Jorma Kaukonen Interview

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen

My first meeting with Jorma Kaukonen was pure fluke. In February 2009, just months after I had uploaded to youtube a cover of “Hesitation Blues,” a song Jorma made famous both with Hot Tuna in the 1970s and with Janis Joplin on a bootleg recording called The Typewriter Tapes,  my dear friend and I went to see him perform with G.E. Smith at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a legendary small venue in Santa Monica, California. The many times I have seen Jorma since then attest to the fact that it was a terrific show, but it was special for me in more ways than that.

Before he and G.E. played “Hesitation Blues,” Jorma told the audience that he had just seen a thirteen-year-old girl “sing the shit out of this on youtube.” There I was, in the middle of an unspeakably awful 9th grade year– complimented by my absolute musical hero. After I explained the situation after the show first to a McCabe’s employee and then to Jorma’s manager, Jorma used his few minutes between the early and late shows to meet me, an experience for which I am still grateful. Turns out that not only is he a terrific musician, but also an exceedingly kind and generous person.

Since that show, I have seen and spoken to Jorma several more times, but it was only recently that I decided to attempt an interview– the following is the email transcript.

Jefferson Airplane, 1967– Jorma is the one in stripes

LA: You taught guitar in the early 60s before your work with Airplane and Hot Tuna. Was it strange going back so many years later to teach at the Fur Peace Ranch?

JK: Indeed, I started teaching early on in my fingerpicking career. I had really only been playing that style about three years when I moved to California and found that for a while I could make more money teaching than performing. I didn’t really get back into teaching until the mid 80’s when I taught for two semesters at the New School For Social Research in New York City. In the late 80’s, Happy Traum of Homespun approached me to do an instructional and over the next decade I did a number of them for him. When wer got the Fur Peace Ranch off the ground in 1998, it was like coming home.

LA: What motivated you to get back to teaching guitar?

JK: It just seemed like it was something that I needed to do. I enjoy being able to pass on what I have learned, the fellowship of musicians is very special and incidentally it has made and continues to make me a better player.

LA: Do you feel that all your years of touring and recording have made it easier to teach?

JK: There is a co-dependent relationship here… as things have transpired, I think teaching has made touring and recording easier.

LA: If you could impart one thing about playing music to your students, what do you think it would be?

JK: First of all… love to do it. Then focus on attainable goals… learn to be constructively self critical and don’t forget to practice.

LA: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about roots in music, and variety in musical styles. 

In listening to both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, I am probably struck most of all by the mix of different styles in both—you can discern rock, blues, jazz, folk, and pop in Airplane, and folk, blues, rock, jazz, and gospel in Hot Tuna. Do you think it’s important for groups not to limit themselves to one genre or one style?

JK: If you consider the disparate bunch of characters in the Airplane it is not surprising that there is such an eclectic artistic mix. Generally speaking, one needs to follow one’s heart. It is always constructive to bring something fresh into any musical mix… obviously there are no rules here. That said, even though I do not consider myself strictly a blues musician… there is no question that blues has colored the way I look at things.

 LA: Hot Tuna’s recent work and your solo material both have a heavy emphasis on roots sounds—what do you think is the importance of roots in music?

JK: There is strength in tradition but don’t forget, at one time what we consider ‘roots’ music today was new. It would be interesting to know what someone like, say, Robert Johnson would have considered to be ‘roots.’ For me, traditional music is very important.

LA: Your work is now better-known than that of many of your biggest influences. How do you feel about that?

JK: Well, for better or worse, that is the way of things. One of the things that I am proudest of in my career is to be able to bring some of those artists I consider to be ‘masters’ to a wider audience.

LA: My generation’s influences are often from the 60s through the 90s—not many people I know listen to the early-20th century folk, blues, and jazz musicians that inspired your generation. Do you feel that for younger bands, roots have been somewhat displaced? 

JK: Roots as such will always be changing… for you to listen to music of the 60’s would be like me listening to music of the 20’s when I was young. The good news is, that thanks to digital technology, it’s all out there and you can easily find it if you want to. There is no shortage of new talent… hopefully there will always be a place for old talent too.

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Donovan Leitch Interview

When I had the opportunity to see Donovan Leitch perform and be interviewed at LA’s Grammy Museum in honor of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I expected a fascinating interview and a great performer, but I had no idea that I might get the chance to ask this legendary singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s a few questions myself. The evening itself was excellent, but the real excitement was to come later, when while walking back to where my family’s car was parked, I saw a man carrying Donovan’s guitar case (which we had seen earlier) into a restaurant with none other than Tommy Smothers.

After some cursory decisionmaking, I decided to go in and introduce myself to the man– Donovan’s manager– who then introduced me to Donovan himself. During my brief meeting with this genuinely nice and down-to-earth performer, who informed me that he had written a song called Lily once, but that it was for his cat, I managed to score a five-question interview over email– this is the direct transcript.

LA: I think that one of the major reasons I am drawn to music so much before pmy time is perhaps what seems to me to be the more organic nature of it– stars weren’t made by American Idol or Youtube, and music didn’t have to be digitally corrected before it was considered finished. What do you think has been lost with music in the digital age? What has been gained?

DL: Music has lost nothing, it is always rising up from the deep wells within us. All new composers need to do is practice the forms with dedication. The forms are folk and blues and their children, pop and rock.

LA: Do you think that in this time, it is still possible to find poetry in music?

DL: Poetry and Music were one and they were separated. My generation re-united them. New poets need to practice the forms—the forms are lyric and free verse .

LA: Its position has obviously changed over the years– do you fear it is becoming obsolete, or that it ever possibly could?

DL: New poets need to study William Butler Yeats’ early poetry of Myth & Magic. Poetry is the language of the invisible world and always exists.

LA: In so much of your music, you express what was actually going on in the world– for instance, “From Susan On the West Coast Waiting.” How important do you think social consciousness is in popular music?

DL: New composers should reflect current events more often. Personal songs of love and relationships are always dominant though.

LA: Transcendental Meditation has played a huge part in your music. Nowadays, it seems as if the only kind of spirituality that can be found in popular music is in so-called “Christian Rock.” Do you feel that spirituality is an essential part of music?

DL: In traditional cultures the Shaman Poet Musician leads the society to the Realm Within through storytelling, chant and vision. Music is the invisible sound that calls the tribe to transcend. The Great Religions of the Passing Epoch have lost their efficacy and a New Form is emerging to suit the New Age being born. Read Joseph Campbell to see where we are in the transition.

LA: Lastly, how is it possible for you to stay passionate about a song forty years later? Do you think that forty years ago, you expected that you still would be?

DL: The songs I sing are archetypal and are not limited to my own life experience. The song is singing of all our lives, and so I am not reliving an earlier experience, I am echoing the drama of relationships that we all share. The song is ever young and wise.

I hope these replies are able to enlighten your readers to the Poet’s Role in Societies in the past, now and in all futures.

Donovan

Crushed Butler

Every once in a while, when the School Machine has not given me enough to do, I will stroll one and a half hilly-but-pleasant suburban miles to the nearest public library, and seek to educate myself on something or other. More often than not, given my general state of mind, the “something or other” in question is at least tangentially related to the sort of nonsense that ends up on this blog. Yesterday, when I reached the library at approximately the same time as I finished the first disc of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, I had put myself in a definite rock and roll mood, but as such moods often do, it lacked any specific direction.

Crushed Butler in 1970: Jesse Hector, Alan Butler, and Darryl Read

Blindly searching the rock and roll section, I happened to pick up what turned out to be an excellent book, Phil Strongman’s Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, and proceded to discover yet another candidate for the endless “who started Punk?” debate: the explosive UK rockers, Crushed Butler.

Crushed Butler, it is important to note, were not of the brand of pure garage noise that one would expect to lead to the punk movement of groups like The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, or The Buzzcocks. While yes, John Lydon was an Crushed Butler fan before he went Rotten, the group actually reminds me more of very early Black Sabbath, who released their first album while they were together– a fuzzy, messy guitar tone,  strong, riffy bass, drums that seem from the school of Ginger Baker or Mitch Mitchell, and prominent, gritty vocals. A full-on, reverb-heavy sound that pulls out all the stops. Indeed, in terms of both style and chronology, it appears that Crushed Butler is somewhat removed from the late-70s punk movement, definitely more akin to the heavy psychedelic and proto-metal of the late 60s that at least helped inspired  Punk with its sheer rawness, volume, and departure from the late-60s peace-and-love sensibility that many felt was rapidly turning to cliché.

Crushed Butler in 1969

The history of Crushed Butler is surprisingly difficult to find– the bio listed on the band’s own website leaves a lot to be desired, and further information tantalizingly sparse, apt to leave a researcher interested, but begging for more.

From what I can discern, the band was formed sometime around 1968. In the beginning, guitar and vocals were covered by Ray “Jesse” Hector, also a member of The Gorillas and of The Jesse Hector Sound. Hector was a constant member, remaining a part of Crushed Butler until their name change (to Tiger), personnel change (when Neil Christian of The Crusaders became their manager) and eventual disbandment in 1971. Bass was covered by Alan Butler at the beginning, but he had departed by 1971. A succession of  bassists after him included Stan Aldous, Arthur Anderson and Barry Wyles, who would later join Smile with future members of Queen. Actor-musician Darryl Read serves as drummer. In addition to a short stint later in Krayon Angels, he would go on to collaborate with Mickey Finn and Bill Legend of T. Rex, and record with Ray Manzarek, formerly of The Doors.

While Crushed Butler did not record any full-length albums in their short-but-influential existence, there are several recordings in existence from demo sessions throughout the band’s short life. They were eventually released as a collection, Uncrushed, in 1991. The best-known of their songs is probably the A-side of their 1969 single, the garagey  “It’s My Life,” a ferocious attack that sounds almost like an angrier, more distorted and less psychedelic Seeds, and heavily features Darryl Read’s steady barrage of drums, which propel the track relentlessly forward for its disappointingly short 2:16 running time.

Crushed Butler’s more heavy-psychedelic side is represented by the band’s extremely Black Sabbath-sounding “Love Is All Around Me,” recorded in 1970. Note, of course, that this similarity in sound might have something to do with the band’s involvement with Don Arden, who aside from managing The Small Faces and ELO was not only Black Sabbath’s manager, but also Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law. But no matter who influenced who, “Love Is All Around Me” is a great heavy psych song– driven by palpably aggressive unison riffing between guitar and bass and a song form complicated enough to be interesting, and simple enough to have an almost irresistible hook. In addition,  bluesy but inventive guitar lines provides a classic example of psychedelic guitar work.

All in all, with so few Crushed Butler songs available– all of seven, by my count (one of which I have not heard, as it is only available on the Uncrushed collection), I would recommend listening to every one. From the raspy psychedelic blues of “High School Dropout” to the terrifically primeval rock of “Factory Grime” and “Love Fighter,” the slow, crushing epic that makes its rather silly title seem like a mockery, Crushed Butler might have made even the staunchest of flower-power advocates wonder just how much raw aggression will be able to survive into the Age of Aquarius, and whether it will be enough to feed the utter intensity of this truly heavy music.

Music Must Change: The Who’s “Who Are You”

With all of the attention that has been given to The Who’s Quadrophenia album in the last year or so, it is obvious that modern Who fans need to latch on to some other cultish classic of their career to wave in the faces of the Unenlightened. My suggestion is that the ever-underestimated Who Are You should be the next Who album that fans and music magazines alike rediscover.

The Who Are You album was cursed by what many consider among the greatest losses of rock and roll: released August 18th, 1978, it preceded the death of drummer Keith Moon on September 7th from the lethal combination of a sedative overdose and alcohol by mere weeks. While most conceded that Moon had not been in top form for years, that did not change the fact that with his death at age 32, the band had lost an icon, an immense talent, and a well-known public face. In addition, guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle were somewhat distracted during the recording of the album, both working on solo material of their own.

Although the album had achieved charts positions of #2 and #6 (in the U.S. and U.K. respectively), it was immediately overshadowed by the band’s new headline, and unfortunately, it appears to have largely faded from public memory with the exception of its title track. In their career, The Who have played fewer than half of Who Are You‘s tracklist live.

However, if you are able to get past the album’s sometimes uncharacteristic synth-heavy sound and the enormous amount of drama that surrounded the album’s creation, you will discover an overlooked gem of the band’s career and of late 1970s music in general. The Who’s musicianship, as usual is exceptional, and even though it is clear that Moon was struggling, the perfect alchemy between the band remains intact on this, The Who’s final LP in their classic lineup. This album reunites the group with producer Glyn Johns, who previously worked with them on their 1971 classic Who’s Next. 

However, the casual Who fan should be warned that these are not the same sounds s/he heard before– while Who Are You is undoubtedly different than the the band’s previous albums, Townshend’s brutally honest, bleak views of his society heading full-throttle into our modern era (and Entwistle’s, as he never had as large a songwriting presence on a Who album as he did on this one) come through in some of the most powerful songs of his career.Even just comparing the incisive but somewhat lighthearted “905” with the melancholy desperation of “Love Is Coming Down,” which concerns an individual trying over and over again to commit suicide, we see an incredible range of emotion.  And that is not to say that Townshend’s characteristic bitterness is not still present in the lyrics of the album as well– it is, in abundance.

The Who in May 1978

Just as many of us today speculate about what possible direction modern music could be heading, Townshend speculates too on the direction of music from the late 1970s. From the crisp, synth-driven “Sister Disco” (which half-mourns disco, and half-celebrates its demise) to the strange lyrics and turns of “Music Must Change,” many of Townshend’s lyrics on Who Are You surpass simply accounting his anger at the changing times, and head into a more subtler realm that also encompasses his bewilderment as to where society is going, and what will be rendered obsolete in its next metamorphosis. Townshend’s own fear of becoming obsolete and forgotten is tangible on most of the album’s tracks, and Daltrey’s vocals, at perhaps their strongest and most expressive, not only carry out, but heighten his desperation.

Interestingly, by the time Who Are You was released, Daltrey’s role in the band had changed significantly from what it had been early on. Until 1974’s Who By Numbers album, Pete Townshend was mainly concerned with writing specifically Who songs, but after it and the release of his first solo album (ironically titled Who Came First), he was more concerned with writing Pete Townshend songs. By 1978, Daltrey was not interpreting the same kind of material Townshend had written before– instead, he was doing something much more complex. Some even maintain that Townshend was no longer truly writing for Daltrey, and although that might be true, Daltrey’s interpretations are no less powerful– perhaps, they are even more so.

When The Who recorded Who Are You, the massive supply of songs that Townshend had originally written for the band’s ill-fated Lifehouse project was not yet exhausted. Thus, some songs, including “Music Must Change” and leadoff track “New Song” were remnants of the intended magnum opus that Townshend himself called “a disaster,” doomed to fail because supposedly, no one else could understand it. Dealing with dystopian themes, it is impossible to say whether Townshend knew how much of what he was talking about in Lifehouse (whatever he was talking about in Lifehouse) would still be on the table forty years later.

Keith Moon
1946-1978

To say that Who Are You is still relevant is an understatement, for it is not only still relevant, but it perhaps more relevant than it has ever been. It is an unmistakably modern album, and while it is admittedly bleak, it is also heroic in its utter frustration, honesty, and intensity.

In 2012, we are once again wondering where we are going, and what will remain once we get there. The optimists among us believe we are on the precipice of a new creative revolution while the more cynical of us consider popular music as a whole to be irrevocably damaged, but no matter what the future may bring, many agree that music today is suffering a serious creative slump. Like thousands before us, we are all asking what could possibly be next– and when it will finally surface.

Who Are You may very well be among the least examined and analyzed of The Who’s albums, but as of now, it has shown to be among the most prophetic. Whether or not the dystopia we live in is literal, there is no question that Who Are You manages to capture the forced isolation of modern society as few albums ever have before. A fascinating mass of contradiction, the album manages to balance both the meditative and the visceral, the aggressive and the introverted, the meticulous and the wild, the synthetic and the powerfully organic.  Who Are You deserves another listen from our jaded 21st century ears, and in fact, it would do us a lot of good as well– as emotional and incisive an album as has ever been recorded, we could very well learn something, not only about the 1970s, and not only about The Who, but about our present day predicament, and how the desolation of today could lead to the artwork of tomorrow.

Unlikely Covers

Covers are strange beasts. They can either bore us by rehashing the original version of a song in ridiculously exacting fanboy/girl detail, or they can bring something entirely new and different to a song– essentially, breathe new life into a piece of music we thought we knew. Without covers, it’s hard to say where music would be. Covers were absolutely critical to the development of a multitude of now-legendary musical acts. In particular, the early 60s British Invasion scene sprang up from homegrown skiffle and covers of early American rock n’ roll, R&B, and blues songs.

Some songs were covered over and over again– “Louie Louie” (albeit with big variations in lyrics– originally written by Richard Berry in 1955), “Gloria” (originally by Them), “Love in Vain” (one of many now-standard tracks by Robert Johnson), King Bee (originally a Slim Harpo number)– the list is endless, although it varies somewhat across the years. Now a lot of covers are rather predictable. When we know how many years young Eric Clapton spent drooling over Howlin’ Wolf, we aren’t surprised when he does “Killing Floor.” We’re not even surprised when The Sex Pistols do “Substitute.”

But then there are those “what are you thinking?” covers that seem entirely off-the-wall, illogical, and unexpected. And while those covers can be ridiculous trainwrecks, they can also revolutionize the way we think of a song. The list I’ve compiled here is in no way complete– just a small sampling of many decades of unlikely covers

I’ll start off with a whopper.

Sid Vicious- “My Way”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: Nothing I say can possibly say will do justice to how much this doesn’t make sense. It’s bloody Sinatra sung by an ex-Sex Pistol unmusician. The lyrics are different, thankfully (or not thankfully depending on whose side you’re on, because they’re pretty brutal), but that does not change the fact that it is perhaps Sinatra’s most legendary standard. Everyone… Sid Vicious ≠ Frank Sinatra any way you look at it. I’d be glad to go into further detail, but there’s almost too much to say.

Why it works: I wonder. In writing this article, I’m on my ninth play in a row, and I’m still ascertaining that myself. This recording emphasizes something that was very much Punk– despite the sneering and the eighth notes, it’s still “My Way.” I believe that Punk never strayed all that far from its rock n’ roll roots (perhaps someday I’ll post that essay…), and this song is a perfect example of that. When you really look even at the original words, they’re honestly on the smug side, but it took a skinny, homicidal punk to give it some real bite. There is some strange black magic in this track. And Sid actually doesn’t sound half-bad, as Punk vocals go.

Johnny Cash- “Hurt”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: I don’t know about you, but when I think about the archetypical American country singer Johnny Cash, I don’t tend to associate him with a band that is often described “industrial rock.” It seems almost like comparing Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, or any two drastically different kinds of fruit. “So what,” you might say. “The Nine Inch Nails have been dusting off their old country records. People can have very unlikely influences.” Well, that would be one thing, but this is not the Nine Inch Nails covering Johnny Cash– it’s Johnny Cash covering a Nine Inch nails song. What?

Why it works: It’s hard to do wrong by such an incredibly beautiful song with heartbreaking lyrics and delicate, gradually ascending instrumentation. Cash’s seventy-one years gives “Hurt” more gravity than the Nine Inch Nails’ original version– also a beautiful track, but without the deep melancholy of the cover. Cash’s low, aging voice seems all at once out of place and perfect for the song. Since even Trent Reznor himself admits that he felt the notion of Cash covering this song was “gimmicky” before hearing the final result, this is a maximally unlikely cover, but one that will stand the test of time– when Johnny Cash died only months after the track was released, this song and the video made for it (which features footage from all through Cash’s career) have become something of a musical epitaph for him.

If this track didn’t completely gut you, the next one is a little more light-hearted:

The Slits- Heard It Through The Grape Vine

Why it does(n’t) make sense: In a weird way, it almost does. One might not immediately picture a Punk/post-Punk group who boasted being “your number one enemy all for the hell of it” covering a Barrett Strong song popularized by Marvin Gaye. Then again we are talking about The Slits, who even in 1979 played a sort of fusion of punk and dub reggae. However, “Heard It Through the Grapevine” seems like a bit of a stretch even considering.

Why it works: People say that the beat can make a song, and maybe that’s the case for The Slits’ version of this Motown standard. It’s completely infectious, clean, and danceable, punctuated by Viv Albertine’s reggae-influenced guitar relatively low in the mix, and Ari Up, who plays with the melody and phrasing just enough to keep it interesting and make it her own. One of my favorite things about the track is, incidentally, Ari’s accent– a cross between Munich, Germany and London, England, which lends a brand new sensibility to lyrics we all thought we knew.

And if you thought this wouldn’t get any more random…

The Ramones- “7 and 7 Is”

Why it does(n’t) make sense: This song was originally recorded by the L.A. psychedelic band Love fronted by Arthur Lee, a seemingly far cry from leather-jacketed punk godfathers. Then again, the geekiest Ramones fans reading this might know what makes this unlikely cover seem almost plausible: Joey grew up a hippie. Before he found what we now consider protopunk music like Alice Cooper and The Stooges, he loved the psychedelic sounds of California in the late 60s– it’s only natural that on The Ramones’ 1993 Acid Eaters album, which consists entirely of cover songs, some of that sensibility would come through.

Why it works: Although people nowadays tend to think of Love as a pure hippie group, they had a lot more raw garage energy than many people realize. The combination of their raw, high-energy song with an incredibly high-energy band is positively relentless. And technical capability be damned, The Ramones’ “7 and 7 Is” definitely holds up. While the band replaces the dynamic garage-psych sensibility of Love’s original with the ferocious pulse they they were famous for from the mid-70s until their very last show, it keeps the spirit of the original (and yeah, slavishly fanboy-copies a few bits) while still giving it something new.

Lastly, one that might not have crossed your mind:

The Beatles- “Boys” 

Why it does(n’t) make sense: In 1960, when The Shirelles recorded the original version of “Boys”, you can bet that they didn’t expect that a group of four white boys from Liverpool would be singing it on Shindig only four years later. Especially not without changing lyrics like “well, I talk about boys, now.” Yeah, the Fab Four tweaked the words a little bit, but the point remains the same– Ringo’s still “talkin’ ’bout boys,” and that might not exactly fly for the kind of audience acts like The Beatles were playing to in the early 1960s.

Why it works: The Beatles were one of the acts that made covers like this okay. They didn’t overplay it, they didn’t underplay it, they didn’t make it any sort of gimmick, they just did it. Paul McCartney even said of their recording, “if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song.” What’s more, it was fun, and it was catchy, and both The Shirelles and The Beatles made it danceable and exciting. The Beatles, would go on to change the entire face of popular music by their introduction of what were considered “girl group harmonies,” and this is a great example of what they did with them. It’s no wonder that for better or for worse as the British Invasion wore on, more and more male groups began to tread on girl-group turf.

Notable omissions:

Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” covered by Heart
Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” covered by The Doors
“Little Drummer Boy” covered by David Bowie and Bing Crosby
The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” covered by Santana

Nick Mason Interview

In September 2011, I was privileged enough to interview Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason when he came to LA’s Grammy Museum to discuss the coming reissue of Dark Side of the Moon and its accompanying box set. However, I was more interested in his opinions on new and old music, and the presence of technology in popular music through time. This interview was originally published on a site called Get Lit LA that I was affiliated with at the time. 

Lily Armstrong: So, I wanted to start by talking a little bit about drumming. I’ve heard people like Paul McCartney say they thought that, really, what made their music truly exceptional was its drumming. And I was especially curious about emotion in drumming. How are really good drummers able to convey emotion through that instrument?

NM: Um.  Good question.  First of all, I think a lot of the good drumming is about being an ensemble player.  It’s not about just how many gymnastics you can do with your playing.  It’s to do with how you work with the music.  And although time-keeping is meant to be the ultimate, you know, role of the drummer, in many ways it’s slightly … off time-keeping.  There’s quite an interesting belief that there’s a big difference, almost a school of drumming that is the American school and an English school. And the theory behind the English school is that they play — or we play — fractionally, not behind the beat but on the back of the beat.  Will it influence the music and give it a very specific feel?  It’s about the feel that is delivered not only by the actual part that’s played but the actual tempo. That is, the subtleties of pulling the music back slightly and adding to the dynamic of it. And I think that’s probably what Paul was sort of talking about.  You know the most dangerous [member] in a band is someone who just doesn’t know how to shut up.

LA: I can see that being true, I mean, there is a very clear division between drummers like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon and other more restrained drummers who, you know, try to keep time more uniformly, you could say.  

NM: But then, you know, I have some real favorites apart from Ginger, who was such an influence on me. Also Mitch Mitchell’s, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. I think he’s fantastic and the curious thing with him is there’s almost no one else who’s ever sort of emulated him.  And he had this thing, which was such a sort of partly loose thing, an almost jazzy style of playing that really worked well with Jimi’s music.

LA: Also, I wanted to bring in technology and music, because Pink Floyd did so much with breaking ground in the technology that went into recording, and to this day those breakthroughs are hugely influential. I recently read this story about the band Wilco’s latest single, which is called “I Might,” in which there’s a lyric that ends with the word “brother.” Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy said that when he was in studio, he was trying to emulate the word “brother” in The Stooges’ song “TV Eye,” the way Iggy sings it. And apparently he couldn’t get it right, so he decided to sample him in behind him, and he claimed that “the lyric needed more than I could give it, and fortunately this is the 21st century, so these things can happen.” Do you think that’s an honest use of the kind of technology you pioneered?

NM: Yeah, I mean, I think that there are no rules.  I think [the] only rules that come into play are where perhaps you use enough of someone’s music that you’re actually using their music, if you see what I mean…  But if you just took a particular drum sound or something or just took a beat off of someone’s record, I just see that as being legitimate creativity.  Um I would not be happy with myself sitting here going, “No, that’s wrong, that’s allowed, that’s not allowed.”  I think you do whatever you can to get whatever it is you want.

LA: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, was that the mentality that you guys really went into it with?

NM: The issue of sampling of course is very much a sort of later period thing. No one had even thought about sampling.  I do remember the closest that we came to [sampling] was the Melotron.  And I remember the Musicians’ Union was up in arms at the prospect of orchestras losing their livelihood because of the Melotron, which is complete nonsense, of course, because the Melotron is the most extraordinary instrument. But you’d never think that’s an orchestra, you’d think that’s a Melotron. So, yeah, I think in those sorts of terms it’s very hard to look at how things were then, you know. So much of it was people messing around in the studios. Sometimes people think we were sort of very busy with Loogs and really elaborate instruments.  Most of it was things like, you know, when you listen to George Martin talking about phasing. Basically, it was two tape recorders running with someone putting their elbow on it to slow it up very slightly to get that effect. And there was quite a lot of that sort of trial-and-error experimentation, I think.

LA: Do you think that in some ways, bands today are somehow disadvantaged by having that technology immediately at their disposal?

NM: It’s not really a disadvantage. I mean it’s great, obviously, to be able to choose exactly what sounds you want to be able to play with, and all the rest of it, but the biggest problem is: it takes time.  You know, the great thing about few tracks, very few tracks — the original four track recordings and so on — was however hard you tried, you really finished things quickly. Because you had to make decisions. You couldn’t leave it ‘til the mix to decide, ah, how loud the bass should be, because you had the bass on with the drums and [you had to] get it right the first time. All the Beatles’ recordings and certainly our first recordings were incredibly quick because … we could leave those decisions and decide later on whether we wanted the high hat in or out or whatever.

LA: Actually, I was wondering about the amount of time it takes to record an album, and how it’s changed.  A lot of bands now wait four years between albums. And for so long, Pink Floyd was just turning out albums so relatively quickly, compared to that kind of a distance.

NM: Yeah, I’m not sure. I’ve never seen us as being particularly prolific.  I mean, you’re right. I suppose, looking back on it, compared to the four year lay-off or whatever, we quite often did an album a year.  In terms of studio time, I think we only took two or three weeks to do Obscured by Clouds, which was a movie album. But, the fact is, the world is always changing and albums now are less important than live music. Whereas, in the ‘70s, the album was everything. You know, the touring was done to promote the album.

LA: So are you saying that recently, the live performance has become more important than the album or studio recordings?

NM: Well, the fact of the matter is, as a business, music has changed so dramatically that actually live performance is the area where you make money; and the records are slipping all the time. You can’t get away from that so you’ve got an enormous change in attitude where people go off and tour now and it’s generally a year, or a year plus. Our early tours were about three weeks, and that was it.

LA: You kept the US tours pretty short, in general.

NM: Yeah, I don’t know why we did that. When I look back now, I think, ‘That was idiotic.’ Because the great thing about long tours is that you get better at it and you actually really hone the music and get it right and you can develop it.

LA: Yeah, I remember you saying in your book that “Eclipse,” specifically, really improved by being performed live.

NM: Yeah, that’s one of the things about this new release next week, what’s called the “Immersion” version of Dark Side — it’s exactly that. There are recordings from where the ideas were being tried out on the road. And the silly thing is that everyone got sort of hung-up on the business of people bootlegging and so everyone stopped touring and just rehearsed in the studios which is not nearly as efficient because if you’ve played live, you keep working on it. The trouble in the studio, I think, is you wait until you’ve got it right, and then you consider that as the finished article; whereas if you’re playing live, you see whether the audience likes it. You can see whether, in fact, it sits properly in the rest of the music, and that’s what I think comes over a little bit with the Dark Side pieces. They’re quite different than how they ended up on the album — hopefully, they’re better on the album — but you can see the thinking was, “Well, this isn’t quite right like that, and it needs to be changed,” or “It doesn’t work.”

LA: Yeah, I actually was just listening to Dark Side a little while ago, and I was thinking about how the time signature changes on it — like we were talking about earlier. As a musician myself, I really notice differences in time change. How it really creates a mood throughout it, and takes the listener up and down with it.

NM: I think that’s absolutely what we were trying to do, was put a dynamic into the record. At the time, I won’t say it was radical, because it wasn’t. In a way, Sergeant Pepper did that initially, but it was this idea that you don’t have to have everything played at 200 miles an hour, flat-out and loud, and all the rest of it, but you make it go exactly that — up and down in tempo and in volume, really. That makes it more interesting.

LA: Definitely. And then, back to performance, bands like Pink Floyd, and The Who and David Bowie were considered very theatrical for the time, and were doing really radical things onstage compared to what had come before. And even today, the sort of rock show as opposed to the rock concert has become really, really prevalent. What do you think it is about rock n’ roll, and about that sort of music that gravitates to the “big production?”

NM: Well, I think [the main thing] that has driven the bigger production values is that people have started playing bigger and bigger places. You know, when you look back, Shea Stadium was a real wakeup call — it didn’t work. It was an iconic moment in time, but still, working in a proper performance which the audience could hear — it was nowhere! You know, the biggest thing has been the move from theatres to arenas and in some cases into stadiums. In many ways, not many people, I think, make the stadium work for them. I don’t think we ever did, really. I think the arena show we got right, but the stadium show—it was always… never quite reaching, really, as far as it should. I think The Stones really mastered the stadium show, but that just became a bigger and bigger industry, and you think, in the ‘50s, let’s say, or the ‘60s, the rock show was in a theatre, and it would have seven or eight acts on the bill. It was unthinkable that Chuck Berry would do two and a half hours or whatever. He’d come and do twenty minutes and when that’s done, they’d go on and so on. It’s that move from that way. I think that the industry has changed, and the way music is performed has changed, and that’s driven this whole business of production. And it is amazing. Yes, okay, we did a lot of hopefully really good things, but now even a really good boy band will be there with fireworks, and films, and video, and unbelievably good shows.

LA: And how do you think that can affect the music in the show? I know that a lot of acts today cannot perform live, and perform to pre-recorded tracks because the dance is so elaborate, and the show is so big.

NM: The answer at the end of the day is “Do their fans like it?” It’s almost impossible to do the singing and the dancing — that’s some heavy breathing. I think on principle, I am conservative in the sense that I’m not entirely happy with the idea that other people are just using backing tracks. Occasionally, yes, sometimes it’s a good idea. I mean, we’ve done it on odd occasions in order to sync the film properly. And generally, I’d try to design the show so that if the film goes out of sync, it doesn’t matter.

LA: Yeah, I remember in your book, you were talking about how you tried to have a sort of cushion for those sorts of transitions. I actually wanted to share with you a quote from Roger Daltrey from Rolling Stone in 1975 — please don’t ask me why I have a Rolling Stone from 1975. But, he said, “Our audience wouldn’t put up with it if The Who went onstage like Pink Floyd with an incredible light show and stood there like four dead people that sounded great.” I didn’t really know what to think of that one.

NM: That’s a fair comment. You know, that’s part of the reason we put all that stuff up there — because none of us did do duck-walking, or moon-walking, or anything like that. It’s a fair comment…  I’ve never heard that quote from Roger before, but I once said that — well, someone once said that, “It’s becoming so mechanical,” and I said, “We did try to use computers instead of us going on stage but they used to move around too much.”

LA: My next question was going to be about what, I guess you can say, is the increasing acceptability of rock-and-roll. Now you find rock-and-roll songs in commercials, you find increased legitimacy from organizations designed to promote it, and such. And how do you think that’s affected musical output?

NM: I think it’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with. I think the music has been devalued a bit, and I think that if you’re walking around the supermarket now — funnily enough, I was in Trader Joe’s, and it was Led Zeppelin. You know, while people are wandering around trying to choose their granola, there’s Jimmy giving it everything. It used to be muzak. Now, everyone hated muzak, but on the other hand, at least we all knew where we stood: muzak was in the shop, Led Zeppelin was onstage. I don’t feel comfortable with it just being anywhere all the time. I mean, it’s partly because we all have so many other ways of entertaining ourselves. You know, when Led Zeppelin were at their peak, no one had a computer game. And movies — well, we had movies, but they didn’t quite feel as important as they do now. So, I really can’t remember what exactly the thrust of the question was, but—remind me?

LA: It was just sort of “how do you think the increased acceptability has affected the musical output?

NM: I don’t really think it’s affected music. I think most musicians still work. Actually, there are many, many more good musicians around now because kids are learning to play so much better from day one. I mean, my boys took guitar lessons — electric guitar lessons — in school, and drums lessons. If I’d gone to my music master and said “Please sir, I’d like to play the drums,” I think he’d have fainted. d “Could I have some more, sir?” “What?!”

LA: Do you think that there’s a difference between how it’s affected newer acts and older acts?

NM: Well, a lot of older acts have suddenly realized that they can still work. They’ve come back out of the woodwork which I think it terrific. Most musicians work to please themselves. Because you can’t second-guess what the public are going to like anyway. There are a few people who can do that, produce pop songs, but it’s a very unusual ability.  Most people please themselves first and then the public discover them.  But, you know, Jimmy Paige doesn’t sit down and go, “I wonder if the public would like this,” or Keith Moon go, “I wonder if they’d like it if I kicked my drum kit over.” It comes from somewhere else. They’re not really affected by those sort of outside influences. It’s something you’re driven to do of your own volition.

LA: Do you think that drive is what really separates rock and roll from a lot of other types of music?

NM: No, I don’t. I think that theme runs through. I think that people are passionate about music at every sort of level even.  Even country and western, something I know absolutely zero about, but I think the people who are good at it are very good and have the passion. And I think that’s true with creative arts generally; that actors, the same; painters, the same; you have to have this sort of — I mean, the interesting thing with rock music is that you have a slightly different dynamic with so many bands who are successful because they’ve got more than one of those people in the band. Those people quite often spark off of each other and against each other at the same time, but that to me seems to be the sort of unusual element about rock music and why it seems to be, maybe, a little bit sparkier.

LA: Just about that sheer size of the genre now — there are just so, so many people who are trying to do it and who do do it and in so many different genres that it seems like are popping up every single day.

NM: I think that makes life a bit more difficult. I mean, I think what was easier about the music business thirty years ago is that it was a very channeled system to be successful. It was very channeled.  You needed three cards to get in the game; you needed an agent, a manager and a record deal.  And now, you’re really having to try to sort out a career without necessarily having a record deal, or without having the manager aspect of it. That makes it tougher because, you know it’s hard, it’s much more difficult to get your target audience to listen to you because there are so many radio stations now. In England there used to be one important radio station, that was it. And so once you were played on there — you were sort of rolling.  Whereas now, how many radio stations are there in London? There’s one for every artist, more or less.

LA: We’ve been talking about the last forty or so years of music — What do you see happening in the next forty?

NM: I think it’s very hard to second-guess forty years of music but in the next few years, I think there’ll be changes in the way we download and buy music.  I think it’s a fairly chaotic system at the moment with pirating and downloading and Spotify and, you know, all the different versions and the different levels of quality available and I think that could quite possibly settle down and we’ll find ways of monetizing music so that people can make a living.  Not a fortune necessarily, but more people can make a living out of music.  I think we need the Chinese to produce a great band and some great players and some great thoughts and then suddenly they’ll get the whole business of copyright protection.  I mean it won’t happen until it affects them directly.

LA: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a great honor.


Blodwyn Pig

It seems like while my generation has remembered a lot of music of the 1960s and 70s, the largest genre that has not retained too great a base of young fans is prog rock. You see teenagers with Pink Floyd shirts and Who posters all the time, but when’s the last time you saw one with a King Crimson shirt and a Yes poster on the wall, passionately air-fluting to Jethro Tull?

Well, you probably haven’t. Or at least, I haven’t. Although I manage to associate with a whole bunch of old rock nerds of approximately my age, very few of them have the patience or the stomach for prog rock. I’m not saying I do– not entirely, anyway. But in the right mood, I can really enjoy good prog, especially some of the more obscure (and in my opinion, less pretentious) stuff, especially from the late 60s and very early 70s, before the genre had largely departed from its roots in blues and psychedelic rock.

Jethro Tull’s debut album, This Was, with guitarist Mick Abrahams.

So what exactly is prog rock? For a start, the name is abbreviated from “progressive,” which was supposedly the idea. By fusing the vast majority of possible musical genres, and incorporating jazz, world, and classical influences, it seems that prog rockers hoped to further the very notion of popular (or unpopular) music itself with legendary technical proficiency and infamously long songs. Prog rock was about vision– more specifically, achieving musical vision. It can be interpreted as rock’s most introverted, fanciful side. Even lyrics often dealt with whimsical, fantastical themes, and intricate, dense instrumental passages separated prog even further from mainstream music.

Blodwyn Pig in 1969

Ironically, it is not precisely a prog idol I give you today, but instead, a prog  castaway. Blodwyn Pig came to be when Mick Abrahams departed Jethro Tull in 1968 after playing lead guitar on their debut album, This Was. Apparently, the split was due to both personal and musical differences. Although according to rumor (propagated by Circus Magazine), Abrahams’ split from the group was due to his refusal to work seven days a week, it appears to have been more as result of vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson’s increasing control over the musical direction of the band.

So, after his departure from Tull, Abrahams founded Blodwyn Pig. Jack Lancaster, who often played two woodwind instruments at once, but was officially the band’s saxophonist and an additional vocalist, would also become incredibly influential in terms of the band’s creative and musical development. Andy Pyle, who would later play with Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, and The Kinks, was on bass; Ron Berg, who would end up in an incarnation of Juicy Lucy played drums. Famous for their live shows, Blodwyn Pig were in the long run more of a cult success than a mainstream one, and while the two albums they made before breaking up in 1970 charted in the US and UK, the band has unfortunately fallen through the cracks for young fans in recent years despite several reunions through the 90s, and a body of excellent material.

These two songs, “See My Way” and “Dear Jill” might be the two best-known Blodwyn Pig songs. You might recognize “Dear Jill” from where it is used as background music in Almost Famous— a movie I have no doubt I will soon post about.

However, my favorite Blodwyn Pig songs (at least so far) are lesser-known. “Same Old Story” is a great, energetic track  more psychedelically influenced than a lot of their stuff. Then “Up and Coming” shows their bluesier side balanced with the technical mastery and complexity that distinguished them as prog rockers, whether they liked it or not.

In short, no matter your opinion (or lack thereof) of prog rock, you will not regret checking out Blodwyn Pig. A great band with a very interesting history, and some fantastic material that shows outstanding range, especially considering their extremely limited output. Three cheers for prog rockers– the ultimate nerds of classic rock. Whenever you can find the patience, you should make their lifetime’s worth of practicing scales count– you won’t regret giving them a listen.