Marillion: Seasons End 30 Years On


Prog fans – perhaps understandably – are not generally known for their benevolence when a favourite band undergoes a personnel change.

Steve Howe has talked publicly about the poor reception Trevor Horn received when the latter made his debut as Yes’s new vocalist during their North American tour of 1980. Phil Collins still believes some Genesis fans were convinced he was scheming to take Peter Gabriel’s place as the band’s singer.

But Marillion fans seem a far more amiable bunch. When Steve Hogarth was installed as their new frontman in 1989, he seems to have been welcomed pretty much with open arms (if this superb televised gig from only his second UK tour is anything to go by).

Seasons End, (no apostrophe?), released 30 years ago this week, was a weirdly assured debut from Hogarth and easily this writer’s favourite Marillion album (1989 was a bit of a Year Zero for me in terms of the band, the Fish era barely appearing on my radar). Hogarth’s melodies are fresh and exciting and his vocals always strong.

It helped of course that Hogarth was a triple threat, a proven singer/songwriter with mid-’80s bands The Europeans and How We Live (though he was apparently eyeing a job as a milkman when the latter wound down in early 1988) and possessing some decent keyboard chops.

His natural magnetism as a frontman didn’t hurt too, and he even brought a few gimmicks to the party, like the magic gloves and musical cricket bat (a tribute to Ian Faith? Ed.).

So how does Seasons End stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Easter’ (UK #34), ‘The Uninvited Guest’ (UK #53) and ‘Hooks In You’ (UK #30) were distinctive, well-arranged and featured soaring guitar playing from Steve Rothery. Ian Mosley is that rare rock drummer, solid but expressive, and capable of great subtlety. Keyboardist Mark Kelly had become a superb builder of atmospheres and textures too, as demonstrated on the Steve Reich-esque second half of the title track, ‘Holloway Girl’ and ‘The Space’.

Marillion, Genesis and It Bites were flying the UK prog/pop flag at this point, and their late-’80s careers make for interesting comparison. As for Seasons End, it did very nicely, touching down at #7 in the UK album chart and ensuring a long, fruitful career for the band’s new line-up. Good guys, good record.

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.

Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock?

Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage.

Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he was offered a ‘vanity’ record deal during some Pink Floyd off-time. He didn’t have any particular plans, so asked esteemed jazz arranger/keyboardist Carla Bley if she could help out.

She had some songs prepared that she’d written for her punk band Penny Cillin And The Burning Sensations. Mason and Bley managed to quickly gather a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) and record in Bley’s basement (Mason also apparently wanted Yul Brynner to be the singer, but he turned it down…).

It all led to his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981. It’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery and a few general pokes at minimalism.

And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even an odd Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River’). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections.

But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career, and a great set for Robert Wyatt completists.

Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White.

Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

There are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless, sequel to 90215.

But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job.

But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them.

Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire.

White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin.

The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship.

Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is…

King Crimson’s Beat: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 18th June 1982

UK Album Chart position: #39

9/10

If you were to ask fans of 1980s King Crimson why they love the band, lyrics probably wouldn’t be a priority.

But, pushed hard by Robert Fripp and possibly influenced by the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Adrian Belew came up with some choice words on Beat, the excellent second album from this remarkable quartet.

References to the Beat writers abound; ‘Neal and Jack and Me’ concerns Kerouac and his best friend Neal Cassady and mentions several significant Kerouac works; ‘Heartbeat’ is the name of a book written by Cassady’s wife Carolyn about her experiences with the Beats; ‘Sartori In Tangier’ references the Moroccan city where a number of Beats resided; ‘Neurotica’ shares its title with a very influential Beat-era magazine, and presumably ‘The Howler’ refers to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

As the saying goes, you take inspiration where you find it, and Belew had come up with a very handy concept on which to hang the new band improvisations.

Musically, Beat is a brilliant development of the Discipline sound. ‘Neurotica’ and ‘The Howler’ feature some remarkable, unhinged ensemble playing, teetering on total chaos.

On the latter, Bill Bruford delivers intricate patterns on his acoustic/electric kit (with shades of Steve Reich, acknowledged with Bruford’s credit for ‘Drumming’) while Belew’s white-noise guitar outburst is a killer (he repeats the trick on ‘Waiting Man’ and ‘Neal’, extending his palette of sounds from Discipline and sometimes using a new tuning system with the high E string tuned down to a C).

‘Sartori’ is a superb vehicle for Fripp while ‘Waiting Man’ demonstrates the amazing rhythm dexterity of the band, a development of the ‘Village Music’ concept with Bruford and Tony Levin sharing a tricky 3/4 figure (joined by Belew on drums when they played it live) underneath an expressive vocal performance.

There’s even a noble, painless attempt at a pop hit with ‘Heartbeat’. The only track that outstays its welcome is ‘Requiem’, a fairly dreary investigation of A-minor.

In short, the musical intelligence of this unit was pretty damn scary. But they never neglected a crucial factor: melody. Lesser bands might have built their entire careers on any Beat song.

Not surprisingly, tensions were high during the London recording sessions. Echoing the situation with The Police around the same time, they sought out a producer who might act as peacemaker.

Fripp told writer Anthony DeCurtis in 1984: ‘We tried to get someone from the outside to organise it: Rhett Davies. I think if failed. I would rather have the wrong judgement of a member of the band than the right judgement of someone outside the band.’

Also, Belew was now very much the centre of attention and under pressure to produce melodies and lyrics to order. According to Bruford’s autobiography, Belew told Fripp to leave the studio after one too many barbs from the bespectacled Wimbornian, who ‘went straight back to Dorset and was silent for three days’. Only some desperate calls from Bruford and manager Paddy Spinks rescued the situation.

In the same 1984 interview as above, Fripp said of ’80s Crimson: ‘I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves’. On the evidence of Beat, he did a fine job.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks: 30 Years On

earthworksEditions EG Records, released January 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street, 1987

8/10

Some musicians have a unique touch – you can identify them within a few notes. In Bill Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint.

But he also always had a highly-original composing style before his retirement in 2009, and both are very much in evidence on the excellent Earthworks album.

Bruford had spent the mid-’80s winding down Crimson and duetting with ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, mostly in spontaneous improvisation mode, but now a new musical approach was called for.

He had based his career on defying expectations and he did it again in 1986, forming a quartet made up two young jazz tyros best known for their work in big-band-extraordinaire Loose Tubes (keys man Django Bates and saxist Iain Ballamy) plus acoustic bassist Mick Hutton.

bruford-inside

Bruford chose well: Bates and Ballamy were excellent and prolific composers too. Also key to this new band was Bruford’s development of a very advanced electric/acoustic kit whereby he could play chords and melodic ideas alongside a ‘standard’ jazz setup.

This approach also chimed well with Bates’ propensity on both acoustic piano and synth. On the latter instrument, he was fast becoming almost as recognisable as Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea or George Duke.

All the ingredients add up to one of the key British jazz albums of the ’80s, showcasing a band equally at home playing Weather Report-style fusion, Eastern themes and odd-time prog as they were with ECM-flavoured chamber jazz of the type played by obvious heroes Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.

Ballamy’s opener ‘Thud’ (inspired by the Rosenhan psychology experiment?) almost has a ska feel – if Madness had tried their hand at quirky instrumental jazz/rock, they might come up with something like this.

‘Pressure’ is possibly the album’s standout, a superb mini-suite featuring some classic odd-time Bruford mischief and lyrical piano playing from Bates.

Ballamy’s ballad ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’ still sounds like a jazz-standard-in-waiting to this writer, though its possibly a bit saccharine for some. Bruford unleashes a fine drum solo on ‘My Heart Declares a Holiday’ while Bates’ ‘Emotional Shirt’ veers humourously between an early hip-hop groove and free-jazz freakout. ‘Bridge Of Inhibition’ fuses Turkish modes with high-speed bebop.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art) and stylish packaging, Earthworks was a palpable hit by ‘jazz’ standards, selling well and turning up in several ‘best of 1987’ lists.

Some critics were of course suspicious of Bruford’s jazz credentials, but he probably couldn’t have cared less; he had always considered himself a jazz drummer anyway and knew he was onto a winner with Bates, Ballamy and Hutton.

The latter wouldn’t last beyond this first album, but Earthworks (the band) would continue to make some excellent music throughout the rest of the ’80s and for two decades beyond that. Bruford had successfully defied expectations yet again.

Classic Rock’s 100 Greatest Albums Of The ’80s: First Impressions

_57I’m a sucker for a ‘best albums of the 1980s’ list. Classic Rock magazine have just published their ‘real’ top 100, focusing on under-the-radar records by both well-established and cult artists.

The countdown features a fair few critics’ favourites – Peter Gabriel 3, Lou Reed’s New York, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, The Police’s Synchronicity, Roxy Music’s Avalon. No major surprises there.

Then there are the slightly left-field choices that would possibly scrape into my top 100 too (Living Colour’s Vivid, PiL’s Album, Brian Wilson’s self-titled debut, Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, Genesis’s Duke, Neil Young’s Freedom, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled debut, David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper).

There are the slightly puzzling choices from established artists – Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, Yes’s Drama, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, Van Halen’s Women And Children First, Faith No More’s Introduce Yourself and Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors.

And then there’s a whole raft of albums by artists I’ve long meant to check out. So I gave them a spin. I didn’t make much headway with Dead Kennedys, Billy Squier, Zodiac Mindwarp, John Mellencamp, Gun, Sea Hags, Green On Red, Queensryche, Georgia Satellites, Enuff Z’Nuff and King’s X, but here’s some stuff that did make an impression – very surprisingly, in most cases:

#86: Steve Perry’s Street Talk (1985)

I’ve always respected the Journey man’s voice but was unaware of his solo career until I heard this super-catchy single (whose video even throws in a bit of ‘Spinal Tap’ self-parody).

#84: Michael Bolton’s Everybody’s Crazy (1985)

The sound of Michael McDonald fronting ZZ Top.

#55: Gary Moore’s Corridors Of Power (1984)

Included for the extraordinary first two minutes: scary chops from a guitar great.

#38: Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut (1983)

You’d be hard pressed to call it a great voice but Waters emotes very effectively on this beautifully-produced, evocative album opener.

#24: Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind (1984)

A slinky harmonized riff and absolutely killer guitar solo.

#3: Def Leppard’s High ‘N’ Dry (1981)

One for audiophiles everywhere: producer ‘Mutt’ Lange works his magic again.

I won’t give away the number one…but you can check out the full top 100 albums here.

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset.

But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming.

He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole.

Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood.

By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’

He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa. Hard to argue with that.