Archive for December, 2009

Bootleg Bin: The Remains – Garorock Festival 2006

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

I’m putting the finishing touches on a feature/interview with Barry Tashian of the Remains. That feature will run in London-based Shindig! magazine sometime in 2010. As a bit of a teaser, here’s one from the archives: a review of an unreleased audience recording of a Remains reunion show. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.

Remains - Garorock 2006When music historians wax historic about lost groups of the 1960s, The Remains are invariably mentioned. Led by guitarist Barry Tashian, this Boston-based quartet seemed in 1965 poised to be the Next Big Thing, but as was so often the case, events conspired against them.

The Remains’ tight sound was influenced by R&B and blue-eyed soul, yet they could rave-up like The Yardbirds. One would have expected bigger things from a group that earned the right to tour as an opening act with The Beatles, and appeared on Hullabaloo and the Ed Sullivan Show. But the band grew restless, and Tashian folded the group on the eve of the album’s release.

Sadly, no bootleg recordings exist documenting the group in its heyday. An official, posthumously-issued live-in-the-studio session hints at the group’s live power. In the early 1970s rock archivist Lenny Kaye compiled the now-legendary Nuggets set, and turned on a new generation to the wild genius of The Remains’ over-the-top “Don’t Look Back.”

In 2005 the original group reappeared with a new album and tour. Like so many lost musical treasures, they are more appreciated in Europe than in the USA. So in April 2006 The Remains appeared onstage at the Garorock Festival in Marmande France. Fortunately a taper was present.

The one-hour recording is a bit distant, especially for the in-between song banter, but the clean recording captures a dynamic set from the group. As with their ’66 sets, the show is comprised largely of covers (including an ace rendition of Dylan‘s “Like a Rolling Stone”), but two of the greatest songs of the sixties appear in all their glory: the driving “Why Do I Cry?” and the aforementioned “Don’t Look Back” (in a cleverly extended arrangement). Though no plans have been announced, here’s hoping for a Stateside tour.

Difficulty to Locate: 6 out of 10
General Listenability: 6 out of 10


Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have not received any compensation for writing this content and I have no material connection to the brands, topics and/or products that are mentioned herein.

Juke Joint: Hookers, Batwings, Pigs’ Feet and Hair Tonic

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

'Juke Joint' by Willie Little Central to the African American experience of the 1950s and 60s was the juke joint. An unlicensed liquor dispensary, it was a place for people to get together, relax, dance and drink. Free of the pressures of home or work, the juke joint was in many ways the only place where people could be themselves. Artist Willie Little developed the Juke Joint art installation to memorialize that experience. The multimedia work is currently on display at Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center.

Little grew up in the tiny rural town of Little Washington NC. There his father ran a small grocery; after hours, Little’s Grocery was transformed into a juke joint. Little’s expansive exhibit is closely modeled on that store and its nighttime regulars.

All of the Juke Joint characters are based on real people. “I was the youngest in the family, but I felt like I was privy to grown folks’ conversations,” Little says. “I was like a sponge, absorbing everything that was around me. And I told myself one day, ‘I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.’ Every Thanksgiving, my sisters and I would sit at the dinner table and start talking about these characters. We would always start with Eshu and Glory.” Juke Joint depicts that couple “out back” engaging in stand-up conjugal activity.

'Juke Joint' by Willie Little “My two sisters — who are older than me — are great mimics; one of them is even a better mimic than me. So we would become the characters’ voices, and we would have a great time. So I remember these very vivid stories, because we talked about them all the time. I carry them with me.”

In Juke Joint, as in most of Little’s work, the artist aims to convey and elicit a “visceral, emotional feel.” To that end, he makes extensive use of found objects. “I really want people to have a total three-dimensional experience with the work. Found objects always speak to me. I wanted to capture all of the objects that really put you in the moment.”

One character’s “hair” is made of sweetgum balls. “I tried to use natural elements for all of the mannequins’ hair,” Little says. “I wanted to communicate that earthy, organic feel. All of the characters are very salt-of-the-earth.”

While the store counter — complete with vintage items common to the era — is a centerpiece of the installation, other items are integral to the overall multimedia experience.

'Juke Joint' by Willie Little Willie Little’s narration emanates from inside a gutted vintage Wurlitzer jukebox. Over the course of ten minutes, the artist often slips deftly into the characters on display. Classic R&B and soul hits drift in and out of the mix, adding to — but never overwhelming — Little’s storytelling.

Since its creation in 1996, Juke Joint has traveled to more than a dozen venues including the Smithsonian. Little marvels that this work has “developed a life of its own, and has in some ways come full circle.” Initial funding came from an Emerging Artists Grant from the NC Arts & Science Council. The installation premiered at Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural Center; at that time, Little notes that it was “a series of three vignettes: Eshu and Glory, Miss Odell, and Miss Beulah.” In fact, one of Juke Joint‘s first stops on its early travels was Asheville’s YMI. In its current configuration — including a three-quarter scale architectural rendering of Little’s Grocery — the exhibit now consumes two large adjoining rooms at the YMI.

One Asheville native who attended the opening reception enthusiastically shared many stories from his own youth on and around “the block”. Those stories — in turns lurid, moving, and humorous — dovetailed neatly with the Juke Joint piece.

In Asheville, places like the one Juke Joint depicts were called “hooker houses.” But in this case, “hooker” referred not to a sex worker, but a unit of measurement. “A hooker was a 25¢ glass of corn liquor,” says the man who we’ll call Jimmy. “A fifty-cent serving was called a bat-wing.” Jimmy says that the neighborhood through which South Charlotte Street now runs (destroyed in a fit of late 60s “urban renewal”) was once filled with hooker houses up and down both sides. “If you started at one end of the street, you couldn’t make it to the other end, you’d be so drunk,” laughs Jimmy.

'Juke Joint' by Willie Little Whether from Atlanta, Baltimore, Asheville or elsewhere, visitors connect with Juke Joint‘s authentic evocation of a beloved part of the African American experience. “I created it as a personal journey and celebration,” Little allows. “But as I met people who’d see it, I realized I was telling other peoples’ stories as well. I believe that the more specific you are with a story, the more universal that story really is.”

YMI resident historian Darin Waters notes that Juke Joint helps to correct the (patently false) belief among some scholars that historically there were no African Americans in the Appalachian south. And Executive Director Harry Harrison recalled one attendee’s succinct comment about Juke Joint: “These are my people!”

Juke Joint opened at the YMI in December, and will remain on display through March 2010.

Shorter, non-overlapping, edited versions of this feature appeared in print in Mountain Xpress (December 16 2009) and The Laurel of Asheville (February 2010).

Review: Paul McCartney – Good Evening New York City

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

At age 67, Paul McCartney has nothing to prove. As the world’s most successful songwriter, with a vast back catalog of Beatles, Wings and solo albums, he could easily (a) retire without recrimination or (b) put together an oldies package and tour on the strength of his older material. He’d be well within his rights to do either, and there’s plenty of precedent for doing so.

Regarding the former, two of his former bandmates both stepped out of the limelight for extended periods (though both did return with excellent albums right before their untimely deaths: John and Yoko‘s 1980 Double Fantasy and George Harrison‘s Brainwashed). As far as the latter, the Moody Blues — owners of an impressive back catalog of their own — haven’t released an album of new material in a decade, barring their Christmas album December. Yet they tour regularly to packed houses, and remain an engaging onstage presence.

Yet McCartney — that’s Sir Paul to you — is that curious mix of restless artist and born entertainer. Not to beat the dead horse of the John vs. Paul dialectic, but McCartney would never chew gum onstage. His lot in life as a performer is to make audiences happy: to, as Ray Davies put it, give the people what they want.

McCartney is also on quite a creative roll. Beginning with 1997′s Flaming Pie (though as far back as 1989′s Flowers in the Dirt there were hints that there was plenty of creativity left in Macca), Paul McCartney hasn’t released a less-than-very-good studio album. While he may not have to prove anything to us, he makes music to express the themes that matter to him, and the result is quality music — and often rock music at that — from a man in his 60s.

Still, one can argue that the world doesn’t need another McCartney live album. Starting with Wings Over America in 1976, the man has released live sets in 1990, 1991, 1993, 2002, and now 2009′s Good Evening New York City. Each has served up a mix of solo and Beatles material, played well and recorded clearly. So why should anyone care about this latest set?

First of all, for long-time McCartney fans, there are some real gems here. Songs that McCartney has never performed live make their appearance on this set: “Mrs Vandebilt” from Band on the Run, and two Beatles songs: Let it Be‘s “I’ve Got a Feeling” and the “Help!” B-side “I’m Down.” And along with the requisite number of newer tracks, there are heartfelt (not maudlin) musical tributes to Lennon and Harrison. And there are even live versions of not one but two tracks from the latest Fireman album.

“I’m Down” is a sentimental favorite, and of particular relevance at this set of shows. As every Beatles fan knows, the group played Shea Stadium. McCartney was chosen to do a set of inaugural dates at NYC’s Citi Field, site of that now-demolished venue.

Yes, plenty of songs that we’ve heard McCartney and his band do over and over are still in the set: “Sgt. Pepper”, “The End”, “Live and Let Die”, “My Love”. The current band — the same one heard on 2002′s Back in the U.S. — is superb in their recreation of the sound and feel of the studio versions. And not to downplay the contributions of those players, it should be noted that the Paul McCartney/Paul “Wix” Wickens relationship now ranks as Paul’s longest musical collaboration (well, it actually ties roughly with the Paul/Linda collaboration, but still): while it’s perhaps making too much of it to point out that the timeline of McCartney’s critical ascendancy does pretty well correspond to his bringing Wix on board, the fact remains that Wix is the unsung hero of McCartney’s live shows. Wickens faithfully recreates all of those little sonic cues one expects to hear in the songs, and he does so in as organic a fashion as can be managed under the circumstances.

Good Evening New York City is available in a few different configurations. This reviewer’s copy comes with a DVD of the 33-song entire concert, two audio CDs covering the same material, and a bonus DVD of material from a Letterman show performance. The whole set is beautifully packaged in a (plastic-free, natch) hardbound book that resembles nothing so much as an old Hardy Boys (or Nancy Drew) book. If you’re a fan of McCartney or the Beatles, watching this DVD might actually choke you up a bit. As live sets go, one could put this on the shelf alongside Wings Over America and Unplugged and safely ignore the others.

With this set evoking memories of the Beatles’ historic 1965 Shea Stadium concert, let’s hope that there’s an ulterior motive for this set: to whet the public’s appetite for the long-delayed legitimate release of The Beatles at Shea Stadium on DVD. I mean, my bootleg copy is nice and all, but the lack of an official version — digitially restored, if you don’t mind — is a serious crime of omission.

Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” part 4

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

On the group’s 2004 full-length album release, Sun Greets the Dawn, I used the Roland RD-300s for piano sounds; the Emu Vintage Keys for Farfisa, Mellotron strings, Vox Continental, Hammond B3 and electric piano sounds; the Roland Alpha-Juno for some additional Farfisa sounds, the Ensoniq Mirage for some more electric piano sounds (I think, anyway); and the Theremax for the mayhem that was “Psychedelic Siren.” I’m proud to say that when the engineer dropped the ball, I picked it up, and produced, mixed and mastered the album myself (with input from the rest of the band, of course).

In January 2005 The Echoes of Tyme celebrated our third anniversary. We figured we’d only missed about a dozen weekly practices over the last three years. Pretty consistent, and certainly a record of group longevity for me. Thing is, the same night, our rhythm guitarist gave his notice, effective immediately. No hard feelings, “musical differences” or any of that; he had signed up for some night classes and simply wouldn’t have the time. Two weeks later our bassist split. Seems he’d been frustrated for a long time and wanted to do something different. So the auditions for our seventh bassist would begin in earnest, and in February.

I ran a slight variation on the usual ads, seeking primarily a bassist, but open to the possibility of a rhythm guitarist. If he (or she — Grace Slick, anyone?) could sing then we might fight the temptation to play as a quartet. Details to follow (or so I thought…)

Death and Rebirth
Life is funny. Death, somewhat less so. In April 2005 The Echoes of Tyme were down to a (non-performing) trio: Mike the drummer, Dave the lead guitarist, and me on keys. Not insignificantly, we were the founding trio. Without a bassist — and with auditions going pretty much nowhere — it was nonproductive to try and practice. In any event, I decided one evening to invite Mike and Dave over for dinner and an evening of watching rare music video clips from the 60s. We had a nice evening, and it occurred to me not long thereafter that we really hadn’t done much along the lines of just hanging out.

That evening was the last time Mike or I saw Dave alive.

A coupe days later, a Friday in fact, Dave took a day off from his current job, opting instead to enjoy the beautiful day. He enjoyed a quiet evening, and turned in around 11pm. By 3am he was dead, victim of a massive myocardial infarction (a big ol’ heart attack). Died in his sleep, he did.

The two recently-quit members of the band reunited with Mike and I for a tribute concert, but that marked the end of The Echoes of Tyme. Mike and I decided it would be pointless to continue. Dave’s guitar was too integral a part of our sound. We hoped to continue together musically somehow, but it was too early to think about the details.

At Dave’s tribute show, Dave’s girlfriend Susie asked Mike and I to back her up on a couple numbers. We gamely agreed, and it went well. That planted the seed for an idea: a new group, still focused primarily (though not exclusively) on the 60s, but with a pop-vocal orientation. Susie had been in several groups with her friend Debbie; Deb was not only an excellent harmony vocalist, but adept at creating arrangements. They would needed a third vocalist. On a lark, my (then-) wife Joan sat in with Susie and Deb one evening, with me on acoustic piano and Mike on tambourine. The vocals were great. It was skeletal but obviously full of potential.

By August we had put together a new group, The Poppies, and had amassed a set of more than a dozen songs (with many more in development). My equipment setup was in for a major change.

Kurzweil SP-76. Now we're gettin' serious.
The RD-300s had several (well, three) keys that stuck, causing great consternation. I opened the beast up and poked around to no avail. The D-110, well, I never could make much use of that thing, despite its excellent sounds. The Fatman, well, I never really used it. The Mirage, my gem, I really didn’t make much use of either. The Theremin was pretty much for Halloween. So it was with moderately heavy heart that I decided to sell off all of the above (except the Theremin, of course) and purchase (eBay again) a Kurzweil SP-76. My new setup would be the Kurzweil, the Roland Alpha Juno, the Emu Vintage Keys and the Korg RK-100.Vital Organs
Thanks for the memories...So the Kurzweil SP-76 became the centerpiece of my playing rig. I had some initial trepidation toward the action, but I need not have worried. The “semi-weighted” action is ideal for both piano material and synth/organ parts. As is typical, I make virtually no use of the unit’s infinte MIDI capabilities. I plug it in, I play. I do use it as a controller for the Vintage Keys rackmount. The Alpha Juno got plenty of work, and I used it to control the Mirage…which I ended up keeping. None of my other equipment had a decent Wurlitzer EP200 sound (readers with a good memory may recall I owned a real Wurly a quarter century or so ago). I tried using the RK-100 with The Poppies but this group required a bit more nuance and subtlety (neither being traits for which I am renowned), so its lack of velocity-sensitivity rendered it ineffective. Meantime I also found use for the excellent “horn section” samples in the Mirage; with The Poppies I played much more than just electric piano and organ, and — difficult as it may be — I played more than just chords (though not MUCH more). I also sang lead a lot less, and harmony a lot more.

My vital organ (groan...sorry)
I considered selling off a vintage non-working Electro-Harmonix Memory Man I’d not used in decades, but decided to hold onto it and get it fixed when I could. It would come in handy with the Theremin.Also going unused were the Oberheim Strummer and the PAiA Fatman, and I had managed to break a spring, I think, inside of my Tascam Porta Two cassette four-track recorder. So I did the math and decided to try again to sell off the PAiA, Tascam, and Oberheim and pick up another organ module. After a few unsuccessful bids on Ebay I managed to snag a good deal on a Peavey Spectrum Classic Organ rackmount. It’s full of Hammond, Farfisa and Vox samples. What more does a man need?So the Peavey arrived in good working order, and I hooked it up. Amazing — to me at least — is the Leslie (rotating speaker) effect. On all of my other equipment, the Leslie effect is either off (standard) or on (when the mod wheel is used). There’s no in-between, really. On the Peavey, however, when I dial me up some Leslie, it starts out sloooow, and speeds up to wherever I’ve set it. When I let go, it slooows down and strops. Just like the real thing. And the sounds — 128 of ‘em — are great. For example, the organ from Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine” is in the box, should I ever need it. As are a dozen Voxes, as many Farfisas and much more.The best part: I sold my Oberheim Strummer for the same price I paid for the Peavey, so it’s “revenue neutral.” A good thing.

The Poppies was really an amazing thing, musically: seven people, six of whom could sing lead or harmony. On one hand we had a solid instrumental section that could rock and/or play with subtlety (guitar, bass, drums, keys). Mike from The Echoes of Tyme covered drums, and enjoyed the opportunity to play pop. As previously mentioned, I “played” more than usual. My rig expanded again. Onstage I used the Kurzweil SP-76 for piano and strings, the Roland Alpha Juno for cheesy organ and odd effects, and all of my rackmounts for everything else. The Mirage finally got a decent workout, especially for the horn section on “More Today Than Yesterday” (listen to the song; link above).

We performed a lot of parties and local clubs, culminating in a glorious show at Bose Headquarters in Boston (they paid us — handsomely — in PA equipment). The band fell apart under circumstances I need not get into here. Suffice to say my marriage fell apart at the same time, and I fired my wife and the bass player from the band. (You do the math.) I corralled some friends to cover the missing parts, and we performed our final gig in September 2006. Then I took a sabbatical from playing. It lasted a good solid year. (Therapy lasted a good bit longer.)

I Was So Much Older Then…
In fall 2007 I auditioned for a band. Technically I was trying out for the part of lead vocalist; they weren’t looking for a keyboard player. The audition went well, but I was hesitant about taking the gig, since they wanted to practice twice weekly. With my new life — single, homeowner, reasonably successful business, thriving music journalism career, dating — I didn’t want to commit to such a regimen. Making that clear and getting a tacit ok from the group’s “leader,” I joined. We started out as a 60s rock band, and I did in fact play keys. But it was all so tentative — with much arguing and whatnot — that I would only bring one keyboard to practice each time, and never left anything there.The leader/drummer would sometimes stop playing mid-song to berate one or more of us for making mistakes. No kidding. Eventually I quit. Then the bassist quit. The drummer planned to replace us, but then both guitarists quit. This left only the drummer. He took his stuff home (practice had been at the lead guitarist’s place) and that was that. But not quite.Short story: we re-formed without him! The rhythm guitarist (and a good one at that) is in fact an even better drummer. So Back Pages came to be, as a four-piece. I started out using the full rig from The Poppies days (plus another recent purchase — more presently) but eventually whittled down to…wait for it…ONE keyboard.

I had better back up.

The Poppies sold off the Bose PA equipment (collectively owned — always a bad idea, folks) and with my substantial one-sixth share (the guitarist wisely opted out of the original deal) bought a late-period analog synth, a Roland Juno-6. I bought it more to cheer myself up — this was a rough time — but I did end up using it live, once. In late 2006 (during the “sabbatical”) I scored a one-off gig with some friends, playing a holiday party. In that one evening I made more money playing music than I ever had before. The lineup was guitar/synth/drums. We all sang, and the guitarist would play leads while I plunked out simple bass lines on the Juno. On keyboard-led songs, the guitarist switched to a baritone guitar and played bass parts.

You are...Number Six (and in fact I am a free man!)
So, back to Back Pages. I was finding that all my equipment was A. Bit. Much. The other guys could set up in minutes, but it took me a half hour. Then one day in fall 2008 I got a phone call from our drummer. He told me that had a listing for something called a Kurzweil K2000s. Wow. That’s a legendary board. My former neighbor, the late Bob Moog, designed that thing. Amazing. So I spent the $400 and bought it. By far (BY FAR) the most user-friendly keyboard I have ever owned, the K2000s does nearly everything. Sampling? Check (the Mirage will be going up for sale soon). Mono synth fiddling? Check (I sold the FatMan…well, actually, I traded for something else…more shortly). Piano? Organ? You betcha. So effective October 2008, I used only the K2000s onstage. My tiny house is filled with eleven other machines.

Kurzweil K2000s - the be-all and end-all of keyboards? Perhaps...
So when I traded the Fatman, I got a cool noodly late 70s synth in trade. A Korg Delta. You don’t see those much any more. It’s another “toy” purchase (like the Juno-6) but I like it. Quite a dated piece of machinery, but it works flawlessly.

Korg Delta - another one for the toy box


In mid-December 2008 my band Back Pages did a two-set performance at a local bar. Good turnout. I brought only the Kurzweil K2000s and the Korg RK-100. The Kurzweil performed nicely; special notice should go to the wonderful organ sounds and the “underwater electric piano” sound that served me well when playing the spooky keyboard riff in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” I played a couple of songs using the RK controller, most notably the synth part on “Bargain” off Who’s Next. It was a delight, too, to set up in under ten minutes.

I wanted the synthesizer sound from Keith Emerson’s solo on “From the Beginning” and didn’t have the time to delve into sculpting the sound using the Kurzweil’s powerful editing system. While I’m sure it would be up for the job, I simply wasn’t. So instead I popped an ELP CD into my computer, ripped the song to WAV, and then edited out a tiny section of the synth solo. Just one note, around the middle range of the solo, the snippet was about a half-second long. (Any longer and I would have gotten some acoustic guitar and/or percussion.) I used tools in CoolEdit to lengthen the snippet to about three seconds, did a quick fade-in and a slightly longer fade-out, and saved it as a stereo WAV. Then I used some nifty shareware developed for the Kurzweil by a guy in Belgium; it converted the WAV file to a native Kurzweil format. Voilá: I had the sound on my keyboard.

I also put together a collection of (what I thought were) funny audio clips from the TV show Family Guy, and interspersed a few of those throughout the set (to mixed reaction, I must admit).

It will be some time before I trot out any of my other equipment to a gig; the K2000s (and the RK for a bit of goofy fun) should cover my needs pretty well.

As if All that Wasn’t Enough…
Stop me if you heard this one before. No, really.

Lately I’ve been perusing my local Craigslist at least once a day. Occasionally something interesting shows up. Well, in late January 2009, something did. A 1952 model Hammond M2 spinet organ. Known as something of a “poor man’s B3″, the M2 is a fine little piece of equipment. “Little” as defined here doesn’t really mean small. This thing is four feet wide, more than two feet deep and weighs in the neighborhood of 250-300 pounds. Still, this is a quite lovely sounding instrument. The stops all work, though several are a bit crackly. The pedals all work. No tubes are blown. The speaker’s not rotten. It’s not been abused; it’s been in the home of a very nice older couple, where it’s rarely been played in the last decade.

I got it moved with the kind assistance of one of my bandmates plus my son and his friend. I locked down the generator/tonewheel board before moving (I read somewhere that should be done to protect the organ). Now it’s set up in my house. It sounds fantastic; I’ve played along with Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets LP and am able to replicate many of the sounds exactly. And I’m learning how to play pedals. Way cool.

Hammond M2 organ, circa 1952 -- my Roland Juno 6 on top.

Hmm…I Forgot to Mention One!
This piece has been in my collection since 1987, but I never thought to include it. A quick back story will elucidate.

In spring 1987 I started dating a girl to whom I had been giving piano lessons. By the Christmas holidays of that year we were engaged. Being as I was only 24 years old, I still had this idea that the world revolved around music, and that everyone would agree. (Come to think of it, I still pretty much feel that way, which explains a few things.) So I decided that a wonderful gift for my fianceé would be…a bass guitar. Makes perfect sense, right? Only to the single and/or divorced among you, I’ll bet.

So I trundled off to my local pawn shop — those things were all over Atlanta in those days; probably still are — and found a bass in pretty rough shape. It was an Epiphone of unknown vintage. The strings on it were literally rusted, and the fretboard was all gunked up; your fingers would almost stick to it if you touched it. And the electronics were dodgy. But they were willing to take $50 for it, so I bought.

I took it home, cut the strings off with metal snips, removed the cover and used a can of compressed air to blow out the dust from inside the electronics cavity. I took a piece of steel wool and used it to scrub the gunk off the fretboard. (I know that will make some readers cringe; but remember that this was only a $50 instrument.) I picked up some aftermarket volume and tone knobs for about $2 each and put them on, along with a fresh set of strings. I polished the wood with Lemon Pledge or something like that, and it was done.

On Christmas day — in front of my future (and now ex-) in-laws — I presented it to my (then-) wife-to-be, and she mumbled something along the lines of “oh…hmm…nice.” She never played it, and in retrospect it was a stupid idea of me to think she would. I kept it around for many years in my music room, occasionally picking it up and plunking on it. I hadn’t bought an amp for it either.

In 2003 or so, during the period of The Echoes of Tyme (see waaaay above), we found ourselves with a succession of bass players. I think we went through five. And two of them didn’t even own bass guitars! So I let them use the Epi, and it sounded pretty good. One of them opened it up and resoldered some frayed electronic wiring, so it became a pretty reliable instrument.

When my wife and I divorced in 2006, she suggested I take the bass. It remains in my collection today. I only recently identified it and found out its age. The best info I could find about this Japanese instrument suggests it’s an Embassy from 1973 a Newport from the early 1970s. It’s pretty groovy.

It would be even groovier if I knew how to play it.

1973 Epiphone Embassy Bass Guitar

One of these days I’ll write a bit about my left-handed Fender acoustic guitar. I’ve had it since 1998.

Wurlitzer Tone Cabinet ('Leslie') Model 301. Epiphone Embassy bass shown to illustrate size. My Name is Bill, and I’m a Craigslist Addict
So I continued to check Craigslist daily to see if anything interesting popped up. In April 2009 something did. A guy had a full-size Wurlitzer organ. Full range of pedals, built-in bench. The sort of thing you might see in a huge church. Of course I had neither need, inclination nor space for such a behemoth, however wonderful. But the package included a “tone cabinet.” I asked if he’d part with just the cabinet. He said yes.

Did I mention the whole thing was free? And this tone cabinet…well, it’s a Wurlitzer brand, but is more often known by the generic term of “Leslie.” It’s not a Leslie-brand “Leslie,” but it is a rotating speaker cabinet. An essential component of any organ setup. this particular beast is quite large. 19″ deep x 29″ wide and — wait for it — five feet tall. It looks like a wooden phone booth or an upended coffin.

Does it work? Who knows! I will have to get it modified, replace the six-pin connection with a 1/4″ jack and whatnot. And none of that will happen soon. For now it’s a very cool conversation piece. But conversations are getting harder to have: my tiny house is nearly filled with musical arcana now. Such is the life of a middle-aged man with his toys.

What of the organ? The guy couldn’t get anyone to take it. People were interested but asked if he could deliver it! It’s free, fer frak’s sake! Tragically, as of this writing he’s planning to take it to the landfill.

The Early Bird Gets the Wurlitzer
I must admit that my Craigslist additcion remains in full flower. And this time the results were something very special. In early May 2009 I happened across a Wurlitzer 206A Electronic Piano. That’s the “student model” of the venerable 200A. You may recall how the 200A figures into this man’s saga: I owned one of the things, and like a fool (well, not like a fool — more as a fool) I sold it in 1985. It’s become the virtual White Whale in my own personal mythology: The One That Got Away.

So when this one showed up, I called immediately. The woman — whom I knew vaguely from around town — was selling it on behalf of her son; he was raising money to attend Bonnaroo. I told her I was calling about the Wurly. She laughed. I asked why. She said that in the 30 minutes since she listed it, mine was the third call.

Were the other two on their way to look at it? I asked. She said no. Well, then I was. A few hours later it was in my bedroom. It’s the standard student model, which means that it’s a regular 200A minus the internal speakers at keyboard level, less the steel legs, plus two larger (8″) speakers and a solid base. And instead of the classic black, it’s a contents-of-Linda-Blair’s-stomach-in-The-Exorcist beige. And it sounds like nothing else in the world.

Getting this Wurly is a huge deal for me. I had never gotten over the stupidity of selling my Wurlitzer 200A. Until now.

Wurlitzer EP 206A. The White (ok, beige) Whale.

In summer 2009 I scored a great deal on a Kurzweil K2000rs. That’s a rackmount version of the venerable K2000, less a keyboard but with a hard drive added. It’s pretty much for home use and to serve as a backup if the K2000 ever gives me trouble.

Kurtzweil K2000RS. Rack-up Backup of the best machine I've ever owned.

The Only Constant is Change
In early September 2009 I reached the limits of my patience with the erratic and unreasonable behavior of one of my band mates (who really needed to make friends with another guy named Bill, last initial “W” if you catch my drift) and I quit the band. If there’s an object lesson here, it’s perhaps that if a situation seems unhealthy, it almost certainly is. At this stage of my life — a stage this problem individual hasn’t yet reached — I was unwilling to put up with that kind of nonsense. Life’s too damn short. The last straw was the desire of two of the members to add more “southern rock” to the set. No, thank you. I’m not that desperate to play out.

I’ll miss playing music with the other two guys.

Back From the Grave?
As is my general approach in life, I wasted little time. Within a week of quitting the cover band, I had run an ad on Craigslist offering up my services as a sideman. My thought was this: find a band where one person — not me — makes all the tie-breaker decisions as to what songs to do, how to do them, etc. I figured I’d find an interesting singer/songwriter who wanted band backing. And I made my own technical limitations clear, so no one would expect Keith Emerson to show up for an audition.

I got lots and lots of replies. Many (most) of these were from cover bands; to me, this fact suggested that people weren’t reading the ad too closely. No matter. I got some interesting inquiries, and followed up with several. In the end (well, sorta the end) I lined up two auditions. But well before the scheduled meetings, I began to harbor doubts. Was this really what I wanted to do?

So I hedged my bets. I wrote another ad (also anonymous) and led off with this line: “This is a real long shot, I know. But here goes.” And then I explained my idea of starting a new band. A group to play that Nuggets stuff. Again. Because, you know, that music is really my first love. And while I wasn’t out to put to rest some unresolved issues, some unfinished business, I did look back on my years with The Echoes of Tyme (2002-2005; see above) with great fondness.

To my shock, surprise and delight, I got a number of replies. So I cancelled my auditions and put my focus into this. In mid-September 2009 I gathered along with three other guys (guitar, bass, drums) over a few pitchers of beer to discuss the proposed project. As of this writing, I’ve auditioned (and auditioned for) a couple of guys who sound really good. And they “got” the concept.

As I started learning the songs (some Paul Revere & the Raiders, Standells, Litter etc.) I took a quick inventory of what instruments I’d need for this band, should it get off the ground. Since we’d likely be trading in garage/psych obscurities mostly (or completely) from the 1965-68 era, the synthesizers were out. I’d need to recreate five categories of instruments, really: Wurlitzer electric piano, Vox organs (Jaguar and Continental) Farfisa organs (Compact Duo etc.), Hammond organs, and the occasional acoustic piano. The Kurzweil can handle all of that and more.

Who knows? I might even drag out the Theremin again, eventually.

So for now I have what I need. No shopping spree for me. Thank goodness.

Just like real life, to be continued. But for now we’re up to date.


Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 3

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

ANYway, I digress. So I bought this thing, more or less expecting it to arrive and require a few hours of plug-and-play assembly. What I found instead was an “unstuffed” printed circuit board and a plastic baggy full of things that looked like little Sputnik satellites the size of Tic-Tacs. Yes, I know, I know… So I roped in a friend to try and help me build this, with a soldering iron I owned (but had no clue how to use). After he burned out (so to speak) on the project, I called in another friend, then another, then a fourth and fifth. Little progress. Quagmire time.

Then a guy I knew only slightly agreed to take it home and work on it in his spare time. Four or five months later I diplomatically asked for the box of untouched circuits to be returned to me. Finally another friend took pity on me and agreed to “finish” the project. At this point it was about 20% complete. He did so within a week or two, and my prized woo-woo machine was ready. I ran it through an Alesis Nanoverb effect unit and got unbelievable sounds from it. As it’s totally analog (hell, it virtually defines analog) it is near impossible to play a tune on it, but for effect is it without compare.

Woo Friggin Woo.

PAiA Theremax Theremin. I'm giving out good vibrations.

I used the Theremin on a recording of my friend Jim Stetson’s “Gremlins.” The song is really about personal demons and self-doubt rather than things that go thump in the night, but the woo-woo machine fit the mood perfectly.

On Halloween 2000 I set up in my front yard and played the Theremin all evening as nearly 300 kids filed through our home to experience my children’s Haunted House. Around that time I had the pleasure (and thrill of a lifetime) to meet a neighbor of mine who owned a local company which built — among other things — Theremins. His name was Dr. Robert Moog. Yes, THAT Moog. My (then-) wife was fond of telling people that my introduction to Bob is the only time in the many years she has know me where I have ever been at a loss for words. Starstruck, I was. A nice, regular guy (well, a nice regular influential genius guy) he was. We did talk about Theremins. I am sure I said dumb stuff.

Oberheim Strummer. I'll fake guitar one way or another.

Going back in time a bit again. In 1999 I started poking around online for cool used stuff for sale. That’s in fact how I found that D-110 several paragraphs ago. So I also found this odd thing called a Strummer, by Oberheim. It’s a MIDI processor that reorders notes on a keyboard, rendering them in the fashion they’d be played on a stringed instrument. This means that if you hit a chord, the notes come out one-after-the-other a la a “strum,” and that certain notes just don’t play at all. Of limited use, but kinda cool. And cheap.

There was this really cheesy home keyboard for sale in the 1970s called the Optigan. It was from Mattel, the toy company. No, I don’t own one of those, but some clever guys developed a “Virtual Optigan” written in Java. I had plans for awhile to find a way to make that part of my setup. Never happened.

PAiA Fatman. Analog meets MIDI.

Another thing I bought online, used, was a PAiA Fatman. Now, PAiA is the company that sells the Theremax, so I knew the stuff would be cool, but there was no way I was going to buy another kit, especially one as complex as this. But somebody had one for sale for $100, far less than the kit. And it was fully built and functional. In basic terms, the Fatman is a rackmount analog monosynth, but with MIDI. So you tweak the 16 or so knobs but play via a remote keyboard. Cool for leads.

Scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Over the years I bought a couple guitars. I do have a couple strikes against me, guitarwise, though. One, I am left-handed. Two, I have no aptitude for stringed instruments. Three, I am disinclined to work at improving. Anyway, I have a Fender left-handed acoustic and a Yamaha Pacifica. Mostly I whang on the whammy bar and lean in front of the amp for feedback. I’m sorry; what did you say? I can’t hear very well, you see.Welcome to the FutureSo in 2001 I started hunting for a remote keyboard, one of those strap-on deals where I could run around a bit. I found a Korg RK-100, which is very cool. It’s made of wood(!) so it’s fairly heavy (about 13 lbs.) and is the size and dimensions of a bass guitar. But it is very easy to play, is balanced nicely and just plain feels right. And it’s wild to look at. I understand it was once owned by one of the members of George Thorogood’s Destroyers. So I suppose when I play it I am b-b-b-bad to the…oh, nevermind.
Korg RK-100. Look ma, no piano stool!
In the Summer of 2001 I started playing again. The group was named “Third Wind” or “Third Wind and the Hip Replacements,” but I thought those names sucked. I’d have called us The Rolling Blackouts. At nearly 38 I was the baby of the group, and by far the musician with the weakest chops. I had to struggle to keep up, and they cut me little slack. Lots of fun, though. It ended after two gigs. Too bad we never recorded. But I am richer for the experience and the fifty bucks. Everybody in the band (except me) re-joined their previous band, which — to me, anyway — sounds like Loggins & Messina backed by Phish and the Grateful Dead. I’ll just leave it at that. In a manner of speaking.
Korg DSS-1. A swing and a miss.
I am not a gambler. When I went to Vegas years ago I blew, like, $35. So it was with some hesitation that I bid on ebay for a Korg DSS-1 sampling synthesizer. Long story short, it was sold as-is and did not work. So I promptly boxed it back up and offered it for sale (or trade) on another online list. Within days I had a firm offer from a guy who had once owned a Mirage (see above) and who now had a stack of 150 sound disks plus a service manual. He was willing to trade even. So off it went. The Present Day Rocker Refuses to Quit
(Apologies to Edgar Varese for that mangling). Fed up with trying to assimilate into an existing group, in January 2002 I decided to take the plunge and see if I couldn’t put a group together myself. The last time I did this was back in 1996 with Elementary Penguin. Come to think of it, that went fairly well (great group, lots of potential, broke up after two gigs). So who knows what this might bring? The ad I ran asked for people willing to play, basically, all the tunes from the Nuggets and Nuggets II box sets.February 2002. Things started happening. We were, briefly, six, then five. Me on keys and vocals. On drums, Mike, who answered the ad. He grew up in L.A. and saw many of the Nuggets groups in their heyday. Legend has it that he auditioned for the Standells at some point. On guitar and vocals, Davy, with quite a collection of 60s and 70s axes, and a genuine fuzz box. He “auditioned” for me by playing the complete solo from the Amboy Dukes‘ “Journey to the Center of the Mind” over the phone…on an acoustic! Note-perfect. The remaining lineup shifted and shook until late 2003. But I found myself more excited about this musical endeavor than anything I’d done in nearly 20 years.In early 2003 we settled on our REAL name: The Echoes of Tyme. Rejected names included Acid Reflux, The Mushroom Cloud, The Flashback Machine…stuff like that. We went by the name The Buzztones for awhile but too many other groups were using that.

Ninety-eight keys equals Ninety-six Tears (groan)

Forward Into the Past
The following description (but NOT the photo) is lifted from Anglicus’ Farfisa Site (now defunct):

“The VIP 233 has two 49 key manuals. The drawbars for the top are Flute, Sharp and Percussion, each in values of 16, 8, 5 1/3 and 4. Each section also has its own volume drawbar, and percussion has a three-position decay selector. Lower manual has Flute 8 and Clarinet 8. This model also features manual bass, with drawbars for Bass 16, Bass String 16, attack on/off and attack soft/sharp [...] Finally, there is vibrato with a four speed selector.”

Dave (our lead guitarist) was an electronics whiz, and so with his help this gem was restored to 82% working order. (Why 82, you ask? The “G” notes don’t make any sound. In any event, it sounded good. Two of the VIP233′s most famous players include John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and, um, eh, well…Shirley Jones (Partridge Family). So sue me. In truth the VIP sounds a lot like the older Compact Deluxe, which for my money is best heard on early (just-post-Syd-era) Pink Floyd. Rick Wright goes to town.

Anyway, as of Summer 2003 my live setup was expanded to the Mirage (for electric piano, sitar/tabla and assorted oddments), Roland Alpha Juno (mostly organ presets 43/trashy organ and 41/percussive organ), the Theremax Theremin (in a cut-down case; I didn’t end up using the too-big sewing machine case) the big Roland RD-300s and the pesky D-110. The Fatman sees limited use (analog synths weren’t around in 1967 so I have little use for their sound in my current situation). The Farfy was quite heavy, and a lot of our songs did in fact require the playing of the note “G.”

Depending on the gig I sometimes used just the Roland Alpha Juno. the whole “wall of keyboards” doesn’t exactly engender the sixties garage rock vibe. On top of that I was the lead vocalist, so some bracing chords is about the extent of my playing (ok, so that’s always been the case).

Casting call for 'Average Joe?' AARP Meeting? No! It's everyone's favorite mid-80s cover band, Remote Control, at a 2003 reunion. Your humble author at left.

Thomas Wolfe Be Damned: You CAN Go Back (Albeit Briefly)

So in Summer 2003 the unlikely happened. My group circa 1984-86, Remote Control, managed to put together a reunion. The most amazing thing. While we all had aged nearly twenty years (imagine that!), we sounded exactly the same. I kid you not. The bitter memories if the late-stage band receded into memory, replaced by nostalgia and good feelings for all that we had musically. We sang the old originals (oddly, I remembered the words better than lead singer Michael Meyer, so I sang a bit), and banged through the old favorites. Hits and near-misses by The Plimsouls, REM, XTC, INXS, The Producers, Tom Petty, on and on. And just to make things perfectly magical, we did NOT record the session. That way we could all return home full of stories about just how grand it was.

And indeed it was. Lenny played the same guitar, with the same pedal (same battery? probably not). These days he plays in his church’s “praise” band, so he didn’t sell his soul for rock and roll. Michael is still at the music thing full time, having recorded a few albums with various groups. He found himself on a sixties trip much as I have (though his was more conventionally –and deservedly –”successful”). Scott H. brought out his old Univox copy of my favorite bass, the Rickenbacker 4001. Turns out he hadn’t played a note in nearly ten years. You’d never know it: rock solid. Original drummer Scott F. opted not to participate; in his stead was Scott H’s “kid” brother (now in his late 30s). Turns out Mark was a big fan of the old group, and saw us countless times. He knew all the arrangements.

I hope we do this again sometime.

In February 2004 I sold the Farfisa to a musician who will doubtless have better luck with it than I. He lives near a tech who knows how to work on the things. Me, I’m sure I’ll always have a twinge of regret in letting it go (much like I do with the Wurlitzer, the Moog, the Fender amp, the Aria guitar, the Yamaha CP30, the Korg Poly 800 and the missed-it-by-that-much Mellotron).

EMU Vintage Keys. Niiiiice.
Within twelve hours of the sale of the Farfisa, I had purchased an E-mu Vintage Keys module off Ebay.Less is More
So by 2004, since I finally had what I considered an ideal setup, my musical purchases pretty much stopped. I finally had a setup that worked as needed. In fact I had a few things I wasn’t even using.The Echoes of Tyme album SUN GREETS THE DAWN.The Emu Vintage Keys is an amazing piece of equipment. With top-notch samples of the sounds a garage/psych rock maven like myself needs, I was pretty much good to go. The VK gave me several excellent Hammond B3 sounds, replete with oh-so-gospelish Leslie effects on demand via the controller’s mod wheel. A bright Vox Continental patch relieved me of the desire to contend with the real thing. The Farfisa patch was very good, too, but I tended to like the way the Continental sound cut through the buzz/fuzz wall of guitars. And then of course there were the Mellotron samples par excellence. The Echoes of Tyme did a neat version of Ten Years After‘s “I’d Love to Change the World,” and it features a nice bed of ‘Tron strings. And if we ever do The Yardbirds‘ “Still I’m Sad,” the Mellotron vocals will take care of the Gregorian chants quite nicely, thank you.

Hauling equipment to each live setup can be of course somewhat of a hassle, and in Summer 2004 the group picked up a number of gigs. As such I was keen to find a way to get the sounds I needed with as little hardware as possible. I found that between the Emu Vintage Keys and the little Roland Alpha Juno, I could get something on the order of 90% of the sounds I wanted/needed. The only drawbacks were that the VK lacked a really good vibraphone sound (needed for our cover of Los Bravos‘ “Black is Black,”) and that I missed the weighted-keys response of my big bad Roland RD-300s. But with that 88-key monster weighing in at 70-plus pounds, it was hard to justify lugging it along. Especially for “showcase” type gigs where we only played an hour or so. I suppose the perfect controller would be a small, lightweight, four-and-a-half octave keyboard with weighted keys. There’s no such animal (or if there is, it’s beyond my budget).

Oh yes. The VK also lacks a good harpsichord. I seem to recall that the Roland D-110 rackmount has one of those, as well as (perhaps) some vibes. But my D-110 is a fairly erratic piece of equipment. The Mirage and and PAiA Fatman are in the same rackmount, but neither of them got much use those days either (the exception being when I had the presence of mind to throw some James Brown vocal samples into our rendition of “I’ll Go Crazy.”

The Theremax, well, I still dragged it out on occasion, for a mean version of “Psychedelic Siren,” but it’s sort of the synth version of an MG automobile. It required a good half hour of internal tweaking before each use, and its performance is unduly affected by the weather (specifically humidity, I believe). That said, on Halloween 2004 I got several trouble-free hours of use from it.

To be continued…

Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 2

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

The Poly 800 had lots of sounds, was relatively easy to reprogram with different sounds, allowed saving of the sounds, and weighed about 15 pounds. It had pegs at either end, so of course I had to buy a strap and go all 80s on it. Sometime around this time I let go of the Elka and the Deluxe Reverb, and got a new (used) small low-powered P.A. with a bunch of inputs for my equipment. I also bought a nice microphone, which held up until around 2004.

Overheard: Hey, cool...look at the smoke billowing from the keyboard player's amp! This is cooler than that Styx show we saw last week. Mister Roboto indeed. Early Stone
I remember the night it happened. We were playing downtown Atlanta at a place called Margaritaville, and in the midst of one of the songs the crowd began cheering wildly. I was surprised to find the applause was directed at me. More surprised because I wasn’t doing a solo or anything special at all. Even more surprised to see that smoke was pouring from my amplifier head. The punters thought it was for effect. It wasn’t. My Univox P.A. with the name of the band that owned it before me — “Early Stone,” — stenciled on it, R.I.P.

Those speakers always reminded me of the rocks at Stonehenge anyway.

Regular gigging was hard on my Wurlitzer. The way it works is through a series of tuning-fork-like things, which are actually hammered when one hits the keys. This gave a great, piano-like action, but it also meant lots of fragile parts. Moving the instrument around, coupled with my aggressive playing style, put wear and tear on the Wurlitzer. Replacing broken forks was a big project. First I had to find the correct forks: the store would have all forks thrown into a little cardboard box, and I’d have to sort through each time. Then I had to open the board up, socket-wrench the old fork out, put in the new one, and then file it down to the correct pitch. No kidding. File too far and either (a) it breaks or (b) it’s flat. Either way, back to the store. Eventually I needed something more “reliable” so I sold it. Incredibly stupid in retrospect, but at the time I needed a keyboard I could throw in the trunk of my ’66 Mustang and not worry about.

The Hohner Pianet. Sturdy as could be, but no action, no sustain and (in my case anyway) no cover like in this photo. I got a Hohner Pianet to replace the Wurlitzer. Similar sound, but no moving parts and horrible action. It served me for a number of years, though. I eventually sold it at a garage sale in the mid-1990s.

Remote Control played a lot of gigs, and my equipment met my needs in nearly all cases. I did buy a guitar, too. It was an Aria copy of a Gibson ES-335, blonde lacquered and beautiful. I strung it left-handed so I could play it, and used it in performance whenever the other band members would let me. I couldn’t play; still can’t. I eventually sold it, years later, around 1998.

One gig we had was supposed to be a big deal: the Atlanta part of the Labor Day Telethon. This was 1985. The Hohner simply wasn’t going to be suitable, so I rented an amplified piano. I don’t recall the name, but it was a big, horrible thing with lots of moving parts and some sort of ribbon pickup inside of it. When the show began I was mortified to find it completely out of tune. Quick, back to the Pianet.

The Yamaha CP30 Electric Piano. Nice action, great sounds. No MIDI, weighed a ton.
We did a bit of studio work, and the producer insisted I use a Yamaha CP-70 (electric grand) and a Yamaha DX-7. The CP-70 was great sounding but had horrible action. Several takes and I left the studio with black and blue fingertips. The DX-7 I always hated. It sounded so sterile, and I never wanted one.Towards the end of my time with Remote Control (this was early 1986) I bought a Yamaha CP-30. The keyboard player for another local band, The Surf, had one, and I thought it was cool in look and sound. It had good action; not quite like the Wurlitzer, but far superior to the Hohner. And nothing at all like its big brother the CP-70. It also had some cool electric and acoustic piano sounds, harpsichord, and chorus and vibrato. All the selections were rocker switches like on an old organ, and I could combine them in all different ways. A bit like the Magnus Chord Organ in that fashion. It was noisy, but it was cool. Stereo output, too.Elementary Penguin, circa 1987. That's me with the leather pants and suspenders. Twenty-two years and twenty-odd pounds ago. Side note: rhythm guitarist's imperial, courtesy magic marker. The band broke up in June 1986 (on the day of my graduation from GSU) and endured a very messy divorce. But a year later I was at it again, with friends and new acquaintances, playing in Elementary Penguin. Named, of course, after a line in “I Am the Walrus.” At this point my equipment lineup was the CP-30, the Poly-800, the Moog Rogue and the Aria. We played something on the order of two gigs, and that was it for performance (and playing with other musicians) for ten years.Years in the Wilderness
I got married in 1988. I had my ’66 Mustang towed to our new home(!) but eventually my (then-) wife prevailed upon me to sell it. With the meager proceeds I bought a four-track recorder and some other goodies.A Gift From the Prophets to Me
1993 was a simpler, more innocent time. So it was that I found myself at a garage sale a few blocks from my home. A man was selling a keyboard that I had never seen before. It seemed to have some problems, so he let it go for $10. That’s right, ten dollars. I got it home and found that the internal sounds were fried, but that it worked great as a MIDI controller. So now I owned something nearly as rare as that Mellotron I passed up: a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS.

The Prophet VS. Singlehandedly provided justification for the thousands of garage sales I've attended over the years. Now playing Kraftwerk, Scorpions or Falco cover tunes, no doubt. In 1996 I started my own business and needed more space at home. I sold the CP-30, plus a Korg P-3 Piano Module I had bought around 1988. I also sold the Moog Rogue and traded the Poly-800 for a Kawai X-140D, which was essentially one of those consumer-grade synthesizer things, what with built-in drums and such. Even so, the X-140 would become my main keyboard for a few years. I also sold the Aria guitar. At this point, all I had left was the Prophet, the new X-140, a Tascam Porta Two deck and a Roland TR-505 drum machine.

Roland TR-505 Drum Machine. Featured on my 4-track demo of Todd Rundgren's I SAW THE LIGHT. Available nowhere. That same year I decided it was time to get rid of the Prophet. I didn’t know, really, what I had, but I wasn’t playing music and it was taking up space. Plus it didn’t really work, it ran hot (when it was on, you’d scorch your hand if you touched the case) and Sequential Circuits was long out of business. I posted an ad offering it for parts, best offer. To my amazement, I got offers from all around the world. I sold it to a guy in Dresden Germany. He had offered to wire-transfer several hundred dollars to my account, and would have his freight company pick the board up from my home. So off it went to der Fatherland, and I had some mad money.

Around 1997 some neighbors of mine invited me over to play music. I hadn’t been near my equipment in some time, so I brushed up a few days and then went. It was a disaster, mainly because they were all smokers (which I despise) and some of their hangers-on showed up strung out on crack. Plus they played music I hated.

One positive outcome was my getting the spark to play again. Two friends of mine had an acoustic duo and hosted a monthly coffeehouse. Long story short, I joined their group.

Peavey KB100. Nothing clever to say about it. A good piece of equipment, and my first amp actually designed for keys. Over the next few years, the group grew into a more rocking sort of outfit, with regular (monthly) gigs. I played mostly acoustic piano, as the venue had a very nice one, and added some mostly organ sounds on the Kawai. As we added a drummer and bassist, it was again time for some real equipment. At a December 1998 gig we did a couple Holiday standards.

Over the course of a couple years, I acquired some new stuff. I went into Guitar Center and bought a cheap little interim P.A. which said “great for karaoke” on the box. It was actually pretty nice, what with plenty of inputs and all. It lacked power, though, so eventually I sold it to the drummer. I replaced it with a Peavey KB-100 keyboard amp, the first amplifier I’d ever owned that was made for keyboards. It was one of the first times I’d bought something from someone over the internet. The guy I bought it from actually lived about 5 miles from my dad in Florida, so Dad was kind enough to pick it up and bring it to me on one of his visits. Not long after I got it, something came loose and I got it fixed for a few bucks. The KB-100 is still part of my rig.

It’s the End of the Century and We Feel…Old
The Kawai X-140D. Got in in an even (!) trade for the Poly-800. Looks so amateur, but plays fine. Now part of my B-unit setup at home. When I started playing again, I was convinced I needed some more “realistic” sounds. I used that Kawai X-140D, which is sort of a home keyboard, but with MIDI and so forth. I would forgo the cheesy drum parts and the bozo sequencer, but the sounds and touch-sensitivity were pretty OK. Those internal speakers and the stereo out jack gave it away as a family model, though; sort of the minivan of the keyboard world. But I kept it and occasionally still use it at home.

I spent a lot of time looking in the Atlanta Advertiser, a weekly classified magazine full of guns, furniture, cars and such for sale by owner. It wasn’t unusual to find a great deal on used keyboards. I found a pawnshop listing for a big-boy Roland keyboard. A Roland RD-300s digital piano / MIDI controller. Finally. 88 keys and good action. Eight or so built-in sounds, MIDI control in/out/through, and me with a bit of knowledge to make the MIDI work. I must be the last keyboard player on Earth to discover MIDI. Getting it was interesting. I went to the pawnshop and found the thing. The place was full of (again) guns. Nobody there knew anything about musical instruments. I found a sticking key in the upper register and stated to pound on it. Of course it only made sound every third or fourth try. I found that one of the stereo outputs was dirty, so naturally I plugged into it. So here I was, playing a sticky key through a crackly output, pulling all kinds of mock-disappointed faces. I offered them a lot less than they were asking, and they said yes. They threw in the heavy-duty stand (this thing weighs a ton) and included sales tax. The RD remained the central piece of my setup for several years.

The Roland RD-300s. The centerpiece of my setup for several years; since sold to a church.
Things We Play Today Roland D-110. the most user-unfriendly interface imaginable. I hate that part of it. But the sounds were wicked.Next I picked up A Roland D-110 sound module. $90 from a guy on the Internet. A real pain in the ass to get to work, but the sounds were stellar. With my newfound MIDI knowledge, rack-mounts seemed to be the way to go. They didn’t give the banks-of-boards look, but they got the job done and actually made playing easier and more centralized.Roland Alpha Juno 1. Very synthy.I had been in touch with another drummer friend of mine who had come into possession of a Roland Alpha Juno 1 synthesizer. He got it in some sort of trade, and didn’t play it. The previous owner had put sticky-tape on the keys to indicate A, B, C etc. The tape was long gone but the stickies remained. Now, with the surrendering of my Moog, I needed something for blips, bleeps and squawks. So I got it, with a gig bag, for I think $150. I used a solvent to get the goo off; it looks a bit rough (the gloss is off the keys) but plays great and is easy to tweak.

Ensoniq Mirage. My Wayback Machine. They all laughed.Back in the 80s the Ensoniq Mirage digital sampler came out. It was billed as the first “affordable” sampler, selling for only $1795. Well, prices drop over the years. In 1999 I got one from a used shop in Atlanta for $100, including a big stack of sounds on floppy disk. Since I let that Mellotron slip by, I got this to try and duplicate its sound. I also have my old Wurlitzer on a floppy-disk. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Around 1997 I got this crazy idea: I would buy a kit and build myself a Theremin. Yeah, you know the thing: (a) the “woo-woo machine” used in 1950s sci-fi movies, and (b) the otherworldly sound on the Beach Boys‘ 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations.” Well, if you thought that, you’d be half right. The BBs did NOT use a Theremin, despite what certain recovering acid casualty geniuses might lead you to believe.

To be continued.

Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 1

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Magnus Chord Organ. This is -- in many ways -- the thing that started me When I was little my parents had this toy of a keyboard called a Magnus Chord Organ. Most 1960s homes seemed to have one. It was a two-and-a-half-octave affair, with (I believe) slightly undersized keys, and two rows of buttons that played “chords.” Black buttons were minor; white, major. Even as a child I loved the sound of holding down several of the chord buttons simultaneously, layering weird overtones. I had no idea what I was doing from a theoretical standpoint, of course (still don’t) but it was oh-so-cool. The Magnus sucked air through the bottom. It had a damper wheel on its underside (to control how much it sucked, so to speak) and I used to like to move the wheel while I played to vary the tone color.

When I was about nine or so, I decided I wanted to be a keyboard player. This was the very early 1970s, and other fads were catching the attention of kids, so my parents were quite wary of buying a piano. I mean, who needs that kind of furniture in their house if it’s not being used? So they agreed to pay for lessons, with the stipulations that I had to (a) practice like hell, (b) find other pianos in convenient places upon which I could practice and (c) use the Magnus in the meantime. In other words, if I wanted this, I was going to have to make it work.

The 1908 Rudolf apartment grand. This thing requires tuning every couple presidential administrations or so. I still play it every day. It worked. Within a year or so Mom and Dad bought me an old 1908 “apartment grand” which is essentially a tall upright piano. The piano, built by the Rudolf Piano Co. of New York City, is still in my proud possession. And while it’s not especially impressive to gaze upon, it sounds beautiful, stays in tune for years at a time, and is loud as hell. I still have the sales receipt. $325.00.

My lessons were the typical stuff. Learn the scales, learn the theory, play the classics. Eventually I did well enough that my teacher relented and let me learn some “pop” material alongside my serious stuff. I bought some music books, but was horrified to hear (when she played from them) that these were “arrangements,” not the keyboard parts from my favorite LPs. The songs sounded like lounge- or sing-along versions, with the vocal line played by the right hand. I was disgusted, but didn’t know how to learn the songs the “right” way.

The Outer Limits, posed in front of my parents' garage. Me out front with the Elka. You Are Entering the Outer Limits
A few years later, my piano teacher of the time decided to move to another state. She gave me a list of other teachers with whom I might continue my education. I threw the list away and convinced my parents to let me spend the $150 I had on a little something.

My first synthesizer, bought around 1978, was an Elka LX-600. This Italian-made keyboard had something like four sounds and not an especially fat tone, but from my standpoint, it had a couple of really cool features. One, it allowed me to play along with my Pink Floyd albums (DSOTM, WYWH, Animals) and basically re-learn keyboard playing by ear (1970s Pink Floyd music tends to play each chord for several measures, giving the ear-novice plenty of time to fumble onto the correct notes). Two, the unit had an internally-lit on/off rocker switch right next to the highest note: when switched off while playing, the sound would fade out and drop in pitch. Cool (albeit uncontrollable) note-bending effect similar to what analog monosynths of the day could do.

Pre-CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb. These go for four figures now. When I bought the Elka, the guy sold me an amp to go with it. It was a pre-CBS Fender Deluxe Reverb (with the single 12″ and four inputs). It’s a crying shame that I would sell it a few years later because it “didn’t have enough inputs.” Stupid kid.

The biggest problem (in fact the only problem) I had with the Elka was its lack of action. I had grown very accustomed to the feel of a real piano, and hated the organ-feel of the Elka’s keys. Not enough expression in them. I knew from my extensive reading of LP liner notes that there was a hybrid of a piano and a synth called an electric piano. Electric Light Orchestra used a Wurlitzer, and I soon discovered that the instrument had an unmistakable signature sound (think: ” Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night and you’ve nailed it). When I was about fifteen or so I begged and pleaded for a Wurlitzer Electric Piano.

Ah, yes. My late 70s arsenal. Note Union Jack on Elka. Clockwise from left (look closely): Wurlitzer 200A, Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp, Elka, Mutron Phaser Pedal.I try to be Ray Manzarek. An early photo experiment.
A Horse With No Chops
So this was my rig when I first started playing with other guys circa 1979. The Elka and the Wurlitzer, run through the Deluxe Reverb. Because of the arched top on the Wurlitzer, I couldn’t stack the Elka, so it had a separate stand. Wow: two keyboards, one in front and one off to the side. I was a regular Rick Wakeman!Wurlitzer Electric Piano 200A. Joy to the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea. Well, that was pretty much it as far as equipment for several years. I played with some friends during my early high-school years. No real gigs of course, but several Law Enforcement visits to my parents’ garage. We played a dozen or so songs (no Beatles; they were sacrosanct) with no vocals. In 1980 I performed my first gig as a member of “Outer Limits.” The name came from a TIME magazine cover story on The Who entitled “Rock’s Outer Limits.” Now outfitted with a Real Live Singer, we played a CYO talent show and performed three songs: “Peter Gunn Theme” a la ELP (sort of), America‘s “A Horse With No Name” and, since we had said Vocalist, “Back in the USSR” . I have that tape…it’s horrible. We won, of course. Listening now, I do recall that it was my first experience singing in front of a crowd (harmonies on the America song). Not bad at all, actually.Fast forward to 1982. In college and working in the camera department at the local JCPenney, I made friends with one of the maintenance guys, an African American fellow named (ironically, I thought at the time) Wade White. Wade had a group that played R&B hits of the day (Kool and the Gang and such) and seemed to think I’d fit in nicely, being that I was (a) caucasian and (b) hated all music that was not rock and roll. So of course at 18 years of age I joined, and added a whole new set of experiences to my life.

First off, there was the practice venue. See, I had never set foot in a working-class black neighborhood before this, so I was surprised my much of what I found there. The concrete-block building we played in was a community center with a big, thick steel door and bars on the (broken) windows. I was not about to leave my equipment (worth at the time about $600 or more) in that place, so I had to schlep it all to and fro every time we practiced. The place had few electrical outlets, and we popped fuses all the time.

The group, “Phoenix,” was fairly large. As I recall, there was a drummer, a funk-poppin’ bassist, two guitarists, two or three horn players, a female vocalist/percussionist and me. All on a 4×8 piece of plywood. Well, almost. We played a number of gigs, all at which we were very well-received. The most surreal experience of all with them was on our way to a show at the American Legion in Buford GA. We got lost and stopped to ask directions. Picture us: a car overstuffed with black people and one white guy, in rural Georgia. I was elected Spokesman.

The Moog Rogue. If it had stayed in tune, I woulda kept it forever. Still probably shoulda. “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the American Legion Post?”
“Which one?”
“Um, what do you mean, ‘which one?’”
“The black one or the white one?”

It was a great show. As always, the crowd called out for us to play “that white song.” By this they meant the Brooker/Reid composition “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” My spotlight number. Naturally.

Wade introduced me to the wonderful world of Pawn Shops. I had never been in one prior to that time, as their barred windows and signage with GUNS in huge lettering scared me off. But I found them to be chock full of used musical instruments, at bargain prices. Wade and I found a Moog Rogue, a great little totally analog monophonic synth. I never fully realized the potential of this little instrument, though I did put it to good use for effects and such. It remained part of my equipment list for many years. I paid about $125 for it.

The JX3P. So hot it nearly burned my fingers.

Those Crazy Eighties
Of passing interest was the keyboard I was loaned for gigs. It was a Roland JX-3P with an amazing array of synthy sounds. The serial number had been scratched off, and part of the thing had been painted over. Hmm. It was offered for sale to me but I declined. Anyway, as far as the group, I don’t recall how or why I stopped playing with them. But I did get a lot of performance experience.

Summer 1984 I met a fellow student in one of my classes at GSU. He was in a new band that was looking for a keyboard player. Was I interested? I certainly was.

Remote Control, 1985. Me in the center. As of 2001, the guy on the left is the only one still trying to make a living at music. Completely bald and without glasses now. A couple weeks later I was a member of the group that eventually became “Remote Control.” As an aside, I should mention that I’ve named every group I was ever in, except Phoenix. This time the name came from the 1978 Tubes album produced by Todd Rundgren. My idea for a slogan, “Put yourself on Remote Control,” was, however, not well received. Something about pandering to groupies. Worked for me (this was ’84 after all).

The story of the band is worth a book in itself, but I’ll just hit a few high spots relating to my equipment.

The group had an Italian Crumar DS-2 which I used in practice. It had some nice (for its time) brass and string sounds, which I used a great deal. I think I used this board live on some early RC gigs, but at this late date I can’t be sure. No idea who owned it or what happened to it.

They called it Mello Yello. Quite Rightly. We were fortunate to have permanent rehearsal space, in the back room of an audio/visual equipment rental company’s space. The space was formerly a recording studio, so we had a soundproofed room with high ceilings and plenty of electrical outlets. There was an adjacent room that had formerly been the control room; now, with the console pulled out, it was just a room with a big glass window. But it felt like a studio.

In the corner was a big, bulky, garishly painted yellow something. Eventually I moved all the stuff off of it and uncovered it to see what it was. A Mellotron M-400 in fair shape! The owner of the place offered it to me for, I think, a few hundred dollars. I didn’t have the money, and so it went somewhere else. I never got to play it, which is a real shame. From a listening standpoint, the impossibly rare Mellotron is my hands-down favorite keyboard instrument.

Korg Poly 800. My introduction to the worlds of polyphonic synthesis and 21% APR credit cards. Since I was in college, I started getting offers in the mail for credit cards. Like most fools of that era, in 1984 I accepted and got my first VISA, with an APR of 21% or more. Of course I ran right out to Rhythm City and bought a “real” keyboard, my Korg Poly-800 Mk I. I think I paid $600, not counting the interest, and eventually paid the card off sometime in the mid 1990s.

To be continued.

Musoscribe’s Best of 2009

Friday, December 18th, 2009

2009 shaped up to be a great year for pop music, if not for the music business. In no particular order — here are my choices for the Best of 2009.

  • The Twilight Hours – Stereo Night. Veterans of underappreciated groups Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic come together to create a masterful pop record. Available on clear red vinyl, too! Review here.
  • Pugwash – Giddy. Irishman Thomas Walsh has been making records for awhile, but none has gotten released outside the Emerald Isle. Andy Partridge’s Ape label corrects that tragic oversight with a best-of. Review here.
  • Big Star – Keep an Eye on the Sky. Another in that long, revered line of groups that didn’t succeed commercially but exerted far-reaching influence, Big Star finally gets the box set treatment they’ve long deserved.
  • Jamie & Steve – English Afterthoughts. Half of the Spongetones channel their inner Chad & Jeremy. Pure pop for anytime people. Interview here.
  • Various Artists – Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968. 100-plus tracks of garagey, psychey pop goodness. Need I say more? I think not.
  • Dennis Diken with Bell Sound – Late Music. 2009 was a banner year for breakout side-project albums. Evoking the Who, the Move and Pet Sounds era Beach Boys, Diken’s album is a real gem. Review here, and extensive interview here.
  • Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey – hERE aND nOW. Half of the dB’s follow up their Mavericks collaboration of many years ago with this acoustic-flavored delight. Album review here, and interview here.
  • Dukes of Stratosphear – The Complete and Utter Dukes. XTC’s psych-pop alter egos have gotten the box treatment. Review here.
  • King Crimson – Red (40th Anniversary Series). This expanded packaging of the classic 1974 prog album simply sets the standard for reissues. A perfect album gets even better. Review here.
  • The Orange Peels – 2020. A late entry, this album is not to be missed. Review to be published the week after Christmas.

Five excellent music or music-related DVDs top my list for 2009:

  • My Dinner With Jimi – Howard Kaylan’s true and uproarious tale of the day the Turtles met the Beatles, Brian Jones, Donovan and Jimi Hendrix. Interview here.
  • Blackfield – Live in NYC. Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) and Aviv Geffen turn in a stellar performance onstage. Review here.
  • BB King – Live in Africa. An important historical document, and some great music to boot. Review here.
  • Let Freedom Sing – How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement. A thoughtful look at the connection between music and social change. Review here.
  • Paul McCartney – Good Evening NYC. A sentimental choice, yes. Great show, great packaging. Review soon.

Top that, 2010.

Interview: Jamie & Steve (Jamie Hoover & Steve Stoeckel)

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Jamie & Steve - English AfterthoughtsFormed in Charlotte NC in the early 1980s, the Spongetones have long charted a rather unique path in pop music. Beginning with their debut LP (1982′s Beat Music), the quartet wrote and recorded two- and three-minute pop classics that bore the unmistakable influence of the Beatles. In fact, songs like “Here I Go Again” and “Take My Love” sounded like outtakes from The Beatles’ Second Album and Beatles VI, respectively. And on a more elaborate track like that album’s “Eloquent Spokesman” the Spongetones faithfully and convincingly evoked the spirit of the Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour era.

The Spongetones soldiered on, releasing a string of very-good-to-excellent albums on a succession of small, independent labels. The group continued to hone their craft, and gradually moved away from overt Beatleisms, developing a sound of their own. The influences are still quite evident even on the group’s most recent album, 2009′s Scrambled Eggs (their eleventh long-player). Hints of Dave Clark Five, Hollies and other bands from rock’s greatest era are worn on the musicians’ sleeves or just below the surface.

In addition to his position as guitarist with the Spongetones, Jamie Hoover has long been involved in a wide array of other projects. Hoover has recorded as a member of powerpop group the Van Delecki’s, collaborated with pop sensation Bill Lloyd, and has a long list of credits playing on recordings by Don Dixon, Marti Jones, Hootie & the Blowfish, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz and many others. Hoover also owns and operates a recording studio; one of his early productions was the underrated Emotional Geography by the Killer Whales, and he’s handled engineering duties on albums for Chris Stamey and many others. Bassist Steve Stoeckel — who, in his early Spongetones days looked like a Let it Be era bearded McCartney with his Hofner bass — has directed most of his musical energies into the Spongetones.

But in 2009, right on the heels of the Scrambled Eggs sessions, Hoover and Stoeckel decided to embark on a side project. The results of those efforts are collected on English Afterthoughts, the album credited to Jamie & Steve. “There’s nothing wrong in paradise,” assures Jamie Hoover. “We just had so many songs…Steve and I were on fire.” On Spongetones records the three songwriters (Hoover, Stoeckel and Pat Walters) divide songwriting space equally. “And we didn’t want to wait too long to have these songs come out,” Hoover says.

Steve Stoeckel notes that these new songs won’t be showing up in Spongetones set lists. “The Spongetones need to be about the Spongetones. Rob [Thorne, Spongetones drummer] and Pat are okay with us doing this CD; we told them ahead of time that we’d be doing this because we had so many songs. We were writing a song a day, at times. It was that fast.”

Since both Jamie & Steve have developed identifiable songwriting styles, it’s fair to wonder how this project differs from a Spongetones record. Steve explains it like this: “The Spongetones are a democracy. Everybody has a say in a song, whether they wrote it or not. But when there’s only two people making decisions, there’s less politicking that goes on.” He describes the decision process for English Afterthoughts simply: “Basically, this is two guys saying, ‘It’s great. Let’s cut it and do the next one.’” Jamie adds that “with Jamie & Steve songs, we both have to love it. Well, with the Spongetones, we have to all four love it.” He adds, “I suppose in a way this is a freeing thing.”

Still, the duo did agree on a distribution of songwriting duties for English Afterthoughts. All but two of the songs were co-written by Hoover and Stoeckel. Steve says, “We each wanted to have at least one tune on it that we wrote solo. It was going to be a completely duo thing, and then Jamie said, ‘we’ll just write one song apiece — we’ll keep it at one.”

Jamie & Steve The collaboration process was rarely face-to-face. “We both have recording programs in our homes,” Steve says. “So we were flying sessions back and forth. Jamie was the mothership; he’d have the master session. We’d put it on a flash drive, and he’d say, ‘I want some acoustic guitars here.’ Only a few times was I over there in his studio. Most of my work was done in my studio. And boy, is that efficient. You could be up at midnight if you feel like singing. You’re not on the clock. And the only reason that it took this long is that we both have jobs. Otherwise,” he laughs, “we could have knocked this thing out in a week and a half!”

No guest musicians were used in the making of English Afterthoughts. “I played drums on every one of those tracks,” Jamie beams. “Real drums. And I lost weight in the process!”

In something of a departure from the Spongetones sound, English Afterthoughts makes extensive use of the ukulele. “Jamie and I both fell in love with ukuleles years ago,” Steve says. “We both own ukes; they are played in some interesting ways so that sometimes they can sound like strings, sometimes like ukes, sometimes like guitars.” So on English Afterthoughts, if you hear something that’s not electric or acoustic guitar, chances are, it’s a ukulele.

Jamie elaborates. “There are also combinations of things that make different sounds. Gut string guitars mixed with the ukuleles end up sounding like pizzicato strings. We also used some mountain dulcimer; when it’s stacked with acoustic guitars, it can sound different, too.” The ukes started working their way in on the Spongetones album Too Clever by Half [2008]. “I’m totally smitten with it,” Jamie says. “It’s wonderfully easy to play, and it’s a very affectionate instrument. It makes you write differently because of the way it’s tuned, the way it plays. And,” he observes, “a lineup of bass, drums and ukulele is kind of an unusual format for a rock band.”

Throughout the album, the duo often employs a dual lead vocal approach, one that they’ve developed over the course of their nearly three decades playing together. Jamie says, “We have been doing it for years on Spongetones records. Needless to say, with the Spongetones, we’ve listened to lots of Beatles records. Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon. What we realized after hearing Steve and I singing together is that it creates a unique voice. We refer to it as ‘Stamey’. [No relation to Chris Stamey, though he's a friend of Jamie & Steve. -- ed.] We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s kind of a gut feeling: we’ll just know: ‘This should be a Stamey song.’ As a general rule, we wanted to have a lot of Stamey vocals on this record because, y’know, we’re kind of making a Chad and Jeremy record.”

The pair collaborated on music and lyrics, often emailing audio files of works-in-progress back and forth. “A lot of these songs,” Steve says, “were my music and Jamie’s lyrics; ‘Girly Girl’ was my lyrics. But for many of the songs, I would just send Jamie the music, and then lyrics would come back. Within a day!”

“We traded off,” Jamie says. “We sent each other a lot of what I call ‘la la la’ tapes.”

“Sometimes,” Steve explains, “one of us gets a ‘la la la’ tape and then instantly knows what the song is about. Even if the other one — the one who sent it — doesn’t.”

Jamie adds that “‘Emily’s Ghost’ is a good example. I literally cc’d Steve on an email with a demo, one that I was sending to somebody else for a totally different reason. I copied him on it because, really, there’s not much that I do that I don’t run past Steve. When he got it, he said ‘Oh, noooo: that’s not going anywhere! I’ve already got it done. Here it is.’”

One of English Afterthoughts‘ many highlights is “Between the Lines,” a song co-written by Jamie & Steve. Like some of the best Beatles tunes, in parts of “Between the Lines” it’s impossible to say definitively which of the two vocal lines is the lead; it’s almost as if there are two complementary songs running in tandem.

Steve says, “I’ve always liked Broadway productions where people are singing, and then other people start singing in counterpoint. I’d always wanted to do that. So I wrote the first part, thinking, ‘this is a guy talking to a girl who’s breaking up with him. And me — the sweet voice — is saying ‘I’ll let you go, because I love you that much.’ And I said to Jamie, ‘I want you to be the nasty guy, the guy that feels the rage inside.’ The ‘Between the Lines’ part is that the nasty guy is saying, ‘What the hell are you doing, breaking up with her?’”

Jamie laughs and says that Steve “pretty much assigned me to be the evil twin.”

Steve doesn’t argue. “Jamie was pretty much the hard-ass, and I was the sweet one. I left holes for Jamie to write lyrics, to fill in. And it’s incredibly hard to do. So the first verse is the sweet guy, the second verse is Jamie. And then in the third verse, it’s really hard to follow what’s happening. It becomes this other thing, this swirling thing. And that’s part of the message of the song: that there’s this constant internal communication that’s happening, and it’s really screwed up.”

Jamie & Steve Jamie observes that songwriting can be “sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes we write songs are that projects, really. They start out as an exercise, and they turn into a song.”

Drastic (but not at all unpleasant or jarring) tempo shifts are a hallmark of a pair of songs on English Afterthoughts. On “Fly Girl” — dedicated to Spongetones friend and underrated pop musician Jill Sobule — Jamie says that he “wanted to drastically change the mood of the song.”

“In the Other Life and on Another Day” shifts back and forth between a midtempo arrangement and a real rocker. “That’s another two-person song,” Jamie explains. “The older guy in the lyrics is doing all the slow stuff. And when the young guy comes in, it’s fast.” (“That,” he chuckles, “is how life is!”) “I wanted to switch to a totally different tempo — not just double time — and then go back to the slower part when the old guy comes back in.”

Steve muses on what makes their musical collaborations so fruitful, so effortless, so fulfilling. “We have complete trust in each others’ songwriting. When one of us sends a song to the other, even in its embryonic form, we know that ‘there’s a song here.’ So we don’t agonize over ‘is this good?’ When I get something from Jamie, I know it’s good. When I send a ‘la la la’ song to him and get it back with lyrics, the first thing I think is, ‘So that’s what this song is about.’ I can’t imagine it being about anything else. And we both have to be happy with it. The rule is, if he’s not happy with my lyric on a song, he’s got to come up with something better. Same with me.”

Even though the songs on English Afterthoughts are wry and clever, they’re never self-consciously clever. “Yes, we’re always trying to do something different,” Jamie concedes. “The people we like are XTC and bands like that. So we try and not repeat ourselves. But more than anything, we’re just trying to write songs.”

Jamie & Steve recently completed a video for “Between the Lines” (see below). They had to learn their own song before they could make the video. Jamie explains. “Young bands, when they’re working on their first record, they already know their songs when they go into the studio. These things were written in the studio. So now we’re in the process of learning how to play these songs!”

Steve adds, “We thought that would be a good one to do a video for, because of the vocal counterpoint. But then we realized, ‘hey, we don’t really know this song.’” He laughs and says that “the repetition of shooting the video was a great way to learn the song.”

English Afterthoughts can be enjoyed as a fun, consistently engaging and tuneful pop album in the great tradition. But for those who care to dig a bit deeper, there are some fun in-jokes. In the song “Feeling Me Watching Me Watching You,” Jamie & Steve sing the word “solo” right before the guitar solo. Just like a band might do at practice. “That was on the demo” for reference, says Jamie. They left it in because it felt right.

The song ‘Girly Girl” finds a Spongetones hallmark — the pronunciation of the title’s second word as gull. “Jamie and I both love the word ‘girl’ no mater how it’s pronounced,” Steve laughs. “We do naturally pronounce it with a soft ‘r’ because that’s just the way we sing. If you sing it with a hard ‘r’ it’s country. And we’re not country singers.”

Jamie & Steve even have the moxie to title a song “Do Be Cruel.” Steve laughs and says, “You can thank Mr. Hoover for that one!” Jamie shrugs, “I just said, ‘It’s there; someone has to do it. And that someone is me.’”

However amusing these inside-baseball tidbits might be, Jamie & Steve are ultimately making music for themselves. “At our age,” Jamie observes, “one does not make a record in anticipation of having a hit, or pleasing a bunch of people. We completely write songs for ourselves. And we know that there are some people that are going to like them for that very reason. We want people to like what we do, but it’s not the driving force.”

“I’ve come to this conclusion,” Steve says. “When you’re first learning how to do something like songwriting, you’re constantly thinking about the listener. You read Hemingway if you want to be a writer, and you listen to the Beatles if you want to be a songsmith. But once you lean how to do it — once you perfect your craft — you don’t worry so much about the audience. Because what you’ve done is, you’ve got a style, you’ve got a craft. You’re good, and you know you’re good. And you bring your audience with you.”

Jamie gets the last word. “People who ‘get’ us really ‘get us’. We’ve become friends with people who listen to our music. That’s one nice thing about the way the record biz is now. We’re sitting here self-addressing these albums, and we’re taking some time today to autograph these and send them out to the people who helped us back this record. It’s a very rewarding thing.”

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Album Review: King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

In the Court of the Crimson KingThere was little precedent for the music on King Crimson‘s 1969 debut album. Titled In the Court of the Crimson King — An Observation by King Crimson, the album gave a clear signal that something had changed in the world of music.

In 1969 rock and popular music were in the midst of a fertile time of experimentation: paradoxically, doing something different was the norm. Within that context, in retrospect the debut of King Crimson might not seem so terribly out of the ordinary. But in fact King Crimson’s approach — or, rather its varied approaches — sound as outré today, some forty years later — as they must have sounded to listeners of the day.

Even within the backgrounds of the players, there were little more than small hints of the direction this new group would chart. Guitarist Robert Fripp had been in an oddball trio with a drummer and bassist; the latter two were brothers. But the music on The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp bore little resemblance to King Crimson’s 1969 debut. (There are some GGF tracks that in fact sound a lot like some subsequent King Crimson pieces, but that’s another story.)

Effectively, King Crimson grew out of he unsuccessful GG&F group. Drummer Michael Giles and Fripp added bassist Greg Lake. It was multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald who would add the greatest amount of musical texture to this new band. Playing reeds, woodwinds, vibes, keyboard and Mellotron as well as singing, McDonald helped give King Crimson a sound like no other in rock.

Several other groups were already making use of the Mellotron as a critical part of their sound. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had dabbled with the instrument (a tape-based forerunner of the modern sample playback unit). The Moody Blues employed the cumbersome instrument first as an onstage substitute for an orchestra, and then soon as an instrument unto itself. But King Crimson used the Mellotron as a tool to add previously unknown depths of expression to their sweeping, melodramatic compositions.

Producing an album with a mere five songs wasn’t in and of itself a radical approach in 1969. Many “art rock” groups were offering up extended suites with pseudo-classical trappings. But few turned out such a varied yet solid set of songs as did King Crimson.

The album opens with a bizarre, almost otherworldly sound of wind forced through classical instrumentation. That quickly gives way to the menacing, proto-heavy metal riff that is the centerpiece of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Greg Lake’s heavily processed vocal and the song’s insistent beat produce a song unlike little else in the group’s subsequent canon. This nasty piece of work features dystopian lyrics courtesy of Peter Sinfield; billed as a full group member, his role was akin to that of Procol Harum‘s Keith Reid (Sinfield did run King Crimson’s light show, though).

Keyboard does, in fact, figure quite minimally in “Schizoid Man.” Instead, the song travels a jazz path (albeit one of a very aggressive sort), twisting and turning, heading into impossibly fast sections. Held together by Giles’ nimble and highly expressive drumming, the song flies far from the rock idiom as blaring saxes and other reeds and woodwinds all fight for attention. The cacophony only heightens the doom and malaise of the song.

The transition to the next song couldn’t be more dramatic. The McDonald-Sinfield composition “I Talk to the Wind” is a romantic pop song having more in common with the Moody Blues than with the previous track. Giles’ light yet extremely textured touch on the song sets it apart from being simply a piece of pastoral pop. Greg Lake’s plaintive, dreamy vocal is virtually the opposite of his approach on “Schizoid Man.” Fripp’s guitars (acoustic and electric) are never short of interesting: his subtlety and finesse throughout the song — including his trademark restraint — are essential to the arrangement. But once again it is McDonald’s work that takes the song to the level of something really special. Overdubbed flutes (bearing little in common with, say Ian Anderson) and woodwinds are provide an alternate approach to the Moody Blues’ version of modern classical-pop marriage.

The sweeping and majestic “Epitaph” leads off with mighty Mellotron, but quickly reverts to a minimal arrangement featuring Lake’s voice and bass, Fripp’s acoustic guitar, Giles’ restrained drumming and McDonald’s Mellotron. Especially on the soaring chorus, the Mellotron’s single-note countermelody really makes the song. The song’s middle section features somber classical instrumentation atop a reverbed acoustic guitar and kick drum. Lake’s expressive vocal delivery can be seen as a template for directions he’d pursue once hooked up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. A minor-key masterpiece, “Epitaph” is also the album’s most accessible track.

“Moonchild” is the longest track on In the Court of the Crimson King. It’s also the album’s weakest number, though certainly not without its merits. Sinfield’s lyrics are a bit Hobbity-airy-fairy, and the mostly-fetching melody has some clumsy parts. Giles’ inventive drumming is a highlight, but the song meanders. McDonald’s vibes offer some pleasant texture, but not enough happens in the song to justify its over twelve minute running time. (Apparently Fripp agrees; on the 2009 40th Anniversary reissue, Fripp actually insisted on trimming more than a full minute from the tune for its “official” version. The full version is available elsewhere in the extensive package for those so inclined.) At its worst, “Moonchild” elicits something extremely rare in the work of King Crimson: boredom. Long sections of the tune amount to little more than minimalist noodling.

All is forgiven when the final track gets underway. The majestic “The Court of the Crimson King” combines and sums up the best of the group’s talents: a dramatic and memorable hook melody; top-notch expressive singing from Lake (and harmonies!); carefully-placed woodwinds and reeds; and a stately pace with drumming providing copious tone color. The Mellotron’s signature descending melody line is the song’s centerpiece, but every single element is perfectly conceived, placed and executed. The song swells and explodes, and leaves an indelible mark in the mind of the listener.

Reissued in 2009 as part of King Crimson’s 40th Anniversary series, In the Court of the Crimson King is greatly expanded. Though technology of the day required significant mixdown of tracks to create a master, as luck would have it, the original source tapes were available and in good shape. As a result, Robert Fripp was able to enlist the aid of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (a huge King Crimson fan) to remix the tracks into 5.1 Surround. What’s more, Wilson was able to tinker with the mix, brining unheard parts of the recording to the fore. The result — heard in myriad forms on the CD+DVD package — is revelatory. Heretofore unheard subtleties make their first appearance.

The CD includes five bonus tracks. The first of these is the previously-mentioned full version of “Moonchild”. The sonic clarity is remarkable, but it’s still undistinguished when put up again the other tracks on ITCOTKC.

A “duo version” of “I Talk to the Wind” is actually a completely alternate take of the song. Featuring busier acoustic guitar from Fripp and multiple overdubs of McDonald’s flutes, the song’s immense beauty is revealed yet again. In places, Fripp’s guitar sounds like a harpsichord. The instrumental take showcases the romantic qualities of the song. Oddly, the session tapes reveal Fripp introducing the song as “a poxy tune.”

An alternate mix of “I Talk to the Wind” featuring different solos and a slightly different mix is interesting, as it shows that the original lineup of King Crimson had more melodic and arrangement ideas than space in which to express them. The solo prowess of both McDonald and Fripp are highlighted here.

The backing track of “Epitaph” is essentially a karaoke version of the song. Have fun, Crimson fans. It does in fact make the point yet again — if it’s even needed — that on this album King Crimson performed with grace and subtlety. The players never seem to fight for dominance. The instrumentation on “Epitaph” is perfectly balanced; when the quiet sections come, there’s almost nothing going on, and yet it’s incredibly effective, leaving the needed space for the emotive lead vocal on the finished track.

The novelty “Wind Session” rounds out the disc. The session that produced the intro to “21st Century Schizoid Man” apparently took some time to get right. Several alternate tries are heard; after one unsatisfactory try, Fripp says, “It’s meant to be frighteningly” [sic], and the engineer dryly responds, “but it’s not.” A frustrated Ian McDonald inquires of the control booth: “Have you got any diabolical sounds you could put on it in there?”

The DVD included in the package presents content in a confusing variety of formats. The 2009 mixes are rendered in two different 5.1 formats, and two stereo formats. The “original” 2004 master is included in the stereo formats, as are the bonus tracks. The bonus tracks aren’t provided in 5.1, but then who needs a Surround version of “Wind Session,” really?

A Steven Wilson-produced “alternate album” provides some fascinating revisionist history. An instrumental mix of “21st Century Schizoid Man” does for that tune what the instrumental version of “Epitaph” did for that song: highlights the subtlety, power and effective interplay of the instruments. And it’s rendered with exceptional clarity, owing to Wilson’s ability to access those original tapes.

A studio run-through of “I Talk to the Wind” shows that the group had spent a great deal of time on the tune; recorded live in the studio, the take reveals that the song flowed naturally. In fact, during the time between Giles, Giles and Fripp and King Crimson, the song was demoed featuring Judy Dyble (later of Fairport Convention) on vocals. Clearly this “poxy tune” was one that the group felt deserved a hearing.

“Epitaph” is heard in an alternate version as well. This version lacks a bit of the subtlety present in the finished version, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless as yet another window into the creative process. Different instrumentation and a higher reliance on piano and organ are the versions highlights.

The first take of “Moonchild” features only Fripp’s electric guitar, Giles’ drums and Lake’s voice. At a mere two minutes, the unadorned track shows more promise than the final version would ultimately realize.

An alternate take (with basic tracks and no vocals) of “The Court of the Crimson King” is another glimpse at song development. This version lacks much of the final instrumentation (via overdub) that would be the centerpiece of the finished song. Giles’ inventive drumming is highlighted here, but the song’s power is only hinted at.

A brief film clip of King Crimson onstage performing “21st Century Schizoid Man” rounds out the DVD. It’s black and white and of quite dodgy quality, but it’s an essential historic artifact nonetheless. The clip reminds us that much of history is sadly lost to the haze of memory: this is, ultimately, all modern day music fans have to witness of the original King Crimson onstage. And in circumstances that would presage the often convoluted history of the band, everyone except Fripp had exited King Crimson by the time work was completed on the band’s sophomore album.

You may also enjoy: a review of Red (40th Anniversary Series)

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