Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Walter Becker

There have been lots of eloquent tributes to Walter Becker, but these are a few random personal thoughts.

I've mentioned before how I came by some of my early music choices, none have stayed with me as consistently as Steely Dan. I joined the party with 'Aja' which arrived for Christmas 1977. It opened up new possibilities in music for me. From there I explored backwards and found riches that have lasted me a lifetime.

The guitar solo on "Home At Last" grabbed me early on, but because of the obtuse way credits were handed out didn't know had played it for some time. Of course at age 14 I didn't appreciate the finer points of Becker and Fagen's humour, so the liner notes were lost on me.

I came to recognise and appreciate Walter's guitar work, he had a clear bluesy tone as biting as his sarcasm. He is as has been observed many times in the last few days a greatly undervalued player, the equal of the high calibre names that pepper Steely Dan albums. I saw them live at Wembley in 1996 and his relaxed demeanour on stage remains the epitome of cool, leaning back into a solo on one of his understated Sadowsky guitars.

Oddly one of the best showcases for his guitar playing is on Donald Fagen's 'Kamakiriad' where he played pretty much all the guitar & bass (apparently because it was easier to do it himself as he was on board anyway as producer). Listen to "Countermoon", "Springtime" and "Tomorrows Girls" for Becker at his best.  His own solo albums showed that it was Becker who put the nip in Steely Dan's lyrics, try "Cringemaker" and "Lucky Henry" on '11 Tracks of Whack'.

Donald Fagen's promise to continue as Steely Dan is a bit questionable for me. Walter Becker was every bit as much Steely Dan as he is, without him it is just the Donald Fagen band. You Tube video's from earlier this year show an ill looking man so he may have dropped out of touring anyway. Fagen's voice is not what it was so perhaps time to retire the band with dignity.

My top Becker tunes.
Hey Nineteen from Gaucho. One of the best Becker bass lines, meshing with the drums (Wendell or Steve Gadd? Who knows)
Book Of Liars from Alive in America, his best solo tune and proof he should have sung more
Jack Of Speed, heard on tour in 1996, better than the version on Two Against Nature
Glamour Profession from Gaucho, the essence of Steely Dan distilled into 7 minutes.
Home At Last from Aja, one of their best and they knew it from the comments on the Aja sleevenotes
Shame About Me and Cousin Dupree from Two Against Nature, great lyrics

and too many more to mention...

The best tributes to Walter Becker

From his daughter Sayan
From Rickie Lee Jones
From John Beasley


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Covers In Company


This months RnR Magazine features Lulu on the cover. She's an artist I haven't given much Pod space to until now, which is strange as I'm definitely a fan of her French equivalent France Gall. I did however get her latest 'Making Life Rhyme' on the strength of the videos at her website. Prompted by the article I invested in The Atco Sessions, her go at a Dusty in Memphis, which brought forth two albums at the time and a whole raft of out takes available now. It's good, her voice suits the Muscle Shoals backing and Duane Allman pops up on guitar.

Then I spotted her duets album from 2002 predictably called "Together". There seems to have been a vogue for this sort of thing in recent years but for every Linda Ronstadt "Duets" there are a dozen by artists, whose star is not what it once was, dragging in friends, acquaintances or names from the phone book to perform a list of random covers to stick on the racks in Tesco. Lulu's is hardly the worst of the genre but as she started me thinking about it...

In the credits list Elton John & his partner get fulsome thanks, his duet on Womack & Womack's "Teardrops" leads off the album and is far and away the best production job. The fact that he and Lulu share a label may explain the leg up given to this song. Most of the tracks appear to have been recorded by the team of whoever is buddying up to Lulu on that song with Lulu's vocal sellotaped on top later on. This may explain the mess on tracks two & three. "Shame, Shame, Shame" should be an ideal disco stomper for her to rival Relight My Fire (which closes the album, despite being 10 years old then) but in the hands of Atomic Kitten's producers turns into a twee, affected piece of pop drivel. As for "Inside Thing (Let 'Em In)", I hope this was just a sample of McCartney's original (certainly sounds like it) as it may be the worst thing to bear the name of any Beatle, and no I haven't forgotten "The Frog Chorus".

There are some good song choices "Sail On Sailor" with Sting is creditable, "Now That The Magic Has Gone" with Joe Cocker, but by and large there is little of Lulu on what is after all her album. The whole thing has a hollow feel to it. Elton John is executive producer and it does have the feel of him ringing around a few people to see what spare songs they had which Lulu could be added to.

This album will find its way straight back to the charity shop. If you want to catch up with Lulu I suggest the albums recommended above and her 2003 Greatest Hits which has the three best songs from "Together" along with the hits and a DVD which includes performances of some of the "Together" songs from the ITV "An Audience with..." TV show that tied in with the album.


Next time, or soonish at any rate, I will talk Podcasts, any suggestions of good podcasts on any subject would be great.



Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Dark Side

This started out as an Artist Choice about Steely Dan. I will get to that soon but for now I've been diverted by the vexed subject of Bootlegs.

A year or so ago I wrote to Shindig Magazine about the fact that they reviewed so many live albums that were defacto Bootlegs. I was letter of the month and there were some furious replies from fans who had to possess every note ever uttered by their heroes, seemingly regardless of whether their heroes got paid or not.

Robert Fripp has some decided views on Bootlegging which I read around 1979. The thought that "it's rather like taking notes of a personal conversation to circulate or publish later" stuck. This remember was written many years before the mobile phone became a fixture at shows; "This is a peculiar custom that one should listen to music through the lens of a camera and I don't like being put in a situation where the sound, the atmosphere is being punctured by theft". The above comes from an article that appeared in Musician magazine, Bootlegging, Royalties and the Moment, find it online.

So the connection to Steely Dan? They have despite much touring in the last 20 years or so released only one highly unsatisfactory live album "Alive in America" in 1995. At least a dozen high quality recordings that sound as professionally produced as the official disc circulate online, and some, notably a recording from Missouri in 1993 get pressed up and sold as legitimate product. Often claimed as a radio show, online samples reveal a soundboard feed with prominent vocals & next to no keyboards or bass. There is also a set of pre Steely Dan demos that are currently available on Amazon as 25 different releases.

Why is this a problem? Donald Fagen has been vocal recently about the fact that there is no income from his old albums any more. While I suspect he protests too much (at least slightly) with a new vinyl edition of The Nightfly coming out and Steely Dan albums doing as well as or better than many other artists of a similar vintage; the fact that there are legitimate outlets, like Amazon, iTunes and eMusic selling fraudulent material in his name without the courtesy of paying him, or indeed the currently ill & unable to tour Walter Becker is doubtless galling.

One possible answer of course would be to release some of the hoard of live tapes and unreleased material himself. In the day of the super deluxe edition he is clearly missing out on a revenue stream. So Bootlegs are bad but Donald think before you whinge.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Why I'm giving up on eMusic


I joined eMusic in 2005. If you don't know eMusic it is a subscription based music download service. The content is sourced mainly from independent labels,with a lot of catalogue secured, until recently, through The Orchard & CD Baby.

In my Linkedin articles recently I have been looking at the way companies disregard their customer base leading to loss of said customer & ultimately the business. eMusic make a great object lesson in what not to do, so here are some of the ways that a once great service has been brought down, and left me and many others throwing up our hands and saying "ENOUGH".


Play Pass The Parcel With Your Business.

 eMusic was launched in 1995, that's four years before iTunes. Since then it has been variously owned by its founders, Vivendi (French media company), JDS Capital Management (venture capital), and was most recently acquired in 2015 by TriPlay an Israeli cloud computing company. Each time senior management was changed and from the number of people listing eMusic as a past company on Linkedin, staff left in droves after each takeover. The upshot of this of course was a lack of expertise, continuity or direction in the business leading to...


Frequent Changes in Business Model and Direction

Or, how to confuse your customers. With content rooted solidly in independent music and strong catalogues in Classical, New Age and other niche areas eMusic had a great USP, something that allowed it to stand apart from the fights between iTunes and the big labels. Then in 2009 the majors, Sony, then Warners and Universal crept onto the site, in the USA at least. The then CEO however stated in The New York Times "the future of eMusic, like its past, is in pursuing not the fickle mainstream but the passionate fringe". The U.K. store stayed with the independents, presumably due to rights issues.Then in 2014 the major labels disappeared again. There was a renewed commitment to the independent arena. With new owners came another shift to sourcing catalogue from 7Digital, meaning that on the site's relaunch in May 2017 much of the content disappeared, again presumably due to rights issues. Each relaunch was of course accompanied by new branding. An image search on Google brings up 9 different logos.

Something to Tempt The Buyer...

7Digital don't appear to distribute a number of the best known independent labels, Warp & Eagle Rock have gone completely and Rough Trade have only 27 albums on the site for instance. There are no meaningful new releases, oh there is new music every week, mostly obscure compilations, bootleg live albums and out of copyright jazz and classical. The customers want the new releases they hear on the radio and read about online or in the magazines, and which were always on the old version of eMusic. For me notable absences are the latest Public Service Braodcasting album (they have everything else from them so why not this?) and the new Peter Perrett album which they are advertising but, at least in the U.K. is not available to buy. I could go on, other customers are on the Emusers forum. One of my main labels of interest Frontiers (Italian based so no U.S.rights clashes I guess) is still adding new content so it can be done.


Ignore The Customers And Hope They Go Away 

The @emusichelps Twitter has been silent since 9th May. the main @emusic one posts a couple of hopeful items per month and the old noticeboard died with its website. The main means of communication is through a Reddit page meaning that the posts about poor customer service, disappearing content and departing customers are hidden away, out of sight, out of mind. The new website looks ok and does fix a few problems from the old one, but is very hard to navigate, and searching for anything specific is now a lot harder, assuming you can find anything in the first place. Oh and integration to iTunes has gone as well.


There may be legitimate reasons for the problems, new websites have issues I recognise that, but if eMusic are working away in the background to solve the problems, they aren't telling the customers. And they need to; soon, while they still have a business. If they aren't doing anything because the switch to 7Digital's platform has fundamentally broken the business, then own up to it, and start fixing it.

The obvious take away from all this is that this weeks owners neither understand or care about their customer base. The community aspect of eMusic expressed through various forums was one of its strengths. The fact that it appealed to the music obsessive (me!) who wanted to dig into the site and find long forgotten albums and new obscurities was another. The decision to move to 7Digital was clearly made on a cost basis and seems to sum up the whole "relaunch". It won't do eMusic, It won't do.


Postscript

I have just been sent a user satisfaction survey by email. You can guess how it went, but the concerning thing is that the headline "we are thinking about doing this" items were Hi Res audio (good), major label content (see above), and connectivity to smart watches, TVs and car radios. There's something about fiddling while Rome burns here I feel...

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Aliens ate my blog post

It's taken me ages to get this post written as new information came up and new cds arrived. So this may get amended in time...

Back in 1979 I was dozing in front of The Old Grey Whistle Test when up popped a new band, Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club. This is best version I can find on You Tube at the moment...

The thing that attracted me was the keyboards, a young kid hiding behind a stack of synths, producing piercing solos and textures different to anything else about at the time. They appeared on Radio 1 In Concert a few weeks later (I wish I still had that tape) and I was a fan. I bought the album "English Garden", was initially mildly disappointed by the "pop" production, and that following another single "Trouble Is" was that.

I heard "Europa & the Pirate Twins" by Thomas Dolby and joined the dots. Windpower followed and the album 'Golden Age of Wireless'. As usual I followed him off and on for the next few years up to his single with Sakamoto, "FieldWork", still one of my favourites by either artist. 


I have just been listening to the Audiobook of Thomas Dolby's Speed Of Sound and now know the goings on behind that music. I'll explore the business aspects of Dolby's relationship with the music and I.T. industries elsewhere, but the book paints a picture of an artist whose life influences his art perhaps more overtly than others. The 'Aliens Ate My Buick' album was a sharp change of direction, a move to the USA, marriage and work with George Clinton brought out a more upbeat funky feel, although the lasting song from the album for me is the more atmospheric 'Budapest By Blimp'. Listen to Jazz singer Claire Martin's version of "Key To Your Ferrari", proof that Dolby's main skill is as a songwriter.

I missed 'Astronauts & Heretics' but will explore it now having read about it in his book and listened to "The Beauty of a Dream". Read his tale of dragging a contribution out of Jerry Garcia before you hear the song.

Included at the end of the Audiobook of Speed Of Sound is Oceanea from his most recent album 'Map Of The Floating City. I knew of the album/game concept but the music was a surprise. Burning Shed have the 2CD version in stock. Mine arrived as I was writing this, and on first listen* the rest of the album is up to the standard of Oceanea. The package is nice as well, the map has all sorts of nuggets for the Dolby fan to spot, in fact it now seems that he has been building a whole world all these years, even down to the landlocked boat for a recording studio. I wonder if he has read J.G.Ballard?

 I would recommend the Audiobook version of The Speed of Sound as Dolby's narration gives it a personal feel that enhances the story. Any or all of his albums are worth exploring, if you get his "comeback" live album 'The Sole Inhabitant' get the DVD for the between song chat and anecdotes. His instrument set up including bits of 1920's radios is also interesting, at least it was to me...

I wasn't aware of how personal many of his lyrics were, the "fun" nature of his early music masked that aspect of his work, but I am listening with new understanding to all his albums and enjoying the more introspective work on Astronauts & Heretics and Map.... Take some time to read or listen to his book and find new depths in his music as I have.

 * after a couple more listens Oceanea, & Spice Train are favourites but To The Lifeboats is creeping up fast. You need to see the video of "The Toad Lickers" too, bizarre to almost Douglas Adams standards.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

One Of A Kind

Sid Smith has been talking about Bill Bruford's solo band from 1979 -80 on Twitter which got me thinking about them as well...

I came across Bill Bruford as part of U.K., although I didn't listen to them then. I may have mentioned before that I am very much of the curating style of music fan and I like to keep track of people so when two of U.K. turned up on Rock Goes To College sometime later I paid attention. Bill's clanging Roto Tom based drum sound was new to me, and they all seemed to be doing something slightly different with the sound of their instruments. Then I found the album 'One of a Kind' in a cut out bin for £1.99.

First track "Hell's Bells" still sounds like it's from another place, Holdsworth's opening solo with it's yawing vibrato and and the simple 11 note keyboard riff that repeats through the song set the tone for the rest of the album. One of my favourites has always been "The Abingdon Chasp", an Allan Holdsworth piece that was probably the first time I had heard bass guitar taking the lead in stating the theme of the piece, and to my mind is far more impressive than the slap bass solo at the start of 5G. For me the simplicity of the tunes allow the soloing space to expand to fill the gaps. Holdsworth complained in a magazine article that he hadn't been allowed to do much more than solo with U.K. and while Bruford were better he was still wheeled onto the mix to add flash rather than be integrated into the piece.

There had been an earlier album, with the same band 'Feels Good To Me', but the writing on 'One of A Kind had matured so far from this that it is odd that the Rock Goes to College show concentrates on it so much. There is a bootleg of the whole show that also features "Hell's Bells" and the two parts of "One Of A Kind", if anything Holdsworth's solo on the former is even more impressive than on record. Apparently it was the band's first gig.

In his autobiography Bill describes the trials of running the band, bringing bassist Jeff Berlin over from the US and carting Hammond Organs around, which explains Neil Murray's appearance on this OGWT segment promoting Feels Good To Me



I saw them play in Bath (The Pavilion?) in early 1980 supporting Brand X, who I hadn't learned to love yet. I was there for Bruford who were promoting their new album "Gradually Going Tornado". John Clark (the unknown John Clark) was doing a passable impression of AH and it turns out was his student. The band was good but to my recollection sounded like it was running out of steam. Not the band I had heard on TV the year before. Listening later to "The Bruford Tapes" a release of a radio show in New York reinforced this view of the Bath show. 

That third album with John Clark replacing Holdsworth and more vocals isn't one I listen to often, for me the high point of this band was 'One Of A Kind'. The writing, playing and arranging all aligned in perfect combination and is one of the highlights of improvised rock or jazz rock fusion. I still listen to it regularly and find it as fresh as in 1979.

I saw John Clark again about 5 years later when I was dragged to a Cliff Richard concert by my partner, and there he was adding Holdsworth style solos to "Wired For Sound" and "Bachelor Boy". Dave Stewart cropped up on Top Of The Pops with Barbara Gaskin, Jeff Berlin wandered off into the darker reaches of Fusion, and I next saw Bill Bruford at Moles Club, Bath in 1981 with a band called Discipline who shortly after became the next iteration of King Crimson. My remembrances of Allan Holdsworth are here.

For a view from the trenches of life in music from the 70s to the new century I unreservedly recommend Bill Bruford's autobiography. The fact that he has played on so much of my favourite music and played with people who I like may influence that view. He has some interesting opinions on the business of music as well.

There is a great acoustic version of One Of a Kind rounding off the Earthworks album 'Random Acts of Happiness' which I almost love more than the original.

Buy Bill Bruford's music at Burning Shed 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Reading Matter


I have always been a big fan of music magazines. Back in the beginning there was Sounds which always had a wider range of music than NME. NME was always a bit intimidating, out in Keynsham we never felt quite cool enough for it. Sounds spoke to the kids in out of the way places, like Keynsham!

About 1978 there was a short lived glossy magazine called, Rock On. This was what would today be called a legacy magazine (Mojo, Classic Rock) and had articles on the history of bands like Pink Floyd, Status Quo and Fleetwood Mac, with reviews and posters. Terrible writing and worse editing (I know now) but for the information starved teenage budding rock fan, absolute gold.

Later on there were sneaky reads of my sister's Smash Hits and buying Sounds International and Musician, but until Q, started up in the mid eighties there was a drought so far as informative magazines were concerned.

Recently I read Mark Ellen's memoir of his magazine days "Rock Stars Stole My Life!" A great read (or listen; I did the Audiobook), which tells you a lot about the business of music writing as well as the gossip. He tells of leaving Mojo when the corporate world became too much and the life and death of The Word, a magazine I read from first to last issues and loved for the quality of it's writing and depth of knowledge. In fact my reading journey seems to have followed Ellen, Smash Hits, Q, Select, Mojo, The Word...

So today following the collapse of Team Rock at the end of 2016, the general decline in readership and the advertising revenue that supports it, we have the general reads like Q, the legacy mags, Mojo, Classic Rock etc forever looking over their shoulders, and increasingly niche publications aimed at ever tighter segments of the market. Country, Prog, Blues all have their own, and now Planet Rock Radio have started a new competitor to Classic Rock. The downside is that the really good niche rock papers, Fireworks and Powerplay will likely lose sales to it as well. As both these but particularly  Firworks are written with care, knowledge and an understanding of the reader's expectations they need to survive, if nothing else to ensure we aren't just fed magazines that are aimed more
at the needs of advertising than written for the music fan.

What do I read currently?

Fireworks, AOR, Hard Rock, increasingly drifting into other related areas. If this is your thing buy it.
Mojo If it has something on the cover that interests me (about twice a year)
Uncut Ditto
Shindig Back when it was quarterly it was a brilliant on 60s, 70s and obscurities that you had to rush out and listen to, now Monthly there has been a slip in quality. The recent article on Be Bop Deluxe was such a car crash that I haven't been back, although when something interesting appears on the cover I will doubtless buy it. Reviews section always has something good in it.
JazzWise best Jazz magazine by far.

Online magazines are getting better all the time, I like Louder Than War and Paste

And then there are Blogs, but that's another kettle of worms altogether...