The Greatest Band in the World: Discuss

My ten year old son regularly asks me questions like “Who would you rather be: Aragorn or Legolas?”, “Who would win a fight between Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee?” or “What is your favourite band?”

Some of these are easy to answer (Aragorn, obviously – who wants to be a pointy-eared Orlando Bloom?), some are difficult (I think Lee would kick Chan’s ass, but who knows?) and some are impossible: I really don’t have a favourite band anymore.

There may be a particular artist or band that you keep returning to again and again, (and for me this would include Neil Young, Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin and a host of others) but I think the notion of an outright ‘favourite’ is something which you just tend to grow out of. My favourite album right now is the one I’m listening to whilst I write this piece (Eno’s ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ if you’re asking…)

Things were generally a lot simpler and a lot more black and white when you were younger. You did have a favourite band which you would defend to the hilt to your friends.

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My first favourite band were Madness. When I was the same age as my son is now I bought the greatest hits album Complete Madness on cassette in Derby Woolworths. I played that album to death, loving the scatty humour, ska influenced rhythms and great pop melodies delivered in Suggs’ inimitable style (I can still rattle off all the lyrics to ‘Baggy Trousers’ in an authentic North London accent without missing a beat).

In my teens I had a short love affair with Level 42 (which you can read all about here). For this, I got the piss mercilessly extracted from me by my peers. This makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time I just couldn’t understand why others didn’t share my enthusiasm. My nemesis with regard to band-baiting at school was my friend Neil. Neil hated Level 42 and took every opportunity to tell me how shit they were and how his favourite band, The Cars, were so much better. I hadn’t heard any Cars stuff apart from their hit ‘Drive’ (which I quite liked) but I felt pushed into a corner. So with attack as the best form of defence we relentlessly slated each other’s favourite bands from our entrenched standpoints. There was a brief truce when we agreed to lend each other an album to listen to (I liked the Cars stuff but wouldn’t admit it, he hated the Level 42 stuff and revelled in telling me so) before we got back to slagging each other off again.

The ultimate irony of this particular story is that years later when I had a MySpace site (remember MySpace!) featuring some of the songs I had written and recorded in my home studio, I messaged Boon Gould (the guitarist from Level 42 who was also on MySpace) asking him to have a listen to my tracks. He took the time to listen to them and gave me some lovely comments including this one: “I really like the guitar on the intro to ‘Catching Sunbeams’, it reminds me of The Cars.”

How Neil would have laughed.

Going full circle, I actually wrote that song for (and about) my recently born son, the one who now asks all the questions that started this whole thing off. Have a listen and then let me know what your favourite bands were.

Leon Wilson

Ohio

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The tragic events this week in the USA this week where three students were shot dead at the University of North Carolina brought to mind Neil Young’s powerful protest song ‘Ohio’.

On 4 May 1970 four unarmed college students were killed and 9 were injured at Kent State University when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on an organised protest against the invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Young wrote the song after seeing photos of the incident (such as John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph above, showing Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14yr old girl, kneeling over the dead body of Jeffery Miller, minutes after he was shot).

The song was recorded with Crosby, Stills & Nash and rushed to release only a few weeks after the event itself. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming”, Young spits (referring to US President Richard Nixon, whose policy led to the invasion of Cambodia at a time when the Vietnam War had appeared to be winding down) eventually incanting the line “Four dead in Ohio” over and over.

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Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

 

 

Leon Wilson

Nothing but ‘Sky Blue Sky’: Rediscovering The Album

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I have started listening to music in a whole new way because I have changed my car.

I finally sold the old lovable Chrysler rust bucket. She made it to the grand old age of 14 and clocked up 153567 miles, which is just over six times around the world (x times around the world is the official lazy journalism measure of distance, just as x times the size of a football pitch/Olympic sized swimming pool is the equivalent for area). I do miss the heated leather seats (the strange feeling that you had just wet yourself followed by the relief that it was just the seat warming up after all), but I don’t miss the audio system.

It had a tape player (yes tape player!) which gave up the ghost about a year ago and a power outlet which also failed so that I couldn’t power my 11 year old, 3rd generation iPod, whose battery goes from fully charged to dead in less time than it takes Usain Bolt to run 100m.image

I could have downloaded stuff onto my phone to plug in and play but I didn’t because a) I would have to choose a selection of less than 100 songs to fit on my phone’s memory and I didn’t want to face the selection process (eg. which song do I pick off Neil Youngs ‘After the Goldrush’; or do I just pick them all?) and b) I couldn’t be bothered.

I could have done the Spotify/Deezer thing with my phone but still don’t feel entirely comfortable with the concept (yes, I do have an iTunes account, but I think we’ll have a discussion about artists’ right on a future blog, OK?)

I’m sure there were plenty of other options available to me, but I decided to listen to music on the radio. This had some bad points and some good points.

In the minus column was having to put up with some of the vacuous, narcissistic DJs out in radio land. Well, to be honest, I didn’t put up with them at all; I just changed station. (I did have a soft spot for Tony Blackburn on Radio 2 though; he transcends naval gazing banality with his links and comes off as a sort of post-ironic comedy legend- “That was Adele with ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ – please don’t try that at home folks, you’ll only waste your matches”). Because there are so many dodgy DJs out there, I spent the past year surfing the radio waves like a NASA technician searching the galaxies for extra terrestrial life. I’ve literally worn the printing off my ‘Seek’ buttons trying to achieve musical fulfilment (stop sniggering at the back, that wasn’t a dodgy euphemism…)

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In the plus column, I stumbled across some great new (well, new to me) artists and music; more of that in a bit.

Anyway, what I was trying to get to is that now I have a CD player in the car.

“Well done!”, I hear you all say sarcastically, “welcome to the 21st century (about 15 years later than everyone else…)”. The whole point about this particular blog is that it is not about the technology per se but about how that technology influences how we listen to music.

Let me explain. I probably do most of my listening to music (well, music of my choice) in my commutes to work, and I spend around 5 hours a week driving to and from work. In those 5 hours a week over the past few years or so I have been guilty of what I call ‘shuffle mode syndrome’. My iPod (when it did work in the car), was pretty much permanently set to shuffle mode. If I did get a new album (and had gone to the trouble of actually downloading it to my iPod) I would problably listen to it once, maybe twice, before reverting back to shuffle mode again. Now, having random picks from 7000+ songs can have its advantages; you can happen upon some long forgotten songs or get some fantastic sequencing choices (my particular favourite was Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bullet in the Head’ followed by Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’).

I never got to ‘know’ an album like I did in my youth anymore. We all have our favourite albums (and I’m not about to start listing mine as part of this blog); and these were interwoven with our lives and loves at the time. So, one of my New Years resolutions for 2015 (along with ‘getting fit’ and ‘not making any New Years resolutions) was to listen to more albums.

So I have decided to share an album that I discovered recently, which I have only just got to know, and love, properly via my car CD player.

The album is ‘Sky Blue Sky’ by Wilco.

How the hell did I miss Wilco for the past 20 years? I’d heard of the name but never heard any of the music. I happened upon ‘Impossible Germany’ on the radio and literally had to pull over to listen without distraction.

Beautiful melodic, chiming guitars, Jeff Tweedy’s laconic vocals and a wonderful solo by Nels Cline. What’s not to like? This version is a live performance, which gives Cline more room to stretch but it stays close to the studio version.

On the basis of this, I bought the album ‘Sky Blue Sky’ from which the track is taken. It’s a fantastic piece of work, with no weak tracks or fillers. There are strong Beatles and Stones influences with some West Coast and Blues leanings in there for good measure.

‘You Are My Face’ starts off with a gentle Nick Drake-esque verse with some nice harmonies. The eerie bridge section then takes things into a different direction before a couple of crunching guitar chords take the song into a hard handbrake turn to the left. Suddenly we’re in a land reminiscent of ‘Southern Man’ by Neil Young with jarring, choppy guitars backed up with some pounding piano.

Other highlights include the juddering, skittery ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Side With The Seeds’ which starts as a sort of alt-country torch song and ends with Nels Cline shredding his way to oblivion.

I shall certainly be exploring the Wilco album back catalogue (of which there are another 10, including 3 with Billy Bragg). In the meantime I urge you to get hold of a copy of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and listen to it – as an album in its entirety. I guarantee it will make your life better.

Leon Wilson

God Only Knows: Sweet Vocal Harmonies

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Vocal harmonies. I just love them. I love hearing them and I love singing them in the various bands I’ve been in over the years. They can give you a big beaming smile, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, or bring a tear to the eye.

So, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of the history of vocal harmonies through the decades, up to the present day and hopefully introduce you to some new, and old, favourites along the way.

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The origins of layering voices to make a pleasing sound started in European post-renaissance churches with sung Masses and classical choral music. In the late 19th century Barbershop quartets becomes popular in the US, which then underwent a revival in the 1940’s. This was followed by the rise of doo-wop in the 1950’s

image‘Whispering Grass’ by The Ink Spots was a popular early doo-wop hit

It was doo-wop and barbershop (along with jazz vocal groups such as The Four Freshman) which were to be the main influences on a young Brian Wilson in the late 1950’s. He formed a group with his brothers and some friends which would, in time, become one of the most influential vocal harmony groups ever: The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys – Sloop John B

This clip is an outtake from one of the sessions for their masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’, and with the vocals isolated from the instruments you can really hear the full depth and breadth of the performances. There were lots of different types of voices in The Beach Boys and they all blended together perfectly to create their unique sound.

On the other side of the Atlantic The Beatles were honing their close harmony skills (heavily influenced by the work of The Everly Brothers) in the bars and clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg in the early 1960’s. The combination of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s voices continued to be an integral part of The Beatles sound all the way through their career together.

The Beatles – Paperback Writer

‘Paperback Writer’ from 1966 was directly influenced by The Beach Boys. ‘Sloop John B’ has just hit the British charts and The Beatles had managed to get their hands on an advance copy of ‘Pet Sounds’. It has an awesome a cappella start before a killer guitar riff and Macca’s whooping bass kick in. There’s also some great textures created by the vocals under the later verses.

The so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the US in early 1964 was a catalyst for many groups on both sides of the pond using vocal harmonies in the next few years. Out if the ashes of some of these came a group which just about rewrote the book in 1969 with their eponymous album: Crosby Stills and Nash.

imageDavid Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash joined forces in 1968 from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies respectively. The album ‘CS&N’ was, at times, very stripped down, with minimal instrumentation; something which allowed the rich sound of their exquisite vocal harmonies to shine through (such as the atmospheric ‘Guinnevere’).

Crosby, Stills and Nash – Carry On

The example here, ‘Carry On’, is taken from their next album ‘Deja Vu’, which featured the addition of Neil Young to the band (but not on this particular track). The breakdown section in the middle is exquisite with Nash’s top vocal part cascading down as the other harmonies hold firm.

In the 1970’s the mantle was taken up by bands such as The Eagles (whose songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey were directly influenced by CS&N). They modified the West Coast sound, giving it more of a Country flavour.

The Eagles – Seven Bridges Road

This track was a live favourite which started out as a dressing room warm-up song and ended up as a set opener, featuring all five members harmonising.

With the advent of electronic music, vocal harmonies became a lot less prominent in the mix of records in the 1980’s. An exception to this would be a mini doo-wop revival by Huey Lewis and the News and their hit ‘If This Is It’

Huey Lewis and the News – If This Is It

If you try and ignore the goofy 80’s video there’s some good old blue eyed soul in there backed up on the choruses by some rather nice doo-wop harmonies

The dawn of the 1990’s gave rise to the girl/boy bands, and with it, a resurgence of groups relying on close vocal harmonies. The pick of the boys in this respect was probably Boyz II Men (how 90’s is the name of that band?!) who had a massive hit with ‘End Of The Road’

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 Those Boyz certainly knew how to rock the suit/jeans combo…

The pick of the girls was En Vogue (whom I had a massive crush on in my university years. There, I said it).

En Vogue – My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)

A looped James Brown guitar sample threads it’s way throughout the song whilst the girls (Dawn, if you’re asking…) hit some great harmonies including the obligatory a cappella breakdown.

In the mid to late 2000’s a band formed in Seattle with a mutual admiration for Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. The sound of Fleet Foxes is a throwback to the late 1960’s West Coast pop sound with some reverb-drenched harmonies worthy of note. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and Mykanos off their first album are fine examples of this.

Fleet Foxes – Mykanos 

So, that brings us up to the present day. Are there any bands out there still pushing the envelope and kicking out some killer harmonies in 2014? Well, the whole inspiration for this particular blog is from a band I’ve just become obsessed with over the past month called The Staves.

The Staves are three sisters with beautiful, pure voices who create the sort of harmonies to make you melt. There’s something otherworldly about sibling harmonies (or ‘blood harmonies’, as they are sometimes known). The same voice overdubbed with harmonies has a pleasing sound to the ear. Get the right mix of people and the experience gets to a new level. Do the same with siblings and it’s a whole new ball game.  There’s enough similarities and differences between the vocals to make the whole thing gel together and create a lush, layered sound with an almost instinctive feel for how the parts work together.

The Staves – Wisely and Slow

This song, the opener off their last album Dead Born and Grown, with it’s sliding, swooping parts is perfection. There’s just the right amount of suspended tension in some of the sections which give way to glorious resolution. They have just released an EP, ‘Blood I Bled’, after recording sessions in a snowy wilderness with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

I urge you to buy it.

The Staves – Blood I Bled

 

Leon Wilson

C90s and the Lost Art of the Mixtape: The Cassette

 

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The Cassette

A lot has been made recently of the so called ‘vinyl revival’. I am all for this and, like any music lover of a certain age, could harp on about the beauty of an LP; the feel of it in your hands, the crackle of static as the needle hit the groove, the warmth of the sound quality…etc,etc…

What you don’t hear a great deal about is the poor relation of the recording medium world; the cassette. Cassettes were great. In a small (3″x4″), lightweight (2oz) package of plastic and magnetic tape you had the world of music at your fingertips. For here was the thing: you could record on them.

Ok, so the sound quality wasn’t perfect. In fact, even the more expensive chromium dioxide tapes with their convoluted noise reduction systems (“you don’t do heavy metal in Dobly…”) would still sound like a bike tyre deflating in a pit of snakes. What you did get was manyfold. You could tape your LPs and listen to them in the car (or any other place with a tape player), or make a compilation of your favourite tracks or artists for your own pleasure, or you could create a mixtape for somebody else.

Record companies really didn’t like the idea of this. They thought that everyone would tape their favourite songs off the radio, no one would buy vinyl singles and they wouldn’t be able to ride their gravy train anymore. They all got together and mounted a campaign with the slogan “Home taping is killing music”

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I particularly like the little “and it’s illegal”, at the bottom, said like a 6 year old would say “and you smell of wee” at the end of a playground hissy fit. The campaign was pretty ineffectual and what actually happened was that people would tend to buy more of the stuff they liked after hearing it on shared cassettes. You would have thought the record companies had taken this on board but history kind of repeated itself in 2000 when various (rich and established) artists took Napster to court for sharing their mp3s between users (does anyone else feel the urge to punch Metallica’s Lars Ulrich in the face whenever he pops up on tv?).

The advent of portable tape recorders also allowed the art of live bootlegging to flourish and with it the survival of some great music (and some historic musical moments, such as the heckling of Dylan as a “Judas” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 as he went electric).

imageLive Neil Young bootleg

The emergence of affordable multitrack recorders by Tascam and Fostex in the late 70’s / early 80’s allowed bands to be able to record and distribute their own material using cassettes without the need for a recording contract or access to expensive studios.

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We accidentally blew one of these up during a recording session once

This was vitally important in allowing musicians to get their music heard and gave rise to a so-called ‘cassette culture’ or ‘cassette underground’ in the post-punk era which utilised fanzines and mail networks to distribute the music. This was the way I first was recorded as a musician in a band and I still treasure those tapes today.

imageThe entire Uncle Sham back catalogue

The Lost Art of the Mixtape

What is a mixtape? Wikipedia defines it as ‘the generic name to any compilation of songs recorded onto any audio format’. The wider meaning encompasses recorded club DJ sets, digital playlists or hip hop remixes of various tracks. The mixtape I am talking about is a collection of songs recorded onto an audio cassette for your own, or others, pleasure.

I used to make mixtapes for myself and for others. There was always a theme, be it a particular artist, mood or genre of music. Compiling a mixtape for yourself was a form of self expression, it mirrored your mood at the time and was at hand at a later date to turn to, if you felt in that same mood. Making a mixtape for someone else was almost like opening up your soul, saying “this is who I am”. There was also an unwritten law that if you received a mixtape then you would return the favour and compose one in return.

image‘Leon says just chill…’ – mixtape circa. 1988

So, how do you go about compiling a mixtape for somebody else? Well, you have to ask yourself a few questions first. What do you think they would like to hear? What do you think they should hear? Are you making the tape purely for someone’s pleasure or are you trying to tell them something? As a socially inept teenager (as opposed to the socially inept adult I am now…) the mixtape was a way of trying to make a connection with the fairer sex. It was far easier to pour your heart into a great selection of songs than to try and actually talk to the girl and express your feelings (there, I said the ‘f’ word).

The sequencing of songs is very important, like a good live set list or the order of songs on an album. The idea is to take the listener on a journey, or to create a mood. We now live in the age of the shuffle and I am guilty of this myself; having my iPod or phone set up this way allows me to access my 7000+ song library in a unique way which will often surprise me and unearth long forgotten tracks. But there is something to be said for sitting down and listening to something which has been expertly sequenced. The first track is very important, you are making a statement and setting the scene for what is to come. The middle section allows you to stretch your legs and say what you want to say. At the end it is vital to leave the listener with a lasting impression with as little ‘dead space’ as possible before the tape runs out. I used to have a selection of short songs to fill in any two or thee minute gaps that might arise. Then I would re-record the last few songs again, putting the short track in earlier so that I could end the side with a storming finale. This all sounds a little obsessive, I know, but I think that the nature of mixtapes and their creators are probably a little bit on the OCD spectrum anyway (check out Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity for the perfect example of this).

imageI had an Akai GXC-38D. It was built like a tank

The actual process of creating the tape was very physical and ‘hands on’. You wouldn’t be reclined in an office chair, mouse in hand, dragging and dropping audio files on a computer. This was a labour of love. You would be hunched over a hot tape deck (and boy, did my old Akai tape deck get hot), surrounded by LPs (and later, CDs as well) and sheets of paper with lists of prospective tracks, half of which were scribbled out as the mixtape took shape. The sound levels could vary vastly between different records, so you had to take on the additional role of mastering engineer, ensuring the overall sound of the tape was homogenous and even. The dreaded ‘pop’ at the start of the recorded track as the pause button was released (with record and play already pressed) was to be avoided at all costs.

Once you had your finished tape you had to enable the write protect mechanism (ie. snap the little plastic tabs off the top corners of the tape with a pen nib). The final stage was to write the track list on the inlay card and, if you were feeling particularly adventurous, design some cover art. This could be drawn by hand, or (if you were like me and terrible at drawing) you could raid the magazine rack and go for it with a pair of scissors and glue and create a form of mini collage.

So there we have it. I, for one, really miss cassettes. Having dragged my old ones out and blown the dust off them to write this piece I’m very tempted to create a mixtape right this minute. Ok, now where did I put my tape deck?

 

Leon Wilson

 

The Guitar Solo: More Than (Just) A Feeling

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Guitar solos. Form of artistic self expression taking things to new heights with a melodic interpretation of the essence of the song or self-obsessed fretboard wankery?

Well, it depends really. For every Steve Vai inspired million-notes-a-second widdle fest there can be a heartfelt, beautifully structured guitar solo which encapsulates the song in a matter of 8 bars.

As with most things, it’s all about the song and what the song requires. I can’t deny I’m partial to a bit of Hotel California by The Eagles or Freebird by Lynryd Skynyrd. With these songs you know what you’re getting ie. 70’s West Coast Country Rock or Deep South Boogie Rock. Either way, you know that the overblown guitar duelling is de rigueur for the situation and you can sit back, relax and enjoy the unashamed pomposity of the performances.

People like the big guitar solos and they also like to hear the solos as they know them on the records. I know this only too well from my experience, in a former life, as a lead guitarist in a band. While it was good to learn these well known solos as a form of musical education, I did feel rather tied down by having to perform them note for note. In fact, at one point I got so sick of doing Stairway to Heaven I announced before one 6th form gig (it may even have been the pyrotechnic debacle gig as mentioned in a previous blog…) that I would not be playing it. I still have the 100+ named petition to make me change my mind.

There are loads of ‘Top 100 Guitar Solos’ lists out there with all the same songs on there. While I can’t deny Allman and Clapton’s efforts on Layla and Eddie Van Halen’s tour de force on Micheal Jackson’s Beat It aren’t good solos, I wanted to go off the beaten track a little. So here are 3 of my favourite solos which would probably struggle to make any of the usual lists.

Cinnamon Girl – Neil Young and Crazy Horse

As this classic Neil Young song comes out of the middle eight propelled towards an impending solo with the words ‘you see your baby loves to dance, yeah, yeah, yeah…’ old Shakey raises a middle finger to convention and delivers an ecstatic one note solo. The simple question is this: a million notes with no feeling or one note with all your heart and soul poured into it?

Coffee and TV – Blur

Graham Coxon is one of the most underrated and inventive guitarists of our time (he also spent his childhood a stone’s throw from here and still supports Derby County). The song pootles along nicely for the first few minutes until the guitar break. It’s almost an anti-solo with Coxon wringing dischordant squeals on the edge of feedback from the neck of his Fender. Perfect.

Just – Radiohead

The ‘solo’, as such, doesn’t actually appear until the end, but the use of guitars all the way through is a thing of beauty. A wonderfully deceptive intro on the acoustic guitar gives way to Jonny Greenwood’s searing, ascending octaves. Things settle down somewhat as the verses and choruses follow, but the whole thing builds into a frenzy of mashed guitar and angst. There’s another brief respite near the end as a couple of hung dominant seventh chords let the dust momentarily settle, before Greenwood launches into a final blistering attack on the senses. Oh, and the video is the best video ever made. No argument.

 

Leon Wilson