Douglas Adams used to tell a story about the time when NASA were putting together a collection of music to place in the Voyager space probe; according to Adams, Carl Sagan warned against including anything by Johann Sebastian Bach because it would come dangerously close to "showing off." I know what he meant. For me, music is one of the most sublime achievements of mankind. I doubt that I'm alone in this belief, either - this page is one of the most frequently visited on my website.
This page, then, discusses and links to music from some of my favourite artists. Yes, I know this is drifting dangerously close to anorak territory. You may be justified in claiming that these pages have not only drifted close, they've set anchor, rowed ashore and are now busy starting a family with one of the natives, but it's my site and that's what I'm putting together. So there.
- Jeff Beck
- Boards of Canada
- The Books
- The California Guitar Trio
- The Dregs (a.k.a Dixie Dregs)
- Brian Eno
- Freak Kitchen and Mattias Eklundh
- Peter Gabriel
- Allan Holdsworth
- Yoko Kanno
- King Crimson
- Pink Floyd
- Rodrigo y Gabriela
- Joe Satriani
- Scar Symmetry
- Steely Dan
- They Might Be Giants
- Devin Townsend
- Judie Tzuke
- Steve Vai
- Tom Waits
I'm working on expanding this page still further as my musical tastes change and expand. For the moment, I've taken the scientific approach - I've added entries for all of the artists who appear at the top of my stats on LastFM. The results have been quite interesting, as they span a number of very different musical genres. I think that's a good thing, because we should never discard any musical endeavour as not worth listening to. Why not give something new a try? You might like it...
Ambienteer is someone who I discovered on Twitter. James Fahy takes samples and small pieces of music and does wondrous things with them using computer based software packages such as Reaktor. He says he does this "for love, not money" and I for one am very glad that he does. His stuff ranges from the melodic to serious ambient noise, but it's all eminently listenable. On his website you can listen to streams of his compositions or download them in mp3 form and find links to his pages on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Highly recommended if you're in to ambient music. Thanks, James!
I decided to buy the album Mirrored by New York band Battles after reading a review of one of their gigs online. When someone like David Byrne describes your stuff as "pretty amazing" you've definitely got something happening, and I wanted to find out what it was.
I have to thank Mr Byrne for introducing me to the delights of a musical genre I'd not heard of before called math rock. You've only got to read what I wrote below about the music of King Crimson to realise that I have a fondness for music that doesn't stick to a rigid 4/4 time signature, but for Battles it's almost become a manifesto. They weave mathematically interesting rhythms into infectious songs and the ones on their first album have seeped into my brain and refuse to leave. Atlas in particular is the earworm equivalent of pure crack.
Battles were formed in 2002 by guitarist Ian Williams. Drummer John Stanier used to be in Helmet; guitarist Dave Konopka used to be in Lynx. For the first album they were joined by vocalist Tyondai Braxton and together they made some very unusual and interesting music. The guitar sound reminds me of "Fragile" era Steve Howe; it's matched with refined, tinkly Fender Rhodes piano and glorious pure noise metal bass. But don't think for one second that you've got their genre nailed down from that description. The use of loops and edits in the music is cutting edge, and on the first album the heavily processed vocals and whistling pushed the music way beyond the ordinary into a strange and beautiful landscape that is begging for further exploration.
"The people won't be people when they hear this sound that's been glowing in the dark at the edge of town."
If, like me, you grew up in the sixties, you'll probably remember first hearing about Jeff Beck as the chap who recorded Hi Ho Silver Lining or as the guitarist who joined The Yardbirds when Clapton left for the Bluesbreakers. Since then he's recorded as a solo artist and his band always features some of the most awe-inspiring session players in rock. It was when I bought the album There and Back in 1980 that I got into Jeff Beck's guitar playing in a big way. The album blends guitar virtuosity with the impeccable keyboard playing of maestro Jan Hammer and it got me hooked from the first track on side one. There and Back got savage reviews when it came out, but I was utterly smitten and I played it over and over again. I regard it as one of the best fusion albums of all time. A couple of years later Channel Four used the first track on side one - Star Cycle - as the theme tune to their Friday evening pop show The Tube and suddenly JB was back in the spotlight again.
I've seen him play live a number of times, and he's one of the edgiest performers I've ever seen. He doesn't seem comfortable playing the same thing the same way twice - so he's always pushing the limits of his own abilities to see what he can do. Occasionally he'll stumble but more often than not the results are jaw-droppingly brilliant. I've never seen anyone play with a tremelo arm the way he does on Where Were You; he hits a harmonic and then bends the string with the tremelo to play the melody line. The track isn't the result of any studio trickery, either: he manages to reproduce the feat when he plays it live. Every time I hear that track, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end - I'd rate it as one of the greatest pieces of guitar music ever written.
His style of guitar playing - he uses his fingers and thumbs rather than a pick - has contributed a lot to my own development as a guitar player, even if I will never approach his level of proficiency. But I do occasionally try playing in JB's style and the sense of connection with the guitar is definitely intensified when you're not using a plectrum. Maybe one day I will finally get myself one of the signature series Stratocasters that Fender make...
A few years ago he released "Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott's" which was recorded over the space of a week at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. It's a small venue and performers end up standing pretty much nose to nose with the audience. Under such close scrutiny, you'd better be damn good at what you do. It says a lot about Jeff Beck that he was worried he would mess things up - so he rehearsed and rehearsed with his band to make sure they got every aspect of the performance right. It shows. Every musician who appeared at those shows is a virtuoso in their field: Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Tal Wilkenfeld on bass and Jason Rebello on keyboards (oh, and a certain Mr Eric Clapton plays guitar on one number, too - JB introduces him as "someone who knows his way around a Stratocaster"). After the album came out he took that band on the road and I got to see them at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. JB was playing better than ever, and the band were outstanding.
In recent years he's released a number of DVDs and Blu-Rays of concert performances - which means that you can see for yourself the way he pushes himself to the edge of his capabilities on stage. Aside from the Performing This Week release mentioned above, which is available on Blu-Ray with a DTS-HD soundtrack, there's a Live in Tokyo disc recorded in 2014 that is well worth getting. There's another Jeff Beck in Japan DVD doing the rounds that was recorded in 1999, but while the show is great - with Jennifer Batten showing just how the mind-bending opening riff she played on "What Mama Said" was done - the sound and picture quality really isn't up to scratch, looking like it was copied from someone's dodgy VHS tape. Instead, you would be better served grabbing a copy of the Live at the Hollywood Bowl concert recorded in 2017, which features a fine journey through Jeff's back catalogue, including guest appearances from Jan Hammer, Buddy Guy, and Billy Gibbons. For more on Jeff, visit the Jeff Beck official site.
When I was a kid, I used to enjoy watching the short films made under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada. I obviously wasn't alone, as two brothers from Canada named their band after the organisation. Boards of Canada have been living in Scotland for the last twenty years, but they have never toured, and never released a single. Michael and Marcus Sandison make electronic music using tape loops, distorted recordings and old-school analog synthesisers and the results are dreamy, hypnotic pieces that for me evoke memories of long summer holidays or - and you may find this bizarre - riding up chair lifts at ski resorts. They have some interesting influences, ranging from numbers stations to dissonance, from trains running over railway sleepers to compositions that appear, fully formed, in dreams. They're most emphatically analogue, not digital, and that adds a humanity and warmth to their music that other electonica acts seem to lack.
Most of all it's the looping, repetitive nature of their compositions that I like; sounds gradually distort and blur into each other, and the result is a profound sense of relaxation and calmness. Their albums Geogaddi (which came out in 2002) and the Campfire Headphase (2005) are two of my all-time favourites and I suggest that you add them to your music collection as soon as you can. You won't regret it.
If you don't mind, I'd like to take a moment of your time to write about the late lamented Radio 3 programme Mixing It. Mark Russell and Robert Sandall played selections from a huge variety of musical styles and its cancellation was one of the most dim-witted, short-sighted and just plain crass decisions that BBC management ever took. Mark and Robert would play music from so many different genres, it would make your head spin. Every week I'd hear something that I really liked. The show used to cost me a fortune as I'd invariably end up buying a CD from at least one featured artist every week. I wasn't the only person who made a point of listening to it, either. If you liked experimental music the only place you were likely to encounter it on UK radio was either on the John Peel show or on Mixing It so the show developed a small but devoted following. The way in which the presenters were told that the show was going off air was despicable and it changed my attitude towards the BBC forever. I will never forgive them - particularly Roger Wright, who made the decision - for taking away the one programme on UK radio that I loved. Robert Sandall died in 2010 and the fact that I will never hear another edition of the show leaves me with a profound sense of sadness.
I heard the music of The Books one night on the show and ordered their album Lost and Safe the very next morning. It was the first time I'd heard of aleatoric music - music in which some elements of composition are left to random chance (aleatoric means "on the throw of dice"). The band has two principal members, guitarist Nick Zammuto and the cellist Paul de Jong. Other performers on the albums tend to be members of their families, which I think is lovely. Once I'd discovered that Lost and Safe was their third album, I set about finding the other two - Thought for Food (2002) and The Lemon of Pink (2003). Listening to those albums confirmed my appraisal of the band as one of the most interesting and unusual acts to come along in the last decade.
There are many different reasons why I love the work of The Books. Partly it's the tonal qualities of the recordings - pieces often feature lingering harmonies and unusual treatments of sounds. Partly it's because compositions make extensive use of samples and found recordings. Me being me, I thought I'd make you a list of some of the samples used on Lost and Safe:
- BBC presenter Raymond Baxter describes the first transatlantic satellite transmission in which the technicians famously ended up with the picture upside down, which is why Baxter seems at a loss for words ("There it is. That's the picture. You see - see it for yourself. There it is - it's a man. With - er...")
- W. H. Auden reading from one of his works ("This great society is going smash")
- Jim Corbett describing the death of Princess Elizabeth's father King George VI during her stay at the Tree Tops hotel in 1952 ("She climbed down from the tree the next day a Queen,")
- San Francisco radio reporter Mal Sharpe cornering people on the street ("How're ya doing today?")
- Salvador Dali confounding his audience and showering them in paint ("Maestro, what are you doing?")
- Excerpts of cassettes recorded by unknown members of the public which the band found in Salvation Army stores ("Expectation leads to disappointment").
- Florrie Fisher's distinctive voice ("Stealing! Lying! Cheating! Gambling!")
Sadly, The Books no longer exist as a band. But I will always treasure the albums they recorded. I love what they did because the music itself is haunting, emotional and brilliantly executed.
Nick Zammuto has also collaborated with radio producer Gregory Whitehead on a number of works including the marvellous Bring Me The Head of Philip K Dick which was broadcast on Radio 3 a few years ago (so the station can occasionally still do something right, it seems.)
In 2011, I attended the "I'll Be Your Mirror" Festival at Alexandra Palace in London. It was a fantastic two-day event and I had a great time. But I was there solely to see The Books play live - the band had enough of a draw for me that I would have travelled anywhere in the country to see them. They played a great set and I was standing in the front row, centre stage, for the whole thing. And then, when I was wandering around the merchandise area an hour later I realised that the chap selling vinyl copies of their albums was Nick Zammuto himself. I'll admit that I had a complete fanboy attack. I started babbling. Fortunately Mr Zammuto took it in his stride and signed a copy of The Lemon of Pink for me. It's now a treasured possession!
Calexico were another of the bands that I discovered thanks to the Radio 3 show Mixing It.
Calexico hail from Tucson, Arizona, and play what the late lamented Charlie Gillett used to describe as Desert Blues. Their music is intensely atmospheric, full of haunting pedal steel guitars and exhuberant mariachi trumpets.
The first album of theirs that I heard was Feast of Wire which is an absolute gem. A couple of months after I got the album, Calexico played at the Academy in Bristol and I went along. Live, they completely blew me away - it was one of the best gigs I have ever been to. The voice and guitar of Joey Burns and the superb drumming of John Convertino work even better live than they do on their recordings, and the rest of the band were all multi-instrumentalists, swapping between keyboards, bass and brass as the music changed from song to song. It was wonderful stuff, and the crowd knew it - they went ballistic. I can't remember any other gig I've been to where the band ended up playing five encores!
My collection of Calexico's albums is now well into double figures, which should give you an idea of how much I like their music. I also recommend getting hold of a copy of the In The Reins ep that they did with the band Iron and Wine (and I saw both bands together at the Academy on a subsequent tour.)
More information on the band is available at their website: http://www.casadecalexico.com
I got into the CGT after seeing them supporting King Crimson on their European tour a few years ago. Three guys, playing acoustic guitars in the new standard tuning (a.k.a. the guitar craft tuning) of C-G-D-A-E-G, playing their own compositions as well as brilliant arrangements of, well, just about anything. I've seen them play Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Too classical? Then how about the classic Miserilou (as used in the film Pulp Fiction) or Bohemian Rhapsody? You can hear all these, and more, on their live album "Rocks The West."
Amazing stuff, and I wish they toured over here more often. The Trio's official website can be found at www.cgtrio.com.
Way back in the dim and distant past, a Radio One DJ called Tommy Vance used a piece of music as the theme tune for his Friday Night Rock Show. I loved it the first time I heard it - tight, accomplished and melodic - and eventually I found out its title: Take it off the top from the album "What If" by the American Band Dixie Dregs. Never heard it? If you go to guitarist Steve Morse's website and click on the Media section you can download a video of the band playing the track.
What do the Dregs sound like? Well, imagine what the Mahavishnu Orchestra would have sounded like if they'd been able to write catchy tunes...
Over the years I've bought anything I could find by the band, and followed guitarist Steve Morse's solo career too. Steve won Guitar Player magazine's "Best Overall Guitarist" category in their readers' poll for five years running, and only stopped winning because he was made ineligible to give everyone else a chance. These days Steve plays guitar for Deep Purple. I saw him on the last tour they did with Jon Lord, and it was the first time I've seen him play live. He's an awesome player.
Steve Morse now has his own website. There's a lot on The Dregs here as well as info on Steve's Solo career.
Rod was drummer for the Dregs wayyyy before he ended up in Winger. Look, when you're in the same band as Steve Morse and Andy West you've got to be good. Rod is.
|The Great Spectacular (1975)||1997 reissue CD: Dregs Records DRG 0197|
|Free Fall (1977)||Polydor CD 829 661-2|
|What If (1978)||Polydor CD 831 836-2|
|Night of the Living Dregs (1979)||Polydor CD 831 411-2|
|Dregs of the Earth (1980)||Arista ARCD 8116|
|Unsung Heroes (1981)||Arista ARCD 8120|
|Industry Standard (1982)||Arista BVCA 2055|
|Bring 'Em Back Alive (1992)||Capricorn Records CD 42005-2|
|Full Circle (1994)||Capricorn CD 2-42021|
| Dixie Dregs;the King Biscuit Flower Hour
Recorded live at Sigma Sound in 1979 (1997)
|King Biscuit/BMG CD 70710-88031-2|
| California Screamin'
Recorded live at the Roxy Theater in LA, 1999 (2000)
|Zebra Records/ZD 44021-2|
The "Great Spectacular" album I have is a re-issue, not the original vinyl version. It's been remixed from the original tapes, and contains early versions of a lot of the Dregs classics like "Refried Funky Chicken" "Holiday" and "Wages of Weirdness". Listening to it, it's hard to believe it was recorded while they were still at school - as Steve said, it was a recording project that actually got them credits on their course. I got my copy via mail order from the Steve Morse website, and it appears to have been signed by the band. Thanks guys!
The first time I listened to "Bring 'em back alive" it was on a system which threw lots of reverb on it. I thought it was the recording at fault, and hated it. Then, I tried it on my own system - oh boy. If nothing else, it's persuaded me that when you're evaluating a decent hi-fi system, simple is better. Listening to the album at home, it's stunning. It includes a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and a medley version of "Take it off the top" which visits everything from "Gimme Some Lovin'" through "Freebird" to "My Sharona". It's not quite the original line-up, as bass on the album is by Dave LaRue (from the Steve Morse Band) rather than Andy West.
The "King Biscuit" live album suffers from a strange mix, but it has some classic Morse guitar workouts on it.
The sleeve notes for this album refer to a 1979 album called "Sex, Dregs and Rock'n'roll" and a live 1981 album called "Live in New York". At present I've no more information on them, but I'll keep looking.
There's also a Greatest Hits album available called "Divided We Stand" which has most of the old favourites on it, as well as a new recording of "Take it off the top".
2018 saw the Dregs reformed and back on the road again, although the tour was a US-only affair. I'm hoping there will be a live album to commemorate the fact...
Where do you start when you're trying to explain to people who Brian Eno is? You can start off by saying that he was the keyboard player for Roxy Music in the 1970s. Or perhaps by explaining that after he went to St Joseph's College in Ipswich he changed his name to Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno in honour of the Catholic order who founded it. He is probably best known for beginning the musical movement known as ambient music. But his discography is a staggering body of work; I've got around thirty CDs or LPs which feature Eno either playing and/or singing, and I've lost count of the number of other albums I have to which he contributed either as producer, arranger or creative adviser.
It's safe to say that the sound of modern music would be noticeably different without Eno's contributions, and even the creative process itself has been assisted by the oblique strategies cards he developed with Peter Schmidt. You can now even download a virtual deck of the cards for free as an application for the iPhone.
By now you should have realised that Eno is not your average musician. Eno isn't an average anything. He's one of the most intelligent and articulate people working in any field of popular media at the present time. In 2015 he delivered the John Peel Memorial Lecture on The Ecology of Culture.
Eno is also a supporter of the Long Now Foundation which was formed to encurage sustainability and long-term planning for the future of the planet (and Eno was, naturally, responsible for giving the organisation their name.) One of my favourite albums of his is a recording of the proposed chimes for the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for ten thousand years. The prototype is on display at the Science Museum in London:
Here's a 2009 interview with Eno on Australian television.
You will also find that a visit to the EnoWeb site is worth a moment or two of your time.
Guitar phenomenon Matthias "IA" Eklundh has been around for a few years now but he deserves a much wider audience. I first saw him on YouTube, where video of his in-store appearances would regularly crop up, usually accompanied by comments like "OMG CHECK OUT THIS MONSTER GUITAR PLAYER!!!"
The reaction is justified. IA is an extraordinarily gifted player, but he's also witty and modest and very entertaining with it. I love his solo albums; Freak Guitar, The Road Less Travelled and The Smorgasbord are all well worth checking out.
His work with the band Freak Kitchen is also worth a listen, although I have to say the choice of subject matter for the songs can be, er, "challenging"... :-)
Mattias also works very hard in the guitar community as a teacher and mentor, running instructional camps every summer in his native Sweden. His Freak Guitar site is well worth checking out.
Way back in 1983, Melvyn Bragg's television show The South Bank Show ran a special on the music of Peter Gabriel and ther recording of his fourth solo album. I can still remember it vividly; it was only a few years after Gabriel had left the prog-rock band Genesis and it focused on how his recording process had changed, showing him wandering round a junk yard recording sounds to put into his Fairlight CMI - the original sampler. It also featured his bassist Tony Levin filmed in the recording studios near Bath as he tried to explain what a Chapman Stick was. That little clip of film set me off on my quest to become proficient on the instrument and I'm still playing and learning to this day.
I'm delighted to say that the whole of that programme is now on YouTube so you can watch it for yourself!
I was already a long-time fan of Gabriel's stuff by the time the South Bank Show was broadcast. PG's music has always been interesting, and his songs always sounded different to everyone elses's, even if you couldn't always put your finger on why that might be so. When he recorded his third solo album, for example, he told drummer Phil Collins not to use cymbals; the result is an unusually percussive album with tracks like Intruder featuring gated drums - an innovation by Gabriel's recording engineer Hugh Padgham. Early adoption of sampling, together with the use of unusual instruments like the Stick helped Gabriel to forge a unique sound that became hugely influential. My own approach to writing, recording and playing music owes a tremendous amount to him.
It's also arguable that companies like Aardman wouldn't be the successes that they are today without their association with Gabriel. The video for Sledgehammer has become as iconic as the original promo for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody; it's just one of those works that everyone knows.
But Gabriel is more than just a musician. He has also been a passionate supporter of human rights for many years, founding the organisation WITNESS which distributes digital cameras as a way to combat discrimination and abuse.
If you're interested in playing the guitar and you don't know that name, you need to track down his music as soon as possible. I have to say that in my opinion Allan was the greatest jazz guitarist who ever lived, bar none.
Allan's playing is instantly recognisable, and unique; he's so far ahead of other players that nobody else sounds anything like him. His fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin - no slouch on a six-string himself - once admitted that he would have loved to borrow Allan's approach to music, if only he could have figured out how it was done... This is the player Eddie Van Halen talked about as "He's the best in my book. He's fantastic. I love him." I reduced a guitarist mate of mine to tears by showing him excerpts from the instructional video that Allan released a few years ago. He's beyond good.
I've been listening to Holdsworth since the 1970s - the first time I really noticed his playing was on the Bruford album "One of a Kind" and I was hooked, right from that first listen. I've collected as much of his work as I can find; not just the albums published under his own name (if you're in to seriously good guitar work you have to get copies of IOU and Atavachron at the very least), but also his guest appearances on albums by artists as diverse as Level 42 (Guaranteed), UK (UK), and Stanley Clarke (If this bass could only talk). I also have a copy of "Reaching for the Uncommon Chord" book kicking around somewhere, but sadly I've come to the conclusion that I will never, ever be able to play a decent rendition of the music in it... It's not just the fact that he's so much more talented than I will ever be, either. I'm just not physically capable of playing the music he can play. He has the most phenomenal reach for chords - his hands are like shovels.
I saw him play live a couple of times in the 1980s, but then concert appearances over here hit a dry spell. I still bought his albums religiously when they came out (and I always will) but Mr. H had moved to California and was concentrating on work in the United States. Then when I found out that Allan Holdsworth was going to be playing the Jazz Cafe in London at the end of October 1997 I was kicking myself; with my typical sense of timing, I was in San Francisco...
The good news is that I managed to see him on quite a few occasions after that. I once saw him at a small theatre in Swindon and after the gig I was privileged to be able to spend some time chatting to drummer Chad Wackerman, bassist Jimmy Johnson and The Man himself. He signed a copy of the remastered album Wardenclyffe Tower for me. I even got to shake his hand. It was so cool to finally meet my hero that I was on cloud nine for weeks afterwards.
Sadly, Allan had his demons. His unwillingness to play the role of the celebrated maestro meant he never saw the widespread success that should have been his. His focus was on improvisation; once a performance was completed it held no interest for him, and he hated listening to his own work, let alone talking about it. He turned down several invitations to appear on BBC Radio 3's jazz programmes. In later years, too, his fondness for beer may have begun to get the better of him. He was reduced to funding projects on PledgeMusic - which I enthusiastically supported - but the few tracks that appeared in 2016 turned out to be his last; Allan passed away in April 2017. The loss to music is incalculable; he was the best.
I first discovered Yoko Kanno's work when I started watching the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. She's a keyboard wizard and a prodigiously gifted composer who is equally at home writing prog rock, electronica, or jazz funk. I have two GITS soundtrack CDs as well as the Be Human CD that focused on the music that accompanied appearances on the show by those lovable spider robots the Tachikomas. All three discs show off an awesome talent for composition that has few equals, and her music crops up regularly on my Last FM playlist.
Ms Kanno also wrote the music for cult anime series such as Cowboy BeBop, Macross Plus, and Escaflowne - the movie. She also sings under the pseudonym Gabriela Robin. Give her stuff a listen, and prepare to be blown away.
I first saw the French progressive rock band Lazuli supporting Fish at the Bristol Academy a couple of years ago, and I was a big fan before they'd finished playing their first number. By the end of their set I was raving about them to the people I'd gone to the gig with. When I bumped in to the band on the merch stand before Fish took the stage, I raved enthusiastically about how good they were to them, too. Luckily I didn't frighten them too much, and we've caught up several times since then...
Their music is complex, their orchestration is eclectic and eccentric and impeccably executed; their songs (always sung in French by lead singer Domi) are haunting and memorable, and their show finale - where all five members of the band gather around a MalletKat MIDI xylophone - is a demonstration of impeccable showmanship as much as it is a lesson in coordination and camaraderie. I love these guys. I think you will too.
I first saw the Crims at the Hammersmith Palais in 1982. The Palais was demolished many years ago but I can still remember the sheer joy with which Adrian Belew played and sang, and the sight of Robert Fripp sitting on a stool at the back of the stage, looking up at the ceiling to cue the band to the (frequent) time changes, smiling happily... I remember seeing the audience bopping along to pieces of music that had five, seven or eleven beats to the bar as if it was the most natural thing in the world. When you're starting out as a musician, watching someone else playing at a much, much higher level of skill can be intimidating. The fact that both Belew and Fripp made guitar playing in those time signatures look completely effortless made it worse.
Mr Fripp's wry smile may have been generated by the spectacle of an audience dancing to a piece of music with a distinctly non-standard number of beats to the bar, but the guitarists among us knew the real reason: complete and utter mastery of the craft.
After the gig, other guitar players were walking outside muttering darkly about taking up playing the spoons instead. As for me, I'd spent a large portion of the gig watching Tony Levin playing Chapman Stick, as I'd decided it was the instrument that I was going to play when I finally put my own band together.
When Crimson reformed once more in the 90's, I was over the moon, because not only did it still contain my favourite line-up, they'd found another Stick player as well!
Since then, the Crims have gone through many iterations, each one pushing the boundaries of music and revisiting their prodigious back catalogue in new and fascinating ways. In September 2015 I saw them at St. David's Hall in Cardiff and it was a quite extraordinary show. They made old favourites (some of which were nearly 46 years old at the time) sound new and fresh. The lineup had three drummers: Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison - and I think that's a first for any gig I've ever been to. It was a brilliant evening.
A list of band alumni includes many of my absolute favourite musicians. To name just a few of the artists who have appeared in the band at one time or another: :
Crimson is Mr Fripp's creation, charge and constant companion. On past tours he preferred to stay out of the spotlight, sitting at the back of the stage - but these days he can be found in the spotlight. When I saw the band in Cardiff in 2015 I reckoned he was enjoying the experience, too.
You can read the great man's diary at the Discipline site. The site is worth exploring, for it embodies much of the deeply personal philosophy that permeates all Mr. Fripp's work.
You may or may not consider it significant that the anonymous looking CD on the front cover of the hardback edition of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition is actually one of Mr Fripp's albums...
Tony has played bass or Stick for just about anyone you can think of. King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, David Bowie, Paula Cole, Rosie Vela, Pink Floyd, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, John Lennon, The Roches, Steve Stevens... And he drives a mean Harley, too.
Being a bit of a fan, I have a copy of Tony's book, "Tales From The Bass Clef" which is available from his website. I also have a signed copy of Tony's book of poetry, which I treasure.
As I write this, Tony has just finished touring Europe with the band Stick Men, which also features Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto. They're a great band and well worth seeing if you get a choice!
Trey Gunn has played with a number of Robert Fripp's projects over the years. I loved the stick playing on the Fripp/David Sylvian album "Damage" as well as the Robert Fripp String Quintet album "The Bridge Between."
I've got three of Trey's solo albums: "One Thousand Years" "The Third Star" and "Music for Pictures" are all highly recommended.
Trey currently leads The Security Project, a band that celebrates the work of Peter Gabriel, which also includes Gabriel alumnus Jerry Marotta on drums.
The original Twang Bar King, Adrian has played for artists as varied as Frank Zappa, David Bowie (I got woken up at 8 a.m. one Saturday morning by Adrian soundchecking at the Milton Keynes Bowl when I lived in MK), Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club, and King Crimson.
He also has a thriving career as solo artist and band leader. Lone Rhino is still one of my all-time favourite albums.
Apart from his work in Yes, I remember hearing Bill's solo albums, "Gradually Going Tornado", "One of a kind", "The Bruford Tapes" and "Feels good to Me" and marvelling at what was going on. Those albums were my first experience of Jeff Berlin's masterful bass playing and the overwhelming brilliance of The Brewer himself, Allan Holdsworth (see above).
It's now more than twenty years since I saw Earthworks at the Woughton Campus in Milton Keynes, but I can still remember Bill being highly amused at the name (it's pronounced "Woofton").
Bill has now retired from public performance but his autobiography is well worth checking out (lucky old me has a signed copy!)
Pat has been a Crimson stalwart for twenty years and he's still going strong. Like his bandmate Tony Levin, he crops up on a fair few other works, too - aside from the Stick Men albums, I'd recommend getting hold of an album by the California Guitar Trio called CG3+2. Pat is one half of the "+2", the other half is Tony Levin.
Pat also tours with Tony and Markus Reuter as Stick Men, as mentioned above. The band's albums are essential items in any Prog fan's collection.
Pat also records with Markus as the electronic rock duo TUNER, and their albums are also well worth checking out.
Sound and Fury! Noise and Lights! Dry ice! Smoke! The ringing in my ears! I remember seeing them at the Lyceum in London just after "Overkill" came out some time back in 1979. The stage show was so completely over the top that nobody could see the band for the first three numbers.
Back in the days when I still had spare time and a drawing board that wasn't a foot deep in paperwork, I used to draw cartoons and design T-Shirts for the Motörheadbangers. I had a whale of a time. I still have all the old copies of the newsletters, as well as some of the T-shirts, kicking around at home. I made some good friends during those days, and I'm still in touch with them thirty years later. For me, the classic line-up of Kilmister/Clarke/Taylor will always hold a very special place in my heart. That band quite literally changed my life. One of the proudest moments was being asked to design the sleeve for a compilation album of Motörhead tracks. Thanks to Alan Burridge of the MHB's for putting my name forward.
The band lived the rock and roll lifestyle to the full, but it took its toll. The line-up changed several times over the years, and I saw them on each iteration. Eddie left after a disagreement over recording a Tammy Wynette cover version. He was replaced by Brian Robertson, who signed up for a one-album deal and brought complexity and guitar synthesiser to the band's sound. The resulting album "Another Perfect Day" is the band's "Marmite" work; fans either love it or hate it. Robertson was replaced with the twin-guitar line-up of Würzel and Phil Campbell. Then Philthy left and was replaced by Pete Gill, formerly of Saxon. Eventually the line-up settled on the trio of Lemmy, Phil Campbell, and former King Diamond drummer Mikkey Dee. That line-up would see out the rest of the band's existence.
The rock and roll excesses came with another price, too. Würzel died of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 61. Phil Taylor died in October 2015, and Lemmy died in December the same year, just weeks after completing a gruelling world tour to promote what turned out to be the band's final album, Bad Magic. Guitarist Eddie Clarke died of pneumonia in January 2018.
But the band went out on a high; Bad Magic was a great album and it saw the band on top form. Motörhead as a live band were the utter and complete embodiment of rock and roll. All the heavy metal "hair" bands try to imitate their approach, but where the other bands look contrived, Lemmy, Mikkey and Phil were just being themselves.
No messing about.
I first heard saw Muse performing an early single - Muscle Museum - on one of the music channels on TV years ago. I quite liked it, but for some reason I assumed the band were a bunch of American whippersnappers and never really engaged with them properly. I'd catch a tune of theirs from time to time and nod appreciatively, but that was as far as it went. Then their third album Absolution came out and I realised several things. Firstly, I realised that they were British, hailing from the small seaside town of Teignmouth in Devon. Secondly, I realised that their music was rather good. Thirdly, I realised that this was a band I needed to know more about. When Black Holes and Revelations came out it confirmed my opinion of them as being something special, even if I was less than impressed by the mastering of the album at the time. Since then I've become a big fan. I saw them live a few years ago when they played a couple of gigs in their home town and in concert they are very, very good. The sound was exceptional.
Muse pushed my music geek buttons hard. Matt Bellamy's guitars are custom built by Manson guitars and feature inbuilt Kaoss Pads in preference to a tremelo arm. Their use of keyboard arpeggiators works really well. But the band really made my apophenia senses tingle when I found out that guitarist Matt Bellamy's father George played guitar on the first piece of music I can remember from my childhood: an instrumental number produced by the legendary Joe Meek called Telstar by the Tornados.
It has to be said, though, that the last couple of albums have been extremely disappointing. They seem to be turning in pastiches of songs by other artists (they definitely owe the members of Queen more than a few beers) and going for high concept work to bolster what has become some distinctly average bits of songwriting. I wish they'd go back to pushing the boundaries like they used to do.
It's difficult to put together just a handful of paragraphs about Pink Floyd. Even a brief overview of their history would have to encompass the early days with frontman Syd Barrett, who became one of the most high profile casualties of the drug scene; the subsequent addition to the band of Syd's school friend, guitarist David Gilmour; the huge success of album after album in the seventies and early eighties, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall; how bassist and vocalist Roger Waters left the band in 1985, and how after much legal wrangling the remaining members of the band went on to become the quintessential stadium rock group of the 1990s. If you want a more detailed history of the band, I recommend Mark Blake's book Pigs Might Fly: The Inside History of Pink Floyd.
But it's their music that should do the talking. When I was at school, everyone in my class seemed to have at least one Floyd album. Any coach trip from school would feature someone with a cassette recorder playing bootlegs from Floyd gigs they'd been to. I can't remember anything much about a trip round Ellesmere Port oil refinery that I went on with my chemistry class, but I can still remember somebody opening their copy of the music newspaper Sounds in the minibus to see an advert on the centre pages that just read "Oink Oink Woof Woof Baa" and showed a picture of Battersea Power Station. When I was young, Pink Floyd's songs were an integral part of the soundtrack to my life and they remain so to this day.
I only got to see them play live once, when they headlined the Silver Clef Awards concert at Knebworth Park in 1990 and they didn't disappoint. I've also seen Roger Waters in concert, and his show - which at times uses the original vox pop tapes from Dark Side of the Moon - was also spectacularly memorable.
I first saw Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Latitude Festival in 2008, and they made a huge impression on me. They were playing the Uncut Arena: basically, a circus big top tent with about 3000 people standing inside it. On the stage were two acoustic guitar players with some of the most awe-inspiring chops I've ever seen. They worked through some of their own compositions - fiery, foot-stomping, feel-good music - interspersed with an amazing selection of cover versions: Metallica, Dave Brubeck and Led Zeppelin. Seriously? I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. The chords they used for their version of "Stairway to Heaven" were ones Jimmy Page doesn't even dream about. The music was accompanied by a complex storm of percussive thumps, taps and slaps that I eventually realised were being produced by Gabriela hitting her guitar as she played. Even with the video screens next to the stage showing close ups of her hands, I couldn't figure out how she could possibly be doing what I was hearing.
And then they launched into a cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." The entire tent joined in to sing along, and the atmosphere took my breath away. I've been to lots of gigs, but this was something utterly special. The hair on the back of my neck was standing on end and I was nearly in tears. It was one of the most sublime things I have ever experienced; concrete proof of just how powerful, emotional and uplifting live music can be when it's done right.
RyG returned to Latitude - a lot higher up the bill - a few years later and I was there to see them. Even though they were way up on the main stage in the Obelisk Arena, they had the audience eating out of their hands. A couple in front of me kept turning to each other and asking, "How are they doing that?" If you ever get a chance to see them play live, do not under any circumstances pass it up.
I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Rush. It's probably somewhere near the 30 mark by now, and the first time I saw them was in 1979. Along with the Dregs and Crimson, it's the Rush songs that bring back memories of happier times. Of "lighted streets on quiet nights" particularly; "Subdivisions" has to be one of the most evocative songs I have ever heard and the album it's on is one of my all-time favourites.
While I was in the States I was lucky enough to see the band on the Test For Echo tour - which was just as well, because they didn't get to the UK at all that time round. I missed out on the Vapor Trails tour. It's the only tour they've undertaken that I've missed since I started going to their shows.
Rush were on hiatus for several years following several personal tragedies in the life of drummer Neil Peart. The book he wrote about those times, Ghost Rider, is at times heartrending but ultimately life-affirming. Once he'd come out the other side of his experiences, the band went back into the studio to pick up the pieces, and I'm glad they did. The R30 tour included Europe to mark their thirtieth anniversary, and the band returned again to mark the release of their most recent studio album, Snakes and Arrows. A recording of that show made at the Ahoy Stadium in Rotterdam ended up being released on DVD and Blu-Ray, and it's well worth getting hold of, if only to see what Geddy Lee uses for his onstage backline instead of bass amplifiers.
I saw the band twice the last time they toured the UK on the Clockwork Angels tour and with the added string section their music took on a dimension I'd never heard previously. It was stunning. But for their 40th anniversary tour, which turned out to be their last, the band toured North America, and that was it. European fans like me didn't get the chance to say farewell, which was disappointing.
I first saw Mr Satriani play live back in the 80s. He instantly became one of my favourite guitarists and he's an incredible player. He has produced some of my favourite pieces of music over the years; the single note feedback at the start of "Flying in a blue dream" still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Great stuff.
Some people I know didn't like the "Engines of Creation" studio album, but I loved it. Borg Sex has some of the most amazing guitar playing I've ever heard, and even after seeing him play it live on several occasions, I still can't figure out how he did it.
Joe also organises the G3 tours, which consiste of him going on the road with two other guitarists who get a chance to reach audiences that might not otherwise consider listening to their music. Steve Vai was a regular companion on the earlier shows, but Eric Johnson, Robert Fripp, John Petrucci, Steve Morse, Uli Jon Roth and Adrian Legg have all appeared with Joe over the years, together with many other notable guitar players.
There's an official Joe Satriani Web Site, too. The man himself takes an interest in the site, and it's worth stopping by.
In 2014 I bought myself an extended range guitar (you can read all about that little adventure on my music page) and as a result I became curious as to how other musicians were using them. A quick visit to Wikipedia pointed me in the direction of Scar Symmetry and the incredible guitar chops of Per Nilsson. Listening to their album released in 2014, The Singularity: Phase I (Neohumanity) left me sitting in my chair, dumbfounded. I listened to the album on repeat, which isn't something I'd done since my teenage years. I raved about it to anyone who didn't move out of the way fast enough. I raved about it on Twitter as well, with the result that singer Lars Palmqvist started following me. :-)
Their music is a cross between death metal and good old-fashioned prog rock, and it really, really works. I set about grabbing the other albums in their extensive back catalogue and they were brilliant, too. In 2015 I got the chance to see them play live in Bristol, and I was right at the front for their set. I managed to speak to the band afterwards, too - they're a great bunch of guys. When I caught up with them again in 2017 I got another chance to chat with Per, who assured me that the next album is on its way - but as he'd just been called up as guitar player for Meshuggah on their latest tour, it's not going to be ready quite as soon as he'd planned...
There's a particular category of musician that is more sparsely populated than most, and if you fall into this particular category you're part of an extremely select group. Other musicians will talk about you in hushed tones, nodding their heads seriously and talking rapturously about the time when they caught a gig you did way back when. About how everything about the show was perfect, about the flawless ease with which each number was delivered. Amongst the older musicians, the adjectives "cool" or "hip" are in danger of being deployed when they mention your name. Serious writers of fiction will reference you in their work or write literary reviews of your albums. And all the while, you'll hear people playing your stuff on the radio or in the twilight after the more serious kind of dinner parties and saying how that, fellows, is the way we do things right. More often than not, it will then turn out that your name is either Walter Becker or Donald Fagen, and the people will be talking about Steely Dan.
It was the advent of the personal stereo that brought me into the world of Steely Dan. Their music is the sort which - so rarely among purveyors of popular music, it seems - not only stands the really close scrutiny that's possible when you listen on headphones, but somehow manages to deliver an enhanced experience in the process. It made a perfect match for technology which suddenly enabled you to walk down the street to the strains of your own personal soundtrack. Steely Dan's music is the kind of music in which I'd want to lose myself, whether it be the uplifting melodies of 1977's Aja (quite possibly the best album ever recorded) or the more overtly cyncial tones of 2003's Everything Must Go. It's rewarding on so many levels.
Lyrically, Steely Dan are in a class by themselves. Becker and Fagen share a bone-dry, droll sense of humour that perfectly matches their music. If anyone ever trots out the trope that Americans can't do irony, suggest to them that they examine the lyrics from the 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy, particularly Bodhisattva - or anything from 2000's Two Against Nature.
When I finally got to see them in concert, I realised I'd joined the hordes of admirers who will tell their friends at great length on dark nights to come how, one night, they got to hear how music sounds when - every now and again - someone comes along who just does it right.
Along with most of the population of the U.K., my first exposure to the music of the two Johns was Birdhouse in your soul from their 1990 album "Flood". Although each song is usually well under three minutes long (the classic Minimum Wage lasts all of 47 seconds) they're put together with a keen eye for the right tune, thought-provoking lyrics, and a profound sense of the utterly bizarre.
The writer Terry Pratchett describes the song Where your eyes don't go from their second album "Lincoln" as "the scariest song I've ever heard". I especially love the tracks Fingertips and The Statue got me High from the album "Apollo 18."
I got the US release of their new album "Mink Car" when it came out, and then I had to get the UK release too, as it has a completely different track listing on it. It includes Boss of Me as a tie-in to the "Malcolm in the Middle" TV show they provided the music for, and the track subsequently won the Grammy for "Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media." Way to go, guys!
How many albums do you have that come with Macromedia Flash animations to go with the songs? TMBG's album for the discerning younger listener, NO! does. It's a great favourite with all my nieces and nephews, but their parents tend to get a little wired after hearing "House at the top of the tree" eight times in a row...
I was lucky enough to see them play live when they toured the UK in November 2001. I talked my sister into going, too - her comment at the end was "I've never laughed so much at a gig before. I laughed so much I was nearly sick." The concert, at the Norwich Waterfront, was one of the best gigs I've ever been to, and I'd recommend seeing them live if you get the chance. I saw them do the TMBG Vs. McSweeney's event at the Barbican in October 2003 which was an awesome event that featured Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby, amongst others. In 2010 I was lucky enough to catch them twice in one day when they played the Royal Festival Hall in London as part of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary celebrations. In 2011 I saw them play a set on the Saturday afternoon of the Latitude Festival, and I found myself down at the front of the Obelisk Arena, rocking out with my sister's daughter Lela, who is now also a fan!
It's well worth visiting their really entertaining and very well-put-together official TMBG website. They're also on Twitter. They're on Facebook. And they're officially on YouTube. These guys are seriously web-enabled. If you've heard their music, you'll understand what I mean when I say their site looks like their music sounds. When you've finished here, I urge you to go there. The TMBG mailing list on the site regularly sends out messages from Mr. Flansburgh, and you can even download a different TMBG song every week from their legendary dial-a-song service, which (surprise surprise) is now available on the web. Originally available from their answering machine, it's now available for us people in foreign parts.
Oh - and here's a final reason why TMBG are such an awesome band: they quite often tweet events on Twitter and on the occasions when I've retweeted them, John Flansburgh has sent me a personal "thank you" via Twitter.
How cool is that?
Aside from Scar Symmetry, I've become obsessed with another artist's work over the past year. He's another fiercely talented guitarist, but he's also a brilliant songwriter, singer, record producer, composer, and all sorts of other cool stuff as well.
His name is Devin Townsend.
I first heard about him when Steve Vai's album Sex and Religion came out. That's him on the cover, and that's him singing on the album. But that was never going to prepare me for hearing the music that he comes up with when he's the guy in charge.
His albums - particularly those he recorded as the Devin Townsend Project have become some of my favourite records, like, ever. I have literally lost count of the number of times I've played through my copy of Addicted! but each time I listen to it I hear something new and fresh. It's an astonishing work that needs to be part of your music collection as soon as you can possibly manage it.
Devin is also responsible for the science fiction rock opera Ziltoid, which is both a technical tour de force and an absolute hoot.
Even better than the albums are the live performances. He is one of rock's true showmen, and you know when you get tickets for one of his gigs that you're going to be in for something extraordinary. Go see him. You will remember it for a long time!
I was introduced to the music of Judie Tzuke by a girlfriend of mine. Before long, I was hooked, too, and we'd go to every tour. Apart from classic tracks like "Stay with me 'til dawn" and "Heaven can wait," my particular favourite was "Black Furs" and I'm sure I used to drive my parents nuts trying to emulate Mike Paxman's guitar solo. The other guitarist in the band at the time, Paul Muggleton, was one of the main people responsible for starting off my fascination with the Fender Telecaster.
These days, Judie records and distributes her music through her own recording company, and you can order stuff from ther website at http://www.tzuke.com It's maintained by the aforesaid Mr. Paxman. When I used the website to order 2001's "Queen Secret Keeper" - which features guest appearances by the truly great Peter (Go West) Cox and "Whispering" Bob (no relation) Harris - she very kindly signed my copy for me. The latest album I have is 2004's The End of the Beginning and it's beautiful stuff.
There's also a DVD available of a concert recorded at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon in September 1985. I was there, and scarily enough I'm visible in one of the shots of the audience. I had a lot more hair back then...
I first encountered Steve Vai's playing on Frank Zappa's albums, but it was when Van Halen's former vocalist Dave Lee Roth hired him to play guitar on his solo albums that the world really sat up and took notice. Flamboyant, tall, dark and handsome as well as prodigiously talented, he's the ultimate rock guitarist. However, his recording career has been far more wide-ranging, as he's worked with artists from Eros Ramazzotti to Motörhead and from Bill and Ted to Lakshminarayanan Shankar.
His solo albums have been equally wide-ranging, and while some (notably the utterly amazing Passion and Warfare) have been hugely successful, he's not averse to releasing stuff that's unlikely to appeal to anyone except full-on guitar nerds like me.
My own personal favourite? An early solo album called Flex-able that was heavily influenced (and quite rightly so) by Vai's association with Frank Zappa. I bought it on vinyl when it first came out and then again on CD a few years later. It's lovely to play The Attitude Song to any guitarist who hasn't heard it before and watch the look on their face.
It's only in the last few years that I've developed an appreciation for the music of Tom Waits. Perhaps it's because in the seventies, the British music press really didn't like him very much; they certainly didn't encourage people to go out and buy his albums. In fact, I was more familiar with his appearances in films (such as Renfield in the Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula or Benny in Rumble Fish) than I was with his songs. Perhaps, also, it's because it's only in recent years that he's finally acquired the singing voice he's been striving for for the best part of three decades. Either way, I am now a big fan of his music.
How Waits performs his songs is just as interesting and important to the end result as the writing. The production on his recent albums fascinates me, and the choice of instruments for some arrangements is not at all what I expected. In particular, 2004's Real Gone stands as one of my favourite albums of all time and How's It Gonna End one of my favourite songs - consisting of Waits on guitar and vocals, Harry Cody on banjo and Larry Taylor providing the bass.
But it's his song The Piano Has Been Drinking that made me a huge fan. How can you not love anyone who wrote such a wonderful piece of music?
I've been listening to a lot of Zappa recently. Not only FZ's solo work and the Mothers of Invention albums, but also stuff by his son Dweezil, who has carried on the tradition of his father's music by touring as Zappa Plays Zappa. I saw him in June 2009 and it was great to hear some of my favourite pieces of music being played live.
I'll fully accept that FZ's work isn't for everybody. If it were possible, I'd say that he explored the concept of irony even more fully than Steely Dan did. The subject matter he dealt with was often scatalogical and occasionally near the knuckle, but once you get his sense of humour you realise there was nobody quite like him. Just listen to the title track off Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, for example, or Valley Girl off the same album (which became a hit single back in 1982!)
More importantly, FZ was one of the sanest individuals in an increasingly demented business. You only have to read the book he wrote with Peter Occhiogrosso to realise that here was a man with his head firmly screwed in place and both feet on the ground. In his later years he was politically active, appearing before a Senate committee to criticise the Parents Music Resource Center - an organisation run by Al Gore's wife which is reponsible for making records bear those Parental Advisory stickers that have been so successful in stopping the use of profanity or sexual references in music lyrics... NOT!
Frank Zappa died in December 1993, and I'm still discovering how much we lost, both musically and politically, as a result.