Book Review: Pat Metheny (The ECM Years 1975-1984) by Mervyn Cooke

You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo. Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.

If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.

Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn. It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.

There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews. Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.

Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.

Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X. Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one, below. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)

Mervyn Cooke’s ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ is published by Oxford University Press.

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Book Review: Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

There aren’t many titles in the ‘complete studio sessions’ pop library. Mark Lewisohn and others have done sterling work in this area on the Beatles, and Elvis’s career has been similarly scrutinised. But the relative lack of material begs the question – do we really want to know everything about our icons’ recording histories?

When it comes to Prince, the answer may be a resounding yes, since his mystique is so bound up with his status as a master multi-instrumentalist, famously with hundreds of unreleased songs in the studio vaults.

So such a book was probably only a matter of time, but fair play to Duane Tudahl for ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, a mainly fascinating day-to-day diary of Prince’s studio work (at LA’s Sunset Sound and various facilities and warehouses around Minneapolis) when he was recording the songs that made up Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and key side projects with Sheila E, Jill Jones, Stevie Nicks, The Time and The Family.

The first half of the book is fascinating for three reasons – it outlines the vengeful decline of one band (The Time) and the adrenalized formation of two others (The Revolution and The Family), though you have to be a major fan of the former to enjoy these sections. It also captures Prince at a crucial juncture in his career, when he was going from mid-table journeyman to title contender.

What comes across loud and clear in the second half is the relentless forward motion of Prince’s creative drive – for example, just a week before the start of his Purple Rain tour, he was completing work on both the Around The World In A Day and The Family albums! We also get a real sense of his famously-short attention span – he curtailed the Purple Rain tour at its absolute peak, bored of the material after only six months.

But the bane of the book is repetition. Too many calendar days are similar –  there’s only so much you can say about two weeks of ‘Baby I’m A Star’ overdubs. In Tudahl’s need to flesh out sometimes fairly uneventful studio days, he uses variations on very similar quotes.

But he also gets some great interview material from almost all of the major players, and there are plenty of revelations and interesting theories – he reveals that ‘When Doves Cry’ was written on Tuesday 1st March 1984, two days after Prince lost two Grammy awards to Michael Jackson. Did this double setback prompt some fairly uncharacteristic introspection, spawning his biggest hit?

Prince is also revealed as a major Springsteen fan, bringing the saxophone sound into his music mainly due to Clarence Clemons’ playing with The Boss. Then there’s his little-known charity work, including a touching photo of a gig at a Minneapolis deaf school, and we also get an insight into his fear before the first night of the Purple Rain tour.

There are also interesting comments about Prince’s business deals – Wendy Melvoin: ‘Collaboration with Prince was a reality, but it didn’t pay the bills.’ Her sister Susannah goes as far as to say that Prince would test people’s loyalty by paying terrible money. These are tantalising – if troubling – morsels, never fully explored by Tudahl.

But he gets closer than most to revealing the true Prince, warts and all. Spoiler alert: some of it isn’t pretty. ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’ is a major achievement and a real labour of love. The years of research have certainly paid off. It’s a vital buy for hardcore Prince fans, but arguably only the second best book on the Minneapolis master – just pipped at the post by Per Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The First Decade’.

‘Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions’ by Duane Tudahl is published by Rowman & Littlefield

Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.

 

Book Review: Siren Song by Seymour Stein

One thing you could never say about the man born Seymour Steinbigle is that he’s led a dull life. And his new autobiography ‘Siren Song’ is anything but a dull book.

Born in a down-at-heel corner of Brooklyn, he did his time at Billboard, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB and Studio 54 and either discovered or nurtured Madonna, Talking Heads, k.d. lang (who calls him ‘the man with the golden ears’), Ramones, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Ice-T, Soft Cell, Squeeze, The Smiths, The Cult (by now you’ll be gleaning that he’s somewhat of an Anglophile), Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, all via his imprint Sire Records (which he co-founded with Richard Gottehrer).

So far, so common Rock Snob knowledge. And there’s no question that ‘Siren Song’ is a great resource for those who want to know about the making of and/or music-biz machinations behind some of the great modern pop/rock albums: Fear Of Music, Like A Virgin (complete with fascinating gossip about Nile Rodgers’ business dealings), My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, The Queen Is Dead, Ramones, New York. 

And then there are the fascinating tales of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed, visiting Talking Heads’ weird Long Island City loft and stalking Jethro Tull. He also writes superbly about the early ’80s music scene, when electro, hip-hop, Afro-beat, indie, new wave, reggae and post-disco combined to produce arguably the greatest ever pop period.

But two aspects separate ‘Siren Song’ from other similar tomes: Stein’s sheer love of music and his penchant for a pithy – but seldom tawdry – one-liner. On his lack of musical knowledge: ‘It’s usually better not to know the disgusting secrets of how the sausage got made.’ On David Byrne’s quirkiness: ‘He was someone I’d always support even if he wanted to make a concept album about toothpicks.’ On seeing Depeche Mode live for the first time: ‘They were four kids poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs.’ On the future of music: ‘Labels will always be needed, because only maniacs like me are insane enough to roam the globe, trawling through miles and miles of sh*t to just every now and then pick out a tiny diamond.’

Stein writes powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the ramifications of being a gay man living a ‘straight’ life in the ’70s and ’80s (he had a wife and two daughters during the period). He superbly explains the timeless appeal of English guitar bands to Americans. The prologue is also a classic, describing what it means to love music and the joys, perils and sacrifices involved (especially if you’re coming from a working-class family) with seeking a career in A&R (artist and repertoire, or, in Stein-speak, people and songs).

‘Siren Songs’ is an unexpected gem and highly recommended.

Siren Song’ by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy is published by St Martin’s Press.

Book Review: The Invisible Man (The Story Of Rod Temperton) by Jed Pitman

How many British songwriters have made their living exclusively in soul/funk/R’n’B? If you can come up with more than one name, you’re doing pretty well…

It shows just how singular and important Rod Temperton’s career was until cut short by his death in 2016. Though never ‘flavour of the month’ (i.e. not ‘rock’), he has to be in the pantheon of great songwriters, Brit or otherwise.

Jed Pitman is first out of the traps with a biography of the Cleethorpes-born melody maestro who came out of the somewhat unprepossessing mid-’70s Midlands soul scene to somehow write (or co-write) ‘Thriller’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘The Dude’, ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, ‘Ya Mo Be There’, ‘Love X Love’, ‘Always And Forever’, ‘The Lady In My Life’, ‘Razzamatazz’ and ‘Boogie Nights’.

Pitman’s book evolved from a BBC radio programme and as such does at times feel somewhat like a transcription, with lots of verbatim interview material but fairly limited authorial insight. But that’s nitpicking when one considers his interviewees: Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Michael McDonald, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Bruce Swedien. The only major absentee seems to be Michael Jackson.

It has to be said, the constant theme of these interviews is: I can’t believe Rod wasn’t black. But once he’s got over that elephant in the room, Pitman builds up a more vivid picture of this rather geeky guy writing his funky, hook-laden tunes on a cheap keyboard in the weird town of Worms, Germany.

The groundbreaking disco/funk band Heatwave were of course the first recipients of his signature tunes, but the book’s great success is forging a line through all of Temperton’s work, identifying common traits and signposts. All those little synth and vocal motifs were clearly planned well in advance – it’s also clear that he worked from the bassline up. And what fabulous, much-sampled basslines they were. Even Public Enemy nicked from Heatwave’s brilliant ‘The Groove Line’ for their ‘Sophisticated B**ch‘.

The other really pleasing aspect of ‘The Invisible Man’ is discovering some of the more obscure avenues of Temperton’s career – collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Bob James, ‘The Color Purple’ soundtrack, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ theme music. The book also places a lot more emphasis on his arranging work than is commonly known.

But we never quite work out what makes Temperton tick musically. Who were his main influences? The anecdotes seldom go beyond: ‘He was the real deal’. And Pitman rather glosses over the leaner last 20 years of his career – it would have been interesting to find out more about his view on the more technology-led/minimalist R’n’B of recent years.

But on the whole this is an extremely readable, valuable book, and the world is a better place for it. It certainly had me scurrying to various streaming services to check out everything in Rod’s illustrious songbook. The Heatwave albums, in particular, have been a revelation. (Incidentally, the cover of ‘The Invisible Man’ is pretty ghastly but apparently a very accurate portrayal – almost every interviewee speaks of his obsession with the cigs…)

‘The Invisible Man’ is published now by The History Press.

Book Review: Uncharted (Creativity And The Expert Drummer) by Bill Bruford

Recently, for work, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Paddy Spinks, the man charged with keeping King Crimson together in the 1980s. Chatting about that mighty musical unit recently, he said that Bill Bruford had been the ‘natural showman’ of the band.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Bruford’s words about the latter part of his distinguished drumming career in the introduction to fascinating new book ‘Uncharted’: ‘I dreaded performance to the point where…I was unable to function meaningfully. Performance had become incomprehensibly difficult and insuperably so.’

‘Uncharted’ is Bruford’s detailed voyage through the psychology of performance, performance anxiety and drumming creativity. He sets out his objectives clearly: ‘I want to suggest some answers to some fundamental questions about drummers. What do we do and why do we do it? Is there anything creative about it? What are drummers for, if not to be creative?’

He provides some answers himself and also garners opinions from a variety of respected players including Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Kate Bush, Steely Dan), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and Cindy Blackman-Santana.

‘Uncharted’ is most assuredly an academic book, the fruits of a University of Surrey PhD, so it probably won’t surprise any Bruford fans to learn that it features no drummer jokes. But it’s never less than gripping, with fascinating titbits dropped in here and there about a distinguished career in music.

The book shines a light on the current state of the recording world, with pithy comments about the rise of the ‘bedroom’ musician and ‘stay-at-home’ drummer sending in his/her parts via email or Skype. Bruford laments the lessening of time that bands spend together in the rehearsal room these days, often due to financial constraints, rightly commenting that music as complex and nuanced as Yes or King Crimson could only have been produced via lengthy band ‘woodshedding’ sessions.

There are striking observations on the merits or otherwise of ‘playing to your audience’, especially from Erskine: ‘I don’t really give a f**k about the audience. You can quote me on that!’, and also a couple of amusingly barbed Bruford comments about playing double drums with another of the UK’s greatest players. Hint, hint…

Despite its occasional longeurs, ‘Uncharted’ is a fascinating, forensic look at creativity and collaboration, with reverberations that go far beyond the world of music.

‘Uncharted: Creativity And The Expert Drummer’ is published by the University Of Michigan Press.