the one song and then decided to flesh it out to album-length work. Did you find it difficult to put songs together that – along with the spoken bits between – moved the story along?

CS: No, once we had the story mapped out the song ideas flowed easily. In fact, I recommend the concept album idea to all musicians, as it’s a massively creative and fun way to make a record, and connect with your audience by telling a story.

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Keith Allison: Man of Action (Part Five / conclusion)

Friday, July 4th, 2014

Continued from Part Four

Bill Kopp: You first rose to fame as a cast member on Where the Action Is. Can you tell me how you got that gig?

Keith Allison: At the time, I was playing with The Crickets, as their guitarist. But when in town, I did all the Boyce and Hart demos at Screen Gems. Sometimes they’d go in at ten in the morning, and they’d cut Joe Osborne on guitars, and various people on drums. And they switched around: sometimes James Burton and myself on guitars. They’d get whoever they could, for whatever the song needed. And Bobby Hart would often play keyboards.

Back then, we’d make ten dollars a song. Three songs was thirty bucks. But thirty was the difference between finishing paying your rent and buying some groceries. So they owed me, like, forty dollars, as I had done four songs the week before. This was April or May of 1965. And I needed to pay my damn rent, or I was gonna get evicted. So I went to Screen Gems, and told Lester Sill – the director of Screen Gems on the west coast – that I needed him to cut me a check. And he said, “ I can’t sign a check unless Boyce or Hart sign a voucher, approving it.” And I asked, “Well, where are they?” “Some television taping. A new show. They’re down at the Whisky-a-Go-Go.” He said, “Take this, go get it signed, bring it back, and I’ll cut you a check.”

So I went down to the Whisky and I saw all these film trucks. I walk in, and I look up. I see Dick Clark. The first time I’ve seen him in person. Dancers and such, too. I saw The Raiders on the staircase, and I said, “Hey, guys!” I already knew them. I had done a show with them in Honolulu, and I had run into them a time or two. I had known them for about a year. Not well, but kind of hi-how-are-you-guys.

Tommy Roe was about to sing “Everybody” onstage. And a stage manager said, “We need butts in seats!” So I sat down. One of the dancers, Joy [Ciro], saw me; I was wearing Levi’s and a Levi’s jacket, a yellow turtleneck, and I had a black leather cap on. And boots. A very sixties British-looking outfit. So Joy knew when the cameras would be on her. I was just clapping along and smiling. The camera did several shots of me, about four or five seconds each.

So after that I went off to Las Vegas with The Crickets, to Texas, playing at the Thunderbird Hotel for a month. Two or three shows a night. And I got this telegram from Dick Clark Productions. They needed me to come in on my day off; they had a prepaid ticket for me at the airport. They gave me the address to meet with the Executive Producer. I thought, “What the heck is this about?”

What had happened was, they got bags of fan mail after that show aired, with this kid with one of the dancers. “Who is that?” And they pulled in everybody they could, asking them who it was. Finally they pulled in the girls from the front office: receptionists, young girls. And one of them said, “Ah! That’s Keith Allison. He plays with The Crickets. They’re supposed to be in Las Vegas right now.” So that’s how they found me.

So I flew in on my day off, and went over to Rosalind Ross‘ house; she lived right behind the Dick Clark offices on Sunset Boulevard. I knocked on her door. She opened it, looked at me and said, “Oh my god! Can you start today? And you play guitar?” I said yes. “Can you dance?” I said, “A little.” She said, “Come on in! We have a guitar here. Would you play something?” So I played “Maybe Baby” and “Not Fade Away,” some Crickets songs.

She said, “Do you mind if we cut your hair?” I said, “What!?” My hair was kinda long and unruly; it wasn’t a proper haircut. They had a hairdresser already there, so they trimmed my hair. Then she said, “We need you at Will Rogers State Beach at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.” I said, “I have to fly back to Vegas tomorrow!” “We know what time your plane is; you’ll be out by noon.” So I started Where the Action Is that morning.

BK: That’s a Cinderella story!

KA: It’s like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drugstore. So I showed up that day wearing the same outfit: the yellow turtleneck and all. They’d show The Raiders playing, and then they’d cut to me, running down the beach with about 50 to 75 girls screaming and chasing me. They did those teaser shots for weeks, so people would say, “Who is that?” They’d build this thing up; that’s how they presented me.

BK: That’s pretty shrewd marketing.

KA: Then finally one day they’d say, “Well, you’ve been seeing this guy, and now he’s joining our Where the Action Is family. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Keith Allison!” and I said, “Thank you, Dick.” The first song I sang on camera was “When Will I Be Loved” by the Everly Brothers.

But after that first episode, I flew back to Vegas to The Crickets. And my cousin Jerry Allison asked me, “So what happened?” Because he already knew about Rosalind Ross. He knew her from back in the Buddy Holly days when she was an agent with Premier Talent in New York.

“They asked me to join this television show,” I told him. He said, “Really!” So I went back to Los Angeles, and was working on Where the Action Is full time. And then [DCP] didn’t want me playing with The Crickets any more. I kinda felt bad about that. Because I liked playing with them, and my leaving left them hung up, briefly.

BK: I almost didn’t ask you that question. And I am so glad that I did.

Keith Allison’s In Action: The Complete Columbia Side Plus! is available on Real Gone Music.

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Keith Allison: Man of Action (Part Four)

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: A guy I vaguely know put together some unauthorized DVDs of It’s Happening episodes. He sent me copies and I reviewed them. The next day he got a cease-and-desist order from Dick Clark Productions!

Keith Allison: I just talked to the archivist over there [at DCP]. They contacted me; they’re talking about putting together a bunch of Where the Action Is stuff, and putting it out on DVD.

BK: They are finally thinking of doing that?

KA: Well, they contacted me a couple of years ago, and they came back and said it would cost so much money. But [this time] they said, “What if we didn’t use any of the stuff from the record company, but used the stuff that you guys recorded [at Armand Steiner's Sound Recorders]. Who owns that stuff?” I said, “Dick Clark Productions!” We were work-for-hire, and it was cut at Steiner’s or wherever. So all they’d need to do is get song clearances from the publishers.

BK: and that’s the stuff that all us hardcore fans really want! Because those tracks are the whole band – including Revere – playing live in the studio.

KA: Yeah. It’s The Raiders, and me. On guitar and/or piano. And Steve Alaimo and Linda Scott, the whole cast doing the “family numbers,” y’know.

Someone sent me a bunch of DVDs of kinescopes of Where the Action Is. And I was surprised that Steve and I did so many duets. We did medleys of Little Richard songs, and medleys of something else. One of the greatest cuts of all was all of us doing [the doowop arrangement of] “Blue Moon.” [sings the bom-ditty-bom part] We each took part of that part and drew it out; it was the funniest thing you ever heard.

When I joined the show, The Raiders – before they got so busy – would cut fourteen, sixteen songs in an afternoon. And there were no overdubs; it was two-track.

BK: that material is the Holy Grail for Raiders fans…

KA: Do you know that I had the tapes for all those tracks? In a storage place. And I lost it all. Every one of the damn quarter-inch playback tapes. I had every one of ‘em. It was a big box full of ‘em.

BK: When you say “lost…”

KA: The place was robbed, or flooded, or something. All my memorabilia. Amplifiers. Multi-track masters of Ringo and me at Tittenhurst. All kinds of stuff. But the biggest loss was every one of those tracks we cut for Where the Action Is. Evidently, whoever got all that stuff kept the stuff that looked like it was worth money: armoires and stuff. They probably looked at the box of tapes and thought, “Throw this shit out.” They probably had no idea what they had.

BK: One of your original tunes – in fact, the only original on the first release of In Action album – “Freeborn Man” went on to become something of a standard. I don’t know how many versions of it have been recorded…

KA: I don’t either. I’ll tell you, one time – I don’t know what year this would have been…must have been around 1970 – Johnny Cash had the TV show in Nashville. It was very successful. It was eclectic, and a highly watched show. Well, he went on tour with that, and he had The Oak Ridge Boys, Carl Perkins. Anyway, one might my sister called me from San Antonio: “Keith! You won’t believe this, but we went to see the Johnny Cash show. And Carl Perkins opened the show with ‘Freeborn Man’!” And then I found out that all the great bluegrass guys started cutting it.

When I did it, when we put on the vocals, Mark had come in to sing on it with me. After I was finished with that, I was moving on to background vocals for the album with Gary Usher and Glen Campbell. We did that on the all the songs I cut, with the exclusion of The Raiders things. Glen had shown up when we were still working on “Freeborn Man.” And he was in the control room. He said, “That’s a great song! Who wrote that?” I said, “We did.” He asked, “Would you guys send a tape over to Capitol?” So we ran off a quarter-inch tape of it. Then he cut it, and it was going to be his next single.

And then his producer said, “Y’know, I got this other song in. I want to cut this other song before we release ‘Freeborn Man,’ and see how it turns out.” and then they cut “Gentle on My Mind.”

BK: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, huh?

KA: Yeah! How many times can I tell you this kind of story? And every one of ‘em is true.

So he had it in the can. It wasn’t the single, but it ended up on an album. And then he had “By the time I Get to Phoenix.” But it’s on an album called A New Place in the Sun. It sold well over a million copies. And then The Outlaws cut it down in Georgia, and they sold well over a million copies.

BK: Junior Brown did a great version of it…

KA: Bill Monroe cut it. Jerry Lee Lewis cut it. Jimmy Martin cut the definitive bluegrass version of it. Dan Tyminski of Union Station does it; it’s fabulous. One night I was watching TV in bed in New York. I was channel surfing because my wife was already asleep. I ran across some show, a Pine Knob Theatre thing out of Lexington Kentucky. This song starts, and it’s the Rounder Records All-stars. It was Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and Tony Rice. And they’re into the second verse before I realize. I was half asleep. I bolted straight up in bed and yelled, “Holy shit!” And I turned it way up. It blew me away.

BK: So I guess when you wrote it, you had absolutely no idea it was going to be a hit.

KA: It was well into a life of its own before I even heard about it. It’s kind of like Mike Stoller coming back from Europe, getting off the boat, and Jerry Leiber saying to him, “We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got a hit with ‘Hound Dog.’” And Stoller says, “’Hound Dog’ with Big Mama Thornton?” “No. It’s this kid, Elvis Presley!” “Who the hell is that?” “I don’t know. But the damn thing’s taking off!”

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Keith Allison: Man of Action (Part Three)

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: I ought to know the answer to this, but did any of your solo singles or the In Action album make a dent on the charts?

Keith Allison: They didn’t do much of anything. “Action Action” was what you’d call a turntable hit. The show [Where the Action Is] was on national television five days a week. So it got a lot of coverage. And I went out and did a tour right when it first came out, at the end of the summer of 1966. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and myself co-headlined a tour on the east coast. Lou Christie was on it, The Critters, Tony and the Tigers…several other acts. Lou was pretty popular at the time, and the Detroit Wheels had those two big hits in a row: “Jenny Take a Ride” and “Devil with a Blue Dress.”

Oh…and The Trashmen! Of “Surfin’ Bird” fame. They were the backup band. They backed me up. They had a trash can onstage, came out in overalls. I’d come onstage in my little stage outfit, and there’d be these garbage guys behind me! [laughs] The first day of the tour, we played Nassau Coliseum.

BK: The addition of bonus tracks on this new Real Gone Music collection (“Glitter and Gold,” “I Ain’t Blamin’ You,” “Look at Me,” “Who Do You Love,” “I Don’t Want Nobody But You,” “Birds of a Feather,” “To Know Her Is To Love Her,” “Johnny B. Goode/Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Toad Jam Blues,” “Everybody,” and “Wednesday’s Child”) more than double the album’s run time. What’s the story behind these? Are some of them previously unreleased? And if so, when were they recorded in relation to the In Action tracks? And what was their original intended use?

KA: A couple of ‘em were unreleased. One of them has the wrong title [on the new CD]. It should be called “Shakin’ Johnny.” I told Mark [Lindsay], “ I want to cut two songs together like Mitch Ryder does. I love that stuff, and I want something really rockin’.” So we came up with “Johnny B. Goode” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” together. So we went and cut it; it was going to be my next single on Columbia. We were on the road; if I’m not mistaken, we were flying from Boston to Chicago. We got on the plane – Freddy [Weller] was sitting next to me – and Mark came and said to Freddy, “Can you change seats with me? I need to talk to Keith.” He had a long look on his face, and I went, “Uh-oh.”

He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got some bad news. Before I left the hotel, I was talking to Columbia in New York. They’re not going to release your single.” I said, “What!?” I really liked the thing, and I thought it had a shot at the time. But they had just signed this kid from Texas called Johnny Winter, and he recorded “Johnny B. Goode.” And since they had paid $700,000 for him, Clive [Davis] wanted to get some of his money back. So I said, “Sonofabitch!” [laughs]

That kind of thing happened to me several times. I cut “To Know Her is To Love Her,” and was going to release it. Bobby Vinton cuts it and releases it, and he’s coming off of a number one record, “I Love How You Love Me.” So what can you do? I said, “Well, at least I know I can pick a hit song! It’s just that someone gets them out before I do.” I was so pissed…not at Bobby Vinton, but at the situation. And with Johnny Winter, the same thing. I mean, I like Johnny Winter. I’m really good friends with his brother, Edgar Winter. We go to dinner together; he doesn’t live too far from me.

But it had nothing to do with Johnny; it was a corporate thing, y’know? And I understand it: they did pay a lot of money for Johnny Winter.

BK: It’s almost as if The Raiders‘ curse rubbed off on you. They, of course, cut “Louie, Louie” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”

KA: But they just did “Steppin’ Stone” as an album cut…

And “Louie, Louie” they cut first, and it was number one in Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Years ago, when the radio stations in those cities did an oldies weekend, they played The Raiders’ version.

Roger Hart, their manager, took it in to Columbia. They were the very first rock act ever signed to Columbia. In those days, Columbia had Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, The Ray Conniff Singers. They didn’t know what the hell to do [with The Raiders]; the sales people, they hated that stuff. They lost the record! They could have had the hit! They’d say, “I’m not taking that stuff to the stations.” It wasn’t until The Raiders played “Steppin’ Out” at the record convention in Miami. They played for all the Columbia people, and no one knew how huge they were; kids had all watched Where the Action Is all summer long. They turned ‘em loose in that place, and the kids all started screaming and rushing the stage. After that, well hell, the salesmen and promotion people all went, “Holy shit!”

But that’s “corporate city.” They never knew what was going on. All the little independent labels, they were the ones who knew what was going on. The corporate labels would take one of their artists and cover [the indie release] and run ‘em out of business.

BK: A couple cuts (“Who Do You Love” b/w “Don’t Want Nobody But You”) were released on the Amy label in 1968. I am guessing that was right before you officially joined The Raiders, though I believe that you’ve told me before that you were playing on records during that time anyway. So why a single release on a smallish label in 1968?

KA: Amy was a subsidiary of Bell. That one was cut in Memphis; Chips Moman produced it. I hadn’t joined The Raiders yet; that was in the first part of March, 1968. Our road manager at the time was Jerry Williams, and he was from there. The Raiders had just cut Goin’ to Memphis. The r&b stuff. They used American Studios, and they used that whole band with The Memphis Horns.

BK: Except for the single off that LP, I don’t think there are any Raiders on the album, except Mark.

KA: No. They went there, though, and hung out. In fact I stayed in the same hotel.

So I was there, and Chips said, “Scoot him over.” I had left Columbia, and I had been working on a Sonny [Bono] album, a Cher album, and a Sonny and Cher album all in one year, in ’67, right after Where the Action Is went off the air. Sonny said, “You need to get off that label; they aren’t doing anything for you. I’ll get you on Atlantic.”

So [laughs] I broke my contract with Columbia, and I cut some stuff at Gold Star Studios with Sonny producing. And I listened back to those tapes and thought, “He doesn’t understand me, either! He doesn’t get it at all.” It was bizarre sounding. It never came out. It’s in the can somewhere, among the Sonny and Cher files.

So nothing happened with that, and I had left Columbia. So I was free. Then this came up. Chips said, “I think I can cut a hit with Keith.” So I spent a week in Memphis. The tunes he’d got, he had their staff writers bring. He brought ‘em in and said, “Okay, play Keith what you’ve got.” They had this song called “My Little Red Book,” and I thought, “No, that doesn’t suit me, I don’t think.” And that’s about all they had. I went, “Oh, god!”

So I went to the record store and started looking through the old records. And I came up with “Who Do You Love.” And I had written “Don’t Want Nobody But You,” that nobody had heard. So we cut those.

Then the next week after I had left town, after we had cut this stuff, B.J. Thomas goes in there and cuts “Hooked on a Feeling.” And The Boxtops cut “Cry Like a Baby.” So it was luck of the draw, what the writers had the week you came in. If I had come in a week later, they would have had those, and I would have said, “That great! I’ll take that!”

So after being in Memphis – it was cold as hell, must have snowed two feet while I was there – I flew to Detroit and started a tour with The Raiders. We played Cobo Hall, I think, and then started a 35-date early Spring tour. Then I went with Boyce and Hart to do the Seattle Teen Fair. While I was there, I got a call from Dick Clark Productions; they wanted me to come in immediately to co-host a show with Paul [Revere] and Mark [Lindsay] called It’s Happening.

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