Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989
Some time around the late ’80s, I became a bit disillusioned with the major UK music mags (but continued to love Q). Their infinite search for ‘coolness’ coincided with my increasing interest in playing bass and guitar, so I started checking out American mags such as Musician, Guitar World and Guitar Player, as well as Guitarist here in the UK. Their focus seemed to be on the mechanics of/intentions behind making music rather than puking in hotels or haircuts.
I think I first heard guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s name via a Guitar Player cover interview to promote his Secrets album. I hadn’t yet heard a note of his music but his intelligent, exceptionally modest (some would say mordant) approach to playing drew me in, as did his endorsement of sax players (Brecker, Coltrane, Parker) rather than the usual guitar influences. Also he mentioned that he had been working with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, another name that I had heard with relation to Frank Zappa but had never really properly investigated.
By chance, I came upon Secrets a few months later in a bargain bucket. £5.99, if I remember rightly. From the first bar of the opener ‘City Nights’ (a typically nimble salvo around the kit by Vinnie) I was blown away. Holdsworth’s solo is burning, with loads of notes spraying out everywhere, but it’s also totally devoid of clichés. He repeats the trick all over Secrets, with Vinnie and bassist Jimmy Johnson prodding and cajoling him every step of the way.
It’s also refreshing to hear Allan blowing over lots of major chords in ‘Joshua’, the sort of tune which might be a bit soppy in the hands of Metheny or Abercrombie but is transformed into a stunningly fluent series of solos alongside Colaiuta’s brilliantly unhinged accompaniment. ‘Spokes‘ is a nicely arranged vehicle for Allan’s nutty synthaxe playing (and some more Vinnie/Jimmy genius) and, on ‘Endomorph‘, Holdsworth even comes up with a very moving song inspired by the death of his father with some excellent vocals from Craig Copeland.
Though his playing was always brilliant, Allan’s investigations with various types of guitar synthesis had lent some of his improvisations a ‘cheesiness’ earlier in the ’80s leading to a few less-than-essential albums (with the possible exception of ’85’s Metal Fatigue). This is not to say that his other albums aren’t worth checking out, but I’d go back to his work with Bill Bruford and Tony Williams in the ’70s rather than earlier ’80s collections.
But Secrets is the one where technology really caught up with his ingenious concepts. All lead guitarists are on an endless search for tone and Allan seems to have found his ideal one here. It’s smooth yet fiery and he genuinely achieves the ‘sheets-of-sound’ style of improvising that he so admires in his favourite sax players by utilising incredibly wide intervals (for a guitarist) and legato phrasing.
His playing is as instantly recognisable as Wes, Van Halen or Scofield’s. It’s not easy music, though. But, as he lamented in the interview mentioned above, it’s not that difficult and he always wished it was more popular.
Secrets was the first in a trio of superb solo albums (and some sterling sideman work with Chad Wackerman) which continued with Wardenclyffe Tower in ’92 and Hard Hat Area in ’94, all of which are pretty essential listening if you like his vibe.
Within a year of Secrets coming out, I’d seen Allan live whilst at university in London and also checked out his month-long guest spot with Level 42 at Hammersmith Odeon throughout December 1990 (and some brilliant solos on their Guaranteed album). I was becoming a major fan and have been ever since. I’m glad he seems to have got over a bout of illness a year or so ago and is busy on the touring front again. Long may he run.