Archive for March, 2018

Week 9, Part 2: British Folk Rock and Punk Rock?

So last Wednesday, when we covered British folk/rock and progressive rock, we were supposed to have a Skype visit with Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble. Unfortunately, the weather apparently didn’t care about our schedule and it decided to snow and cancel class. Fortunately for us, Judy agreed to reschedule to yesterday, March 28. She would speak with us and then we would talk about “SR 9,” which are songs they had to listen to, write about and discuss. Those songs represent a sampler of glam and punk rock. So that’s why we started out in Britain and ended up at CBGB’s.

We called Judy at the beginning of class and, wow, we had no technical problems for the first time!

If you’re not familiar, Fairport Convention started in London in 1967, and basically invented British folk/rock. Initially though, the band was trying to find its voice and recorded a sampler of what was to come. Judy was an original member who sang and played autoharp on the band’s first record. After that, she joined up with Robert Fripp, Peter Giles, Michael Giles, and Ian McDonald to form an early version of what would become King Crimson. So in a way, Judy is a link between the British folk club scene and progressive rock. She recorded “I Talk to the Wind,” which you can listen to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfqXh5s4t4k. That song ended up on the first King Crimson record, with Greg Lake taking the vocal duties.

After that, Judy teemed up with Jackie McAuley of Them to form Trader Horne. Them, with lead singer Van Morrison, enjoyed success with “Gloria,” a song later covered by Patti Smith. (See Week 9, Part 1.) Judy explained to the class how Trader Horne’s name was suggested to them by legendary DJ John Peel. Trader Horne was the nickname for John’s nanny. He then worked for the BBC’s Radio One and later championed Seattle bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana.

Students asked Judy questions about career, about her choice of the autoharp, and her connections with musicians like Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Jimi Hendrix.

Judy learned to play the autoharp standing up, which was quite difficult because it’s a heavy instrument. She would play the instrument using a claw hammer technique and sing. Pretty remarkable.

She mentioned a jam session where she was chilling before a show and FC were getting ready on stage. Jimi Hendrix was in the audience and asked if he could sit in with the other musicians. Fairport of course said yes. So Richard Thompson handed Jimi his guitar, and Simon Nicol offered his guitar to Richard. So Richard Thompson and Jimi Hendrix were jamming on stage right in front of Judy! I asked her her about that experience. At the time, Judy said it was pretty  casual. Those kinds of things happened all the time back then. (Correction/clarification from Judy: The gig was at a well known London rock nightclub called the Speakeasy where many of the rock and pop musicians would go to unwind after their own shows, Fairport were in the middle of their performance when Jimi asked to sit in with them, Tiny stage so I went to sit down somewhere else while they were jamming.)

Judy also talked about some of the clubs she played at in London like the Middle Earth and Roundhouse. The Roundhouse became famous for “Psychedelic Freak-Outs” with bands like the Move and the Pink Floyd (and yes, back then, it was the Pink Floyd.) The Roundhouse was apparently a train station at one time, and it had a turntable somewhere on the dance floor. Patrons had to be careful not to trip on the edges of the turntable in the blackness of the club.

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(Judy listens while a student poses a question.)

One student asked Judy about how she went about putting together her autobiography, a fascinating read called An Accidental Musician. She talked about how she was supposed to become a librarian. She had been in a small band called Judy and the Folkmen but figured that would be the end of her musical career. But the people in Fairport asked her to join and that was that.

After many years out of the music scene, Judy began to make solo records and tour in the early 2000s. She has reunited with Fairport for reunion shows and continues to make music to this day.

The class absolutely adored her. How can you not? She is probably the sweetest person I’ve ever interviewed.

After the visit with Judy, we spent the rest of the class talking about “SR 9,” which featured people like David Bowie, Queen, T. Rex, Alice Cooper and pre-punk acts like the Velvet Underground, the MC 5, and the Stooges. Then we delved into the early NYC punk rock scene with Television, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, and Talking Heads. We pretty much ran out of time and I shoehorned in selections from British punk bands the Sex Pistols and Clash.

Overall, student reactions were mixed. Some students dug the punk stuff, but a lot did not. The Talking Heads selection, “Once In a Lifetime,” received mixed reviews because of its weirdness, which is exactly the reason I like it. I dig the ending when David Byrne basically mocks himself.

Next week will be much tamer musically as they will get a sampler of more mainstream music from the 1970s. We’ll be talking about and listening to Journey, Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham era Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, the Eagles, Springsteen, Tom Petty, and more. So far I’ve received one early response for “SR 10,” and she loved all the songs. Hey, punk rock isn’t for everyone, and a lot of the mainstream stuff in the ’70s was outstanding. See you then!

Week 9, Punk Rock and a Visit from the Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye

Normally on Mondays I provide context for the songs we’re going to talk about on Wednesdays. Then on Wednesdays we discuss those songs. For example, in Week 8 we covered prog rock and British folk/rock. On Monday, I gave them some background of the evolution of prog rock and the British folk club scene which led to bands like the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, and the Pentangle. Then we discussed the assigned songs on Wednesday. Wait, no we didn’t. It snowed.

This week was different as we were privileged to welcome our first in-person guest speaker: Mr. Lenny Kaye. I met him beforehand for lunch (yes, I paid…it’s the least I can do as he drove about 90 minutes to be with us…such an incredible guy.) Lunch was cool as I could give Lenny some more background on the course and he told me about some of his experiences with Patti Smith, co-writing Waylon Jennings’ autobiography, etc. I had to remind myself to just shut up and listen.

I began the class with a short clip from End of the Century, the Ramones documentary. I showed the part that covers the early “Ramones at CBGB” days. I heard some laughs from the students as the Ramones argued on stage. “Let’s play I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement. No, I wanna play Loudmouth. We want I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement. It’s two against one. Fuck you all.” Then, we all sat in a circle and I turned the class over to Lenny. Why not? He was there after all.

Lenny talked about the organic nature of that early NYC punk scene, of how every band was so different: The Patti Smith Group basically set Patti’s poetry to music and experimented with so many genres, exploring traditional musical landscapes and sometimes venturing off into unstructured improvisation; Television created symphonies with their guitars; Talking Heads approached things from an angular art school perspective; and the Ramones…well, the Ramones were the Ramones. The whole point is that there really wasn’t a defined “punk rock.” People were doing what they wanted and the audiences typically consisted of members of other bands (does that sound familiar, Seattle music fans…like Soundgarden and Skin Yard playing on a Tuesday night at the Rainbow Tavern familiar?)

Patti was into simplicity, and then exploring things musically from there. In other words, she didn’t feel a need to do something clever for cleverness sake. The Patti Smith Group usually worked out their material live rather than in the rehearsal space. They discovered what worked and what didn’t in front of an audience rather than during practice.

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(Lenny Kaye talks to the class)

One student asked Lenny about his fascination with science fiction and comic books and if that influenced him at all in his music. What a question! Lenny responded by saying absolutely it did. The seemingly unbounded possibilities of science fiction allowed him the space (yeah, there was no pun intended there…really) to explore what can be done sonically beyond the confines of melody and rhythm…essentially inspiring a free jazz approach.

Another student asked him if his inability to read sheet music helped or hurt his career. He said he believes it mostly helped him because he can create music unfettered by structure or theory. His ear knows where the notes are and he can use that to improvise with Patti and the other musicians. That student followed up by saying she has classical piano training and that her teacher would not let her improvise at all. So she can play anything you put in front of her but can’t make anything up on the spot. Lenny responded by saying he would love to sit down and play a Chopin piece, but appreciates the fact that he can go off script.

Lenny continually praised Patti Smith’s artistic integrity. He still plays with her to this day.

As we finished up, I threw in a question about Lenny’s early days. In the Summer of 1967, Lenny and a friend decided to drive from their home in New Jersey to San Francisco to check out the scene and bands there. They talked high philosophy, forgetting to check the fuel level and managed to run out of gas in Nebraska. The point was that they had such an idolized view of change that anything was possible in the human race. I asked Lenny if he felt that youthful hope still exists today or have we become too jaded? He responded by referring to the kids who participated in the March For Our Lives, and that the spirit of kindness, compassion, and activism is alive and well. He urged young people to make their contribution, to put their stamp on the world and try to improve the planet and everyone in it.

In all, we were privileged to have hosted Lenny today. I still can’t quite believe I have gotten this lucky. I know the students appreciated him as well.

 

 

A Bitchy Blog Update…I Blame the Snow

So these past few weeks have been screwed by the weather, to say the least, throwing spring break in there just for fun. Weather canceled Wednesday, March 7’s class, when Marshall Amplification co-founder Terry Marshall was supposed to Skype with us; We didn’t meet on Monday and Wednesday, March 12 and 14 due to spring break; and snow canceled Wednesday, March 21’s meeting, when Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble was to Skype with the class. (Fortunately, they both were able to reschedule. Judy will chat with us on Wednesday, March 28 and Terry on Wednesday, April 4.)

So I think that’s why my attitude in this blog update sucks.

So, what did we cover during our limited class time? We talked about 1960s San Francisco and Los Angeles psychedelia, electric folk/rock and everything in between (Week 6.) Then we covered heavy blues and early metal of the late ’60s and early ’70s…people like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Free, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Most of the class dug a lot of that stuff, but now it’s time for me to gripe. (Week 7.)

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(Byrds classic line-up featuring David Crosby, far left, and Roger McGuinn, far right. McGuinn talked to us a few weeks back.)

I mentioned how some of the now “iconic” songs of that era, songs that have become standards half a century on, were throwaway numbers at the time. I specifically mentioned Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Free’s “All Right Now,” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water.” For the last song, I even played the students an excerpt of an interview I did with DP’s bass player, Roger Glover.  Glover talked about how band was just finishing up the Machine Head record and needed another song to wrap things up. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had the cool riff, but that was about it. Since some moron set off a flair gun which managed to burn their recording studio to the ground, Deep Purple riffed on the story of what happened and how they recorded afterward and how it impacted other bands who were supposed to record there like the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The lyrics were not poetic…just basically conversational about what occurred. It was all done seat of the pants style, no one thinking about it at the time, no one considering that they had just composed one of the most recognizable songs in rock history.

Don’t you know I got some song reactions back from the students saying, “I don’t know what this song was about.” And I restrained myself, but I responded, “You know what it’s about. The bass player in the band who wrote the song told you exactly what it’s about.” I had the same thing happen with “All Right Now,” a song written in a hurry when Free’s manager asked them to compose something upbeat after a bad gig. Singer Paul Rodgers just went, “All right now,” and there you have it. This from interviews with Free’s late bassist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke. Apparently, some students didn’t listen to that, either. Ugh.

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(Jimi)

So let’s get to Week 8, where we spent some time on prog rock and British folk/rock. We covered bands like King Crimson, Yes, Tull, ELP, Genesis, Renaissance, Rush, Fairport Convention, the Strawbs, and the Pentangle.

I know prog isn’t for everyone, and I really dig some of it, but only if I’m in the right mood…and another gripe is coming. Before giving the students their prog rock songs, I mentioned how long some of them are, that there is no payoff, and they just have to let the songs come to them. Then I read some of the reactions to selections like Yes’, “And You and I.” That’s a 10 minute excerpt from their 1972 album, Close to the Edge (which, btw, is my favorite Yes record and as I found out last spring, it’s also Steve Howe’s.)

In that particular song, the band spends maybe about 30 seconds “warming up” where Howe does a bunch of harmonics before the song begins. (As I found out from Yes’ Bill Bruford, all of that was planned…to the note.) Some students reacted like, “This is boring. It took too long for the song begin.” Hey, have patience people! It will start when it’s ready. Again, ugh. I remember hearing Close to the Edge for the first time as a teenager and loving it. I know things are different now, and I know it’s a matter of taste, but man, this instant gratification culture has its shortcomings sometimes.

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(Yes’ classic line-up with, from left, Steve Howe on guitar, Bill Bruford on drums, Jon Anderson on guitar and vocals, Chris Squire on bass, and Rick Wakeman on keyboards.)

Ok, I’m done griping. This week coming up should be fantastic. We’ve got a visit on Monday, in person, from the Patti Smith Group’s guitar player, Lenny Kaye. Then on Wednesday, Judy Dyble will chat with us remotely from England. We’re covering glam, proto-punk and punk rock this week, so I’m excited.