Archive for February, 2012

Album Review: The Diodes – Action/Reaction

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

I remember when I first heard about the Sex Pistols and this new thing called “punk rock.” It must have been around 1977 or so; a news piece on the weekly TV news magazine show 60 Minutes showed then-shocking photos of people with mohawks and whatnot, roaming the streets of London. I recall that the music was noisy, aggressive, threatening, and not very, well, musical. (I was all of thirteen, mind you.) The funny thing, of course, is that a few short decades later, listening to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, I’m stuck by just how connected to classic rock it sounds now.

That just goes to show how some of what what once seemed so out-there can eventually – with hindsight – seem to fit into the grand scheme of things. When it comes to music, this is especially true if the music was a good indicator of where the trends were heading. Thus, things like Human League and Thompson Twins – in other words, things that largely sucked to begin with – now sound hopelessly dated. And music that had some depth and energy, well, that has worn better over time.

According to those in the know, Toronto-base punk group The Diodes did their best work on their earliest releases. Their excellent 1978 single “Tired of Waking Up Tired” gained its own small piece of immortality when it was included on one of Rhino’s excellent genre-summing D.I.Y. collections. After some high-profile touring as openers for Split Enz, U2 and others, and two major-label albums (on Columbia/Epic) The Diodes found themselves off that label, signed instead to Orient Records, an RCA subsidiary imprint. Their third release was 1980′s Action/Reaction. Like many small-label new wave releases from that era, the LP quickly went out of print; used copies of Action/Reaction change hands for upwards of $30, if you can even find a copy. (As I write this, I see that a first-pressing autographed by all four members can be had for $68.)

The album itself has now been reissued on Bongo Beat (a label headed by Ralph Alfonso, the band’s original manager and Ralph Records namesake). Including six bonus tracks (two of which are previously unreleased) and carefully remastered, Action/Reaction is one of those recordings that has in fact worn well. It’s relatively free from the dated recording techniques of 1980. There’s some compression and gated reverb to be sure, but as an overall recording, the album has a fairly live-in-the-studio feel to it. One supposes that onstage, The Diodes were less slick than they’re shown on this record, owing mostly to the fact that stacked vocal harmonies and guitar overdubs aren’t possible onstage. Or, they weren’t in 1980.

Action/Reaction doesn’t sound at all revolutionary in 2012, and one would be hard-pressed to call it “punk” at all. New wave? Certainly: the stripped-down, straight-ahead arrangement of a rocker like “Polaroid™” has more in common with The Vapors or The Knack than, say, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The songs are riffy and tight, and guitar solos – when they appear at all – are short and to the point. The vocal approach is pretty consistent across all of the original album’s nine tracks: unison and harmony voices throughout.

It’s interesting to compare the demo of “Catwalker” with the “finished” version (a hit in Canada) on the album-proper. The demo has a single vocal – none of those stacked vocals – and sounds a bit like The Ramones, if the Ramones could swing. (They couldn’t.) Since it’s a demo, it’s sonically a bit thin, but in its own way it’s more timeless than the more produced version. A bonus live cover of The Rolling Stones‘ “Play With Fire” shows that The Diodes could slow things down and play with a mixture of menace and subtlety. It also highlights – if it needed highlighting – that the so-called punk movement was, in the end, more in line with the onward development of rock music in general than some might have you believe.

Alfonso’s detailed and informative liner note essay helps put the record in historical perspective. The 2012 release – the first appearance of Action/Reaction on CD – might not be an earthshaking release, but it showcases some unjustly forgotten music that’s well worth a listen.

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DVD Review: Composing Outside the Beatles

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

I have to admit it: as a music journalist/critic myself, I absolutely love this sort of thing. When it’s done well, a documentary such as Composing Outside the Beatles: Lennon and McCartney 1973-1980 can be the source of new-found wisdom about its subjects. And this documentary is done very well.

It’s conventional wisdom that John Lennon and Paul McCartney both produced their best work – together and individually – during their time in The Beatles. But their post-Beatles output is well deserving of merit as well. Even if one isn’t a fan of their seventies’ music, the sheer commercial success of it makes it worthy of another look. And that’s a big part of what Composing Outside the Beatles aims to do. By drawing upon the wisdom of rock writers, musicologists and those who were there, the documentary weaves a narrative of the 1970s that examines the quality of John and Paul’s music during that time.

Some of the conclusions drawn won’t surprise the viewer: Wings‘ debut Wild Life isn’t all that great; Band on the Run may be the best thing McCartney did post-Beatles; Double Fantasy is overrated in the wake of John’s senseless, tragic murder. But as the experts – and they really are experts here – delve into the music, they bring out some points that fans might have forgotten. Or, in a few cases, things we might have never considered.

Musicologist Chris Ingham is especially effective as he deconstructs some of John Lennon’s songwriting, showing the complexity – genius, really – in a mostly-forgotten tune off Mind Games called “One Day at a Time.” He applies the same you-ought-to-reconsider approach to McCarntey’s work, making the convincing argument that Paul’s particular and consistent genius is in arranging, more than songwriting. Ingham suggests that while a track like “Magneto and Titanium Man” off of Venus and Mars isn’t an enduring work melodically or lyrically, it’s a nearly flawless recording, with perfect touches applied to the arrangement.

The experts don’t always agree; sometimes one of them – say, journalist Peter Ames Carlin – might find value in an album that Johnny Rogan finds wanting – but this array of points of view only adds to the richness of Composing Outside the Beatles; it essentially says, “Here are some informed opinions; now you go listen again and decide for yourself.” All involved do, perhaps surprisingly, give props to “With a Little Luck” as a great song, and the kinetic bass line in Wings’ “Goodnight tonight” issingled out for well-deserved praise.

The musicians called upon to comment add quite a lot to the weight and perspective of Composing Outside the Beatles. Denny Laine, Klaus Voorman and drummer Denny Seiwell help put a personal perspective to what might otherwise merely be a parade of music journalists (if very good ones).

A number of clips are included, most notably sections of songs from the James Paul McCartney TV special and the Rockshow concert film. And a real rarity – of admittedly dubious value – is included: a piece of the audio from the session in which Lennon and McCartney got back together in Los Angeles. Circulating for years as part of the A Toot and Snore bootleg, this brief yet fascinating clip makes the point that – regardless what fans might have hoped – John and Paul weren’t likely to get back together to make new music anyway.

Composing Outside the Beatles wraps up by circling back to the sixties, reflecting on what it was that made the Lennon/McCartney partnership so special. It wasn’t merely that they wrote together (since after 1965 they rarely did), but that they served as fellow-genius foils for each other, each tempering the weaker instinct of the other, and implicitly encouraging each other toward their best work. The documentary makes the point that for John and Paul, a good bit of the early 70s was spent “finding themselves” as solo artists and as people in general. The result was some uneven musical output, but gems are scattered among even the least of their efforts.

Having grown up with this music – I bought pretty much every one of the albums mentioned upon release – I found Composing Outside the Beatles highly informative and enjoyable. It’s definitely recommended for fans of the Beatles, especially for those who haven’t give the post-Beatles solo work a close listen. For you, there’s lots of great music waiting to be discovered.

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Album Review: Michael Mazzarella – Songwriter

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I’ve noticed an interesting mini-trend of late: high-quality but relatively obscure (commercially speaking) recording artists are putting together and releasing multiple-disc sets. These are taking the form of Odds and Sods-style compilations, bringing together alternate takes, demos, unreleased tracks, covers, collaborations, live versions and whatnot. Karl Wallinger is readying release of his own World Party retrospective Arkeology; I’m working my way through that now, and will report on it soon.

In a similar move, The Rooks‘ frontman Michael Mazzarella has put together five discs’ worth of his own music, titled Songwriter. The music covers a lot of stylistic ground, but the unifying qualities of the 99(!) tracks are Mazarella’s presence and – more importantly – the fact that he wrote every single one of the songs. All but 22 of the tracks (one on disc #4 and the entirety of the all-demos disc #5) have been previously released, but good luck trying to lay your hands on original pressings of any of Mazzarella’s three solo albums (1997′s Methods of a Mad Rook, the 2006 release Grey Over an Autumn Winter, and 2008′s Folk Songs for the Curious Few). The three original Rooks releases are a bit easier to come by, but still aren’t the sort of discs one might stumble across in the local Best Buy.

The Rooks material scattered liberally across Songwriter leans in a predictably pleasing powerpop direction; Mazzarella’s songs serve up plenty of the requisite memorable hooks and Who-derived power. The Rooks’ sound is similar to that of The Grip Weeds, Smithereens and other revered classic-minded rock groups of the NYC/New Jersey region. Mazzarella’s solo work, however, seems focused more on exploring other sorts of music; as often as not, that means less-rocking material. Some of the solo tracks – “In An Ocean,” for example, have a John Lennon‘s Dakota Demos feel to them; others, like “Home,” are more idiosyncratic, suggesting what The Polyphonic Spree might sound like at home (so to speak).

The sequencing of the music across these discs is neither chronological nor arranged according to artist (Rooks or solo work). The result is an occasionally jarring listening experience, veering between upbeat Rooks ravers and contemplative, sometimes spooky solo works. While the Rooks songs have the sparkle and polish of the best powerpop, many of Mazzarella’s solo cuts have a recorded-in-his-garret vibe that calls to mind post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett more than, say, Martin Newell.

Which isn’t to suggest that the solo tracks aren’t fine; they are, and their inclusion is essential to – as this set must be aiming to do – chronicling Mazzarella’s songwriting talents. As the principal (nearly only) songwriter in The Rooks, he (one suspects) has to lean toward a particular and relatively narrow style; the solo works betray no such restrictions. Mas often as not, they’re based on piano melodies rather than power-chording electric guitar. Occasionally – but not often – the two styles sort of meet halfway, as on “Drag of the Month,” a Rooks track originally on their 1999 album A Wishing Well.

A handful of tracks are collected from sources other than Rooks or Mazzarella LPs. One track from the mid 80s included, “While You Were Having Fun,” is from Mazzarella’s early group The Broken Hearts. I haven’t done a comparison to the discographies to determine what’s here and what isn’t from earlier releases; doing so would take some time, as the Rooks/Mazzarella discography is fairly extensive. Fanatically interested parties are directed here. (NOTE: The site’s no longer online.)

Kudos to Kool Kat Musik for working with Mazzarella to bring these hard-to-find tracks back to the marketplace. Anyone with an interest in powerpop – well, any such person prepared to cast a wider musical net – should check these discs out. At a mere $22 for 5 discs, it’s an amazing value, and some fine music to boot. The music on Songwriter should keep listeners busy until the release of Mazzarella’s next album Love in Laureltide Green, slated for 2012 release. Songwriter is available from Kool Kat Muzik.

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Free Music Friday: The Del Fuegos

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Remember The Del Fuegos? Highly regarded back in the day, they were. I’m glad to see/hear they’re back with new music. The new EP is called Silver Star, and I’m pleased to offer one of the tracks from it. Do check it out (link no longer valid). More info soon, perhaps.

Album Review: The Well Wishers – Dreaming of the West Coast

Friday, February 24th, 2012

I play in a cover band. And I make no apologies for doing so: my thinking is, until I or a bandmate can write songs as good as the ones I enjoy on a daily basis, I’ll leave the songwriting to others. As I tell people, I don’t write music, I write about music.

And I believe there’s intrinsic value in a good cover band. Now, a tribute band is a different creature, one with a narrower brief: the goal of a tribute band is to copy exactly the sound of the original artist’s material. And sometimes, the look and aesthetic as well. Meanwhile, at their best, cover bands have a different goal: their mission is to play the songs that people will remember (or otherwise respond positively to), but they hold onto some of their own personality in the process. It’s a subtle thing, but a good cover band that plays Sweet‘s “Little Willy,” “The Banana Splits Theme” and Roxy Music‘s “Love is the Drug” can find – and display – the previously unheard connection between those disparate tunes. They do it by adding their own personalities into the mix.

When it comes to powerpop – one of my most treasured genres (or subgenres, if you like), the path is a tricky one as well. For artists intent on writing and performing their own original material, there are parallels with the cover band world. The powerpop band’s mission is to keep things within the style, but to avoid the pratfall of writing and playing the same song over and over again. The best powerpop bands can create songs that connect with the proud tradition of the genre, while highlighting their own unique personality in the process.

It only works occasionally. One of the tangential frustrations of Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills compilations was the experience of discovering a track by a heretofore-unknown artist, then tracking down more music by them, only to find that Oakes had found their very best tune: the others simply didn’t measure up. For every Tommy Keene and Vandalias, there are acts who – apparently – had only one good-to-great track in ‘em.

The Well Wishers don’t have this problem; they fall decidedly into the successful end of their chosen genre. Dreaming of the West Coast is, I have learned, the fifth full-length release by this, er, group. But on record, at least, they’re not a group at all: in the proud tradition of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren and a select few others, The Well Wishers are (or is) Jeff Shelton. Though aided on most tracks by ace drummer Nick Laquintano (and a couple of one-off guest spots by others), Dreaming of the West Coast is the work of a single studio artist using a nom de rock.

I’ll say right now that the songs, singing, playing and arrangement on Dreaming of the West Coast are all fine, sturdy and catchy. But those qualities aren’t enough to make a powerpop album worth your hard-earned cash, because, let’s face it: those qualities are the baseline for powerpop. If the music isn’t up to those standards, well, we have plenty of other choices.

But with Dreaming of the West Coast, Shelton has crafted a sweepingly varied collection of songs that evoke the best the genre has to offer. There’s that thread of personality woven through the songs, but to their unending credit, The Well Wishers don’t settle in with a particular vibe. Shelton’s multi-tracked harmonies often suggest early Posies, and in fact his sweet/sour balance recalls Dear 23 in several places, most notably on “Truth is Coming Home.” But there’s a bit of Byrds-by-way-of-REM jangle imbued in many of the tracks as well (“Here Comes Love” is a fine example).

Chugging guitars that rock out in that Midwestern Cheap Trick/Material Issue way are in ample supply here. But there’s a delightfully unexpected psych/freakbeat vibe served up on a raving cover of The Smoke‘s “Have Some More Tea.” Not simply retreading the song, Shelton crosses it with a bit of guitar work that recalls The Open Mind‘s “Magic Potion” and some windmilling Pete Townshend riffage. It’s the rare powerpop act that mines Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond for inspiration. It’s rarer still to find an act that doesn’t overdo it, making that influence just an important part of a balanced powerpop diet.

In whole, The Well Wishers are a band who have ingested the best nutrients from Big Star, Badfinger and the Raspberries, but who balance that influence with a more long-view perspective that takes in and synthesizes the best of what came before – and after – in the genre. The result is easily one of the best albums of its kind in recent memory. As Shelton says in a snippet of audio verité that ends “Mother Nature,” an instrumental raver that closes the album, “I think that’s a hit. Should we listen back?” The answer is a resounding, and repeated “Yes.”

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Album Review: Steve Kusaba – Centrifugal Satz Clock

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

One of the most outré submissions I’ve ever accepted for review is the new work entitled Centrifugal Satz Clock: Morning by Steve Kusaba. The work very nearly defies accurate description. First of all, there’s the sheer breadth of the album: it sprawls across six CDs. There are more than seventy tracks contained therein, and the whole thing runs six and a half hours. I’d be lying if I said I’ve listened to the whole thing yet. But I do like what I’ve heard so far.

Clearly Centrifugal Satz Clock is ambitious. It’s a conceptual work, but I must admit that the premise and story line are far too dense for me to follow. The plot has something to do with the idea that seemingly random and unconnected events can change the course of history. Think of Archduke Ferdinand and WWI, for example. In any event, it’s an idea rich with possibility. A libretto of sorts (Centrifugal Satz Clock: Morning, the Book) purports to explain the work, but (a) I don’t have it and (b) I somehow doubt it will lift the veil of obscurity from this project.

And that’s actually okay with me. Plenty of compelling music is dense, impenetrable. And in fact Centrifugal Satz Clock bears the strong influence of a name one might think of when the descriptors “dense and impenetrable” are cited – Frank Zappa – and that’s all to the good.

Stylistically, it’s all over the map. There’s pop-rock, there are classical interludes, there are stage-y vocal sections that evoke memories of the late-era Zappa work Thing-Fish. Imagine an unholy amalgam of, say, Stephen Sondheim and The Residents, and you’ll begin to get a sense of what some of the music sounds and feels like. But as soon as you adjust your ears to that, the work pivots back to some highly tuneful ear candy, vaguely reminiscent of some of Jeff Beck‘s jazz-oriented mid 70s work (especially Blow by Blow). Splashes of reggae (“Yellowknife”), funk…you name it: this album is all over the place, which is in keeping with its globe-hopping storyline. Kusaba has a strong ear for melody, and while there’s a lot to make one think that Centrifugal Satz Clock is, well, weird, the music is often rooted in pop styles. Listening, one might think in turns of Steely Dan, Kronos Quartet and 10CC.

The production values on Centrifugal Satz Clock are stellar; while it’s all but certain that the album was pieced together in layers, there’s a rich ensemble feel to the songs. The guest list reads like a who’s-who of out-there artists; a few more familiar names include Dweezil Zappa, Vinnie Colaiuta and Steve Vai. And Olivia Maughan‘s lead vocal (in which she plays the part of The Narrator) on “Juneau” is a nice cross between pop and jazz. Timothy Carter‘s vocal (he plays a main character named Gordon) will remind some listeners of a slightly more mainstream version of The Residents. When Kusaba sings, his rich-yet-raspy tone sounds bit like Stu of The Negro Problem.

It’s difficult to know what exactly the aims of a project such as Centrifugal Satz Clock might be. In the iPod era, few listeners will sit through six and a half hours of music. I was lucky enough to score a review copy of the massive set, but the list price for the whole affair ($88.88) might prove daunting to some prospective listeners. (Individual discs are available, but [a] where to start? and [b] if you’re gonna dive in, why not go whole hog?) For the musically even-more-adventurous, the musical scores are available in PDF format via

It’s up to each listener to decide whether this is a harbinger of doom or delight, but the fact that this 6CD set is subtitled Morning suggests that the full Centrifugal Satz Clock may eventually, er, clock in at eighteen discs or more. Who knows?

Details of a delightfully impenetrable sort can be found on Steve Kusaba’s blog.

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From the Beginning to Now: The Greg Lake Interview, Part Two

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: To me, one of the most appealing things about Emerson, Lake & Palmer was that each of you brought your own dimension, your own strengths to the trio. This is an oversimplification, but Keith had the virtuosity and showmanship, Carl had the power and precision, and you brought your great voice, and actual songs with a really strong sense of melody, keeping the whole thing based in music, kept it from being a drum- and keyboard-clinic. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Greg Lake: I think it is. The word is chemistry. It is when you mix those ingredients together – that if they’re the right type of ingredient – you get a sort of effervescence happening. And the thing starts to boil. And I think that is what happened. You got the right three ingredients. And you can hear it in any of the really great bands. It’s the coming together of different influences, different inspirations that – when they all collide in one place – it flashes. And I think that is true of ELP. That’s what makes it special.

Not only that. If you’re going to look deeper into it, the thing that made ELP different to a lot of other bands is that the roots of our music are European rather than American. Most rock’n'roll bands took their inspiration form the blues, country and western music, gospel. Some jazz, maybe…but all American music. Whereas we tended to take our music from more European roots. Not [laughs] that that’s any better, but it’s different. It gave us a different sound and a different intonation. It was just a different feeling. So you don’t get a lot of twelve-bar stuff with ELP, but you do get a lot of rich, interesting harmonic changes, and sort of classical overtones. Things that you won’t hear in a normal rock’n'roll context.

BK: Now that you mention it, especially in a lot of the songs you wrote, I think of there being a sort of English folk tradition. Which is, of course, very different from the American folk tradition. There’s that kind of renaissance kind of thing imbued into it.

GL: Yes, there’s a sort of wandering-minstrel quality. And also, I tended sometimes to go into sort of even a bit of French-type things, with songs like “C’est la Vie.” But generally speaking, I think that’s one of the identifiers of ELP, that the roots are more European.

BK: Your upcoming tour is going to be called “Songs of a Lifetime.” Will it be just you, an acoustic guitar and a microphone?

GL: There will be me on an acoustic guitar. I will have an accompanist with me, and maybe on occasions I will have guests involved. We’re talking to a few people now. But that will be on an on-and-off basis; it’s not going to be for an entire tour. The show is mainly based around me and the songs that have influenced me and been important to me over my lifetime.

BK: I’ve always been of the opinion that if a song is good enough, it can work in any number of styles. So I’m very interested to hear your songs in such a stripped-down format. I know you’ve done some of that before; I was recently listening to the ELP box set A Time and a Place, and it contains some solo acoustic spotlight numbers. Assuming that you wrote many of your songs on guitar, I imagine that the way you’ll present them is closer to how they were originally written, yes?

GL: Absolutely. But – to be honest with you – I don’t want to give too much away about how I’m going to do it. Because a lot of it will be surprising to people. In a good way, I hope! But, yes, you’re right. The perspective it will be done from is how it fundamentally began, how these songs got created. I will also talk about them a bit. I’ll be talking to the audience and telling the stories behind the songs. And then playing them. But it won’t just be two hours of acoustic guitar. That, you couldn’t take! [laughs]

BK: Your web site lists about twenty-plus dozen dates. What’s next for you after the shows in April and May?

GL: The first thing that will happen to coincide with the tour is that the audiobook will come out. The audio version of the autobiography. I will then come back into the United States in the fall, and tour again with the same show when the printed book comes out. Now, the printed book is going to be different. The printed book will not only have the autobiography text, but it will also have a whole separate book with it, of photographs, a lot of which haven’t been seen before. Anecdotal stuff, interview stuff, all the lyrics…it will be a complete coffee table book.

So that will be in the fall. During the summer, I’m going to be recording. I’ll be finishing off an album that I’ve had on the back burner for years. It’s a recording of orchestrated versions of the acoustic songs. But that’s not all it’s going to be. I’m going to be working on that over the summer, and then probably hope to release it in the fall when I come back into the United States to tour. After that, I’ll be going on to Japan, and then to Europe; I’ll be touring November and December through Europe.

BK: There’s certainly an intimate dimension to this upcoming tour, one that’s different than just wheeling out the greatest hits.

GL: Or in playing a concert, where you are up on the stage, the lights come on, the curtains go back, you blast out your music, thank you and good night, and you’re back on the tour bus. This will be far more intimate. People will be able to ask questions if they want. I’ll be telling stories; there will be all kinds of things going on. I want it to be more like a sort of gathering. A party, almost. Not just a show.

BK: The Carolina Theatre in Durham very much lends itself to that sort of an event. It has the feeling of a grand old theatre, and the way it’s set up, no one feels that they’re very far from the stage.

GL: That’s great. Because what this is, is spending an evening together, rather than just me doing a concert. Having said that, I have got high ambitions for the concert from a musical standpoint; I’m not just going there to talk and strum a few songs. I want it to be as good as it possibly can, but the basis of it will certainly be a shared event, shared with the audience.

BK: Might we get to hear songs from your days with The Shame and/or the Shy Limbs?

GL: Well, [laughs] maybe. But I’m really not going to tell you. The thing is, it really wouldn’t be so much fun if I tell you what’s planned. Part of the surprise will be part of the enjoyment of the show.

It’s really meant to go along with…I’m just finishing an autobiography right now. Nothing high-minded, you understand. It’s basically the story of my life, and the story of King Crimson and ELP. Not so much the story of the bands. Because everyone saw what happened onstage, and what happened when we played. And everyone knows about the records and all of that. So I’ve tried to write the book with an eye toward showing people what they didn’t see: what was happening behind the curtains, behind the scenes. Just that perspective of things that were not part of the performance of the bands.

So, what I’m trying to do is, this tour is to coincide with the release/launch of the book. The tour starts April 11, so the book will be out somewhere on or around early April.

BK: I know this is a tired question, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but as far as ELP doing something again, my guess is the answer is “no plans, but never say never.” Correct?

GL: I would say, “Never say never.” Because you do never know. All three of us are still alive. And we did a concert a couple of years ago [the one-off 40th Anniversary Reunion show in London, out on DVD]. But it’s unlikely; I have to say that. But you never know. I mean, I would play. I would certainly play a concert if the conditions were right. I don’t know about the other two; they say they won’t from time to time, and then they do it. Very strange, but each to his own. It’s a question of having the three of us coming together in the same state of mind at one time, really.

BK: I’ll see you at the Durham NC show on April 25.

GL: I hope to get out and play these concerts. It’s a challenging thing, I have to say, but it’s something I actually look forward to. I can already feel that it will be a good experience. One of the reasons is, I will actually be sharing with the people who have lived through this with me. People like yourself: you’ve lived through that music, and we’ve shared it. The only thing is, up to now you and I haven’t met. But now we’ve met.

And I feel like that about the audience. Once we’ve kind of met in the same room, and we’ve talked together, it will be like we’ve shared that experience together. And that’s got to be a good coming-together.

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From the Beginning to Now: The Greg Lake Interview, Part One

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

For a band that – for all intents and purposes – ceased operation in 1979, progressive rock giants Emerson, Lake & Palmer still get their share of attention. Save for a few years’ worth of albums and touring in the mid-1990s, the only post-seventies work from ELP was a one-off reunion in 2010 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the group’s formation. But the recent release of that show on DVD shows that – despite the inevitable aging process and the typical on-and-off relationships between the trio, as of 2010, Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (guitars, basses, vocals) and Carl Palmer (percussion) could still convincingly – no, thrillingly – deliver the goods, both individually and collectively.

From their earliest days together, it has almost always been so. A typically incendiary show from the band’s heyday has finally received legitimate, stand-alone release: Live at the Mar y Sol Festival ’72 documents the trio at the height of their powers. While soundboard recordings of ELP’s “Take a Pebble” and “Lucky Man” were included on a various-artists collection documenting the festival in Puerto Rico, the full ELP set had long been available only as a bootleg vinyl LP. One of the several box-sets on the group’s boutique label (Manticore) included the entire show, but December 2011 was the first time consumers could pick up the Mar y Sol performance as a single CD.

Between the group’s breakup and reformation, and then again since, all three have remained very active. Emerson went in mostly for orchestral-type and soundtrack work; Palmer has busied himself primarily with Asia, and Greg Lake has – in addition to a stint as part of Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr lineup – mounted several well-received tours and a number of solo records. He was also involved in some “listening parties” and promotion surrounding the 2009 expanded reissue/remaster of the first landmark work with which he was involved, King Crimson‘s 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King.

Even in light of all that activity, 2012 looks to be Greg Lake’s busiest year in some time. He’s putting the finishing touches on an autobiography, and he’s mounting a tour called “Songs of a Lifetime.” In the midst of planning for all of that, Greg took some time recently to talk with me about, well, anything and everything I asked him. We discussed his early days learning guitar; the polarizing effect ELP’s music has always had on music fans; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s bias against progressive rock bands; and the upcoming book and tour. He was also kind and patient enough to tell the “Lucky Man” story for perhaps the thousandth time in his career. Consider this Parts One and Two of my ongoing conversation with Greg Lake; I’ll publish a post-show followup interview/feature in April.


Bill Kopp: I’ve loved your music – especially your voice – since I was a kid. One thing that has always sort of puzzled me is the fact that Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s output so polarized people. There have always been those of us who’ve loved it, and on the other side there are people who dismiss it as overblown, pretentious…you know the sorts of things they say. There seems not to be any middle ground. And Rolling Stone – long since a useful arbiter of what’s good (if they ever were) – in the most recent hardcover edition of their Record Guide, they don’t even include an entry for ELP. And I think it goes without saying that ELP won’t ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jann Wenner hates progressive rock. So why do you think there’s such polarization?

Greg Lake: I think there is some truth in the fact that ELP may have appeared at times to be pretentious. It depends, really, on your view. I think people tend to dismiss things they don’t understand. I think if someone listens to something like Pictures at an Exhibition, they assume – because they were probably brought up that way – that classical music is for the elite. And really, it’s not. Classical music was for the everyman. It was written for the public; it was just written at a different time in history. And, it’s less complicated than people would imagine. There’s nothing really complicated about Pictures at an Exhibition. However, if your view of classical music is that it’s for the elitist-type person — the intellectual, the them-what-knows – then you’ll probably be offended when someone like ELP tries to play some classical music. To us, though, it was just doing a great tune that we liked.

With regard to…I don’t know who’s responsible for it, but I do know that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thus far does seem to have some sort of closed window on that whole genre of music. Which, for a museum [chuckles], is a very, very strange position to take. It is very biased. I’m certainly not going to go on a crusade about it, but it speaks more about the museum than it does about ELP. No one can deny that ELP sold in excess of twenty-five million albums; it’s played some concerts in the United States to as many as six hundred thousand people at a single event. Where is it that you can start ignoring things like that, pretending that it didn’t happen, pretending that ELP didn’t have an influence on a lot of American bands? ‘Cause it did, and I know it did. I get letters from them!

People like the Red Hot Chili Peppers love ELP. This is the thing I find strange, to deny that strain of nutrient, that element of musical nutrition that came into America. It was a good influence; it made things more colorful. I think to deny it is really silly. It’s a part of reality. But I don’t lose sleep over it, and I don’t blame the American people for it; it’s got nothing to do with them. The good American public knows what they like.

“Lucky Man” opened up the potential for people to solo in a different way. You can’t ignore that. Well [laughs] you can. But look, I understand that people like some things, and other things they don’t like. That’s quite all right; we’ve all got our own tastes. I actually met a guy the other day; he didn’t like the Beatles! I couldn’t believe it; I had to ask him, “Are you absolutely sure? You don’t like at least one of those two hundred songs?” I felt sorry for him, I truly do. I thought, “Look at all that beauty you’re missing.” But there’s none so strange as folk.

BK: In case not absolutely everyone knows the “Lucky Man” story, do you mind recounting it?

GL: I wrote it when I was twelve years old, and it ended up on the first ELP album. What I mean is the story of that Moog solo ending up on that record. It was a very unusual way to make a record. Keith originally didn’t want to play on it at all. Carl and I actually made the record. I put on all the parts; I was everybody on that record: the bass player, the electric, acoustics, harmonies, everything. And when Keith came back in the studio, it was a finished record. And he said, “Wow. I’d better play on that.” But there was no space; I had done the guitar solo already, I’d done all the harmonies, double-tracked the acoustic guitars. So I said, “I’ll tell you what. There’s a space at the end. Why don’t you play a solo at the end?”

And it just happened to be that that day, they had delivered the Moog synthesizer into the studio. And so we said, “Let’s get that, all right?” And the solo is actually Keith experimenting with the Moog. The recording got captured when he wasn’t aware of it, so it’s completely unconscious. And it’s just him searching for this portamento effect, working out how long it takes to get from a low note to a high note. And it just happened to be that we recorded this experiment that he did as we played the track.

And even then, we really thought it was just an album filler. We thought it would do, but nobody thought it was going to be a hit, or popular, or anything. It was a lovely thing, and it opened a door. It opened a door on a sound and a performance possibility.

BK: If I recall from Sid Smith‘s King Crimson biography – I could be wrong on this – you either rehearsed it or even tinkered with “Lucky Man” in the studio with Crimson.

GL: I can’t remember doing that. It is always possible. Because Robert [Fripp] and I went to the same guitar teacher. We learned the same lessons, and we grew up knowing the same guitar parts. I knew everything he knew; he knew everything I knew. Because we were both taught it by a man called Don Strike. He also, interestingly enough, taught Andy Summers. And you’ll hear a similar cross-picking technique in all three of those players. But I digress.

Because Robert and I had grown up and practiced guitar together when we were young, we would forever be playing things from our past. Guitar lessons, stuff we wrote when we were younger. We would always have our little “party pieces” we would do. Not onstage, but offstage, in the hotel, wherever we were.

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Musoscribe at Ignite Asheville is Tomorrow (yikes)

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Tomorrow – Tuesday, February 21, 2012 – I will be giving what’s called a “lightning talk” at an event called Ignite Asheville. The format is deceptively simple. Presenters – I’m one of eleven ten – are each given exactly five minutes to speak on a topic of their choosing (we submitted proposals and were chosen by a panel/committee). Not a second more or less than five minutes. To accompany our talk, we each bring a Powerpoint presentation of our own making. The Powerpoint must consists of twenty slides, each of which displays for exactly fifteen seconds. Not fourteen, not sixteen. So it’s all about pacing, pithiness and projection.

I have very little public speaking experience. Yes, I served as president of my kids’ public school PTO board for a number of years. And true, I was president of a nonprofit board. But in both cases the primary skill set I brought was the ability to run a meeting. It’s perhaps not in my best interest to compare myself to Benito Mussolini, but I’m the sort of guy who can, as the saying goes, make the trains run on time. Hopefully that skill will translate into a successful presentation on Tuesday. We’ll see.

My talk is entitled “Rock Songwriters on the Creative Process.” I’ll highlight some of the most quotable excepts from my personal archive of more than 130 interviews. I’m not going to give away the store here (well, not exactly), but if you’re interested in the source material for my talk, you might enjoy my interviews with Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Bill Wyman (The Rolling Stones), Howard Kaylan (The Turtles) and, well, more than 125 others. (And yes, I do talk to some, er, younger artists, several of whom will be represented in my presentation.)

The whole Ignite Asheville affair will be filmed (I had to sign a “talent waiver.” Does that mean I’m waiving the right to display any talent?) and put online afterward. But if you’re in or near Asheville NC, the event sounds like a fun evening. In addition to my talk, there will be people speaking on a wide array of topics. These include conflict resolution; alternative paths to education; and even a presentation by Laura Hope-Gill, the Poet Laureate of the Blue Ridge Mountains, entitled “What Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 Can Teach Us About Life, Love, and Business.” Let’s just say that I’m glad Ignite Asheville is not a competition event.

Tickets are $10 ($5 for students). A few more details here.

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The Explorers Club: A Five-Star Hotel (part two)

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I was blown away by The Explorers Club‘s precision onstage in Asheville recently. What made it more amazing was when I learned that the bassist was a stand-in – he even sang some leads – and that your merch guy was playing a few dates as well. How do you pull off such a tight show, even with substitute players?

Jason Brewer: It’s all about enthusiasm. The guys we play with, they love to play. Now, truth be told, the guy standing in on bass – even though he’s not a regular member of the band – he sang harmony backing vocals on every song on Grand Hotel. And the guy playing trumpet and other stuff that night, his dad is a big friend of the band, and he’s been a fan of the band since we started. He’s a college student and a really talented guy. When he has time, he plays with us.

The misconception among some people is that we would come out onstage and play a bunch of soft pop. We like to play some rock’n'roll too, y’know.

BK: Onstage the The Explorers Club are high energy and tasteful. And those are not two qualities often found together.

JB: It’s really hard, but we want to make sure we’re meticulous. We want to nail the arrangements. And we want to make sure you’re not bored.

BK: Freedom Wind is clearly influenced by the Beach Boys; it’s a virtual pastiche. But what’s interesting to me is that the songs are really your songs, not rewritten Beach Boys songs. That’s one of the things that makes it different for me from, say, The Rutles, or Utopia‘s Deface the Music album. I would argue that you could have presented the songs in a wholly different genre context – had you wanted to – and they would have worked fine, owing to the “a good song is a good song” concept.

JB: The way the whole band started was, I was kicking around in my friend’s studio in Atlanta. I went there for a few months to write some songs with Troy Stains. He’s not in the band; we’re just co-writers. We’re both really into Françoise Hardy and the [then-unreleased Beach Boys] SMiLE record. So we were jamming a bunch of Beach Boys, French pop, and – something else I really like – the Nuggets collection.

And I said, “Let’s do a Phil Spector thing, just for fun!” So we came up with the song on our first album called “Forever.” We recorded it – the two of us and a drummer – and we stacked all the vocals. We thought, “Yeah, this sounds pretty cool.” I took all the other songs I had recorded with him – they all had varied sounds – but only “Forever” and one other got finished. We started eight but didn’t finish any of the others.

I listened to “Forever” on the way home, and thought to myself, “We can do this Beach Boys thing pretty good.” I took the recording back to Charleston and played it for a bunch of guys I knew – guys I had played in bands with in the past – and we decided we had to start a band around that sound. So I said, “Okay, let me see if I can come up with a ‘new’ Beach Boys album that they never wrote.” I took it upon myself to carry on that west coast sunshine pop tradition, since they don’t seem to be doing that too well any more.

I wasn’t writing thinking, “Oh, I want to be the Beach Boys,” but rather just, “Let’s write some songs with that sound, that production value. And let’s see how it turns out.” So The Explorers Club was started on the basis of a bunch of demos, and some guys I got together in Charleston. Guys who liked what I liked, and who are really fantastic musicians.

Some of those guys don’t play with me any more, because as the band has continued to evolve, the sound needed to change. And the personnel needed to change.

But the new record, Grand Hotel, is much closer to what I wanted to do originally. It’s sort of all over the board. It’s definitely inching our way toward finding our own sound. Me and my co-writer, we want to write modern classics.

BK: I saw a comment someone left on the band’s Facebook page, in which he complained about the Explorers Club “deviating from the formula” on Grand Hotel. At first I thought it was someone doing a parody impression of Mike “Don’t F**k with the Formula” Love. Then I realized the guy was serious. How much do you worry about being pigeonholed? Did that figure into your broadening the group’s sound?

JB: I think there are going to be people that loved the first album because it was sort of Brian Wilson Part Four. There are going to be people – Beach Boys fanatics, a very strange brew – who may not like Grand Hotel. But my whole philosophy is, I want to move forward. I don’t want to do [Freedom Wind] again; I’ve done it already.

Making this record, I was listening to Burt Bacharach, and The Carpenters, and The Grass Roots. And teen idols from the early seventies. The Bay City Rollers, and ABBA. That’s what I was in the mood for. I started playing a bunch of that stuff on the guitar, and I guess it was really just, “Hey! This would be a heckuva lot of fun!”

I had just gotten married, and went to Mexico on our honeymoon. I heard all this crazy mariachi music and – this is kinda weird – a lot of Jobim and Brazilian jazz. In Mexico. Which didn’t make any sense to me. On the plane, in the elevators.

I’m a life-long Elvis Presley fanatic. In the studio, we watched Fun in Acapulco and Blue Hawaii while we were making the record. So I felt like I was on a sort of two-year-long musical vacation. And the whole idea behind the new record was, we’re gonna check into a hotel in some sunny, foreign, tropical place.

So yeah, I know some people are going to be bummed that we didn’t make Carl and the Passions Part Three. My advice to them is to open up their minds a little bit. Or go listen to Rip Chords records…I don’t know.

BK: It’s not as if Grand Hotel represents a stylistic left-turn; it’s not as if you made an album of death metal.

JB: That’s the thing, and I’ve thought about it. Listen to the bridge of “Run Run Run.” It’s got some sort of Pet Sounds-style harmony parts.

BK: I know that you feel like The Explorers Club has had some difficulty getting notice and/or respect locally.

JB: Charleston, South Carolina couldn’t care less about our band. When we first started, people thought we were cool; they thought…you know those indie rock bands that say they’re gonna sound like The Beach Boys, and then they sound completely different?

BK: Like Guided by Voices.

JB: Yeah. That’s what people thought we were. Or maybe The Shins. Now, I love The Shins; they’re cool. But people thought we were going to be like one of those Elephant Six-type bands [Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal]. I love Robert Schenider from Apples in Stereo; he’s one of my heroes. He’s such a champion of great music. We’ve toured with him.

So people sort of put us in that kind of [category]. And we even signed with a super-cool indie label [Dead Oceans] for the first record.

But here in Charleston, it’s jam-band central. And a lot of singer/songwriter Ryan Adams wannabees. We can’t even get the triple-A noncommercial station here to play us. They say that they play homegrown music, and they play just about every other local band but us. The program director has very matter-of-factly said to us that he doesn’t take us seriously.

We can play the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and get played on XM Radio – this morning we got some airplay in the midwest, and we’re getting played all different places – but here in our own hometown: no. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

BK: There’s always that herd mentality: “This is popular, so more of this, please.”

JB: I have a theory about all of that. There’s not a happy medium in music any more. There’s music that’s really challenging, really hard to listen to, and it gets a lot of attention. Like Radiohead. It’s hard to listen to; it’s not like, “Hey, I’m in a great mood; I think I’ll put some Radiohead on!” And then there’s music that you don’t have to think about at all. Terrible. And there’s no middle ground. But The Explorers Club is that middle ground. It’s poppy, and very happy, upbeat stuff. And the lyrics – and I’m the first to tell you, our lyrics aren’t Einstein; they’re really elementary – too. On the other hand, you’ve got the arrangements, with some complex chord changes.

And I think that sometimes people want to like something that’s difficult to listen to, or they want something they can ignore and put in the background.

BK: I interviewed Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree many years ago. Perhaps even more so than you, he’s certainly somebody who knows about the challenges of touring with a large group. He has something else in common with you: the Polyphonic Spree made some commercial inroads – and some money, too – when one of their songs was run on television. In their case it was a Volkswagen commercial; in your case it was airing on several TV shows. How important do you think that sort of thing – commercial and TV placement – is to your long-term success? Is it pretty much a given that you have to pursue that?

JB: We have to. We live and die by that. Radio doesn’t matter as much any more; it’s all about getting placed where a lot of people can hear you. And that’s something we factored in with the new record, too. That’s why some of it is simple; we thought, “If we write a song about waiting for the phone to ring, a cell phone company might want to use it.” We’d be totally into that.

BK: I hear rumors that Mike Myers might make another Austin Powers film…

JB: If he makes another Austin Powers film, they need to get in touch with me and have me write some songs. For me, it would be the biggest deal ever.

BK: The instrumental title track on Grand Hotel reminds me of the original Casino Royale theme, and the theme from the Peter Sellers film The Party.

JB: That’s totally what we were going for. The guy who designed the album cover [James Abercrombie] had written that song. None of us in the band had really written it. He came up with the main idea for it, brought it to us, and said, “Turn this into 101 Strings or Herb Alpert.” So I decided, we’re going to tun it into Herb Alpert jamming with The Wrecking Crew. We were thinking of the James Bond movies when they’re in the lavish hotel. I kind of see Woody Allen‘s “Jimmy Bond” character in the elevator or something. So, yeah, you nailed it.

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