Monday, January 25, 2010

Scorpions Say Goodbye

I'll take the bait here and join the internet glut of articles following the announcement today of the band's intention of ending their 40 year career. 

For me The Scorpions haven't been very relevant for some time, but I'll also add that they have been amongst my favorite outfits for some 35 years.  They put Germany on the rock and roll map, probably being far bigger than any other non-anglo outfit except maybe ABBA.  As they grew larger in popularity their artistic relevance shrank, but that's not what I want to focus on here.

The Scorpions did for heavy metal, and rock in general, what Kurt Cobain would later largely undo.  They brought technical proficiency and pure passion to the form, in a way that far outshadowed their popularity at the time.  They introduced not one, but two of the most influential lead guitarists in the history of shred guitar.  Michael Schenker found greater fame in UFO, but it was in The Scorpions that he laid the groundwork for his illustrious future.  As younger brother to founder Rudolph, Michael played the role of lead guitarist to his brother's relentless rhythm guitar abilities and songwriting talents.  Even after his stay in UFO, Michael rejoined The Scorpions briefly in 1979 for the recording of Lovedrive, the band's first outing after the departure of legendary virtuouso Ulrich (Uli Jon) Roth.  Unfortunately, Michael's desire to lead his own army and his dislike of attention on a grand scale drove him to a successful solo career.

Uli Roth joined the band when they had lost Michael to UFO, who were a much better opportunity for Michael at the time, giving him musical control for the first time, at a time when his riff writing skills were becoming apparent.  Roth brought to The Scorpions a voice that was extremely unique at the time.  His playing captured both the wildness of Jimi Hendrix, and a technical prowess previously unmatched in the realm of rock.  His solos fused trem-bar madness with exotic scales for the first time.  No other guitarist ever outdid Roth at using Hendrix as a stepping stone and not just a high water mark.  Roth went far beyond Jimi in many ways.  Roth has never been quite given his due, but his technical abilities far outshined those of the more illustrious Ritchie Blackmore, the only other true contender for the title of Father of Shred Guitar.

Roth also brought to the band a very different songwriting style than that of Rudolph Schenker and Klaus Meine, which may have cost the band commercially, it certainly made them a much more interesting band on record that they were ever to be again.  His  tunes were laced with extreme doses of Hendrixian psychedelia, and were stupendous examples of what a Fender Stratocaster could do in the right hands.  Buddy Holly never saw Uli coming, that's for sure.

What made The Scorpions great in the Roth era is exactly what finally drove the gypsy guitarist from the nest.  The Scorpions were on the verge of breaking out on a much larger scale and at the same time Roth had the urge to follow his more eclectic muse, so a parting of ways on made sense.

What had made The Scorpions perhaps the most interesting and progressive metal band of their time turned out to be not only what seperated Roth from the band, it also lead them to huge worldwide success.  Such is the strange mix of music and commerce.

The albums that The Scorpions made with Roth remain some of the finest documents of the early history of heavy metal and hard rock.  His final two outings with the band, Taken By Force, and the live, Tokyo Tapes, are perfect examples of what made the band brilliant.  You have Rudy and Klaus supplying incredibly melodic, commercial metal riffs alongside Roth's high brow mentality, and the marriage sounded incredible.  The production on this material by Dieter Dierks always set the standard by which I measure the audio quality of anything to which I listened.  Stunningly good.

Always overlooked were the tremendous vocals supplied by Klaus Meine, as fine a singer as has ever recorded.  His huge range was matched by his ability to self harmonize and creatively arrange massive amounts of overdubbed singing.  I've always been stunned that he never got the acclaim he so deserved for his skills.  I'll chalk it down to the band's german heritage and their tendancy to let the music do the talking.

While the lead players always got the ink, Rudolph Schenker may have influenced heavy guitar rock more than any other guitarist, save Tony Iommi.  I simply don't think you'd have James Hetfield's precision right hand rhythms had he not tuned in to Rudy's stunning German precision.  As much as Kirk Hammett cut his teeth on brother Michael's lead work, Hetfield and a thousand subsequent metallers got their schooling from Rudolph Schenker, who also set the standard for the recording of acoustic guitars in a hard rock setting, almost inventing the rock ballad along with his brother's work in UFO.

It's not my intention to shortsell Matthias Jabs or the fine work he's done with the band, but everyone knows this already.  His melodic soloing has always been one of the hooks that captured the world's ear, but he never developed a signature style as had Michael, and Uli Roth.  I've always thought he might do something on his own to highlight his talents, but I remain waiting.  Maybe now?

It'll be very interesting to see where this leads both Rudolph Schenker and Klaus Meine.  I know Klaus has historically battled throat problems, but I certainly hope we've not heard the last of this amazing voice.  As for Rudolph, maybe we'll finally get him back together with his brother (they've been promising this for years).  At any rate, if we never get a note out of any of them, we all owe more than we know to the greatest German rock and roll band to ever stalk the tundra, The Scorpions.

Incidentally, I'm aware that years ago the band went to using simply Scorpions, but that's not really the band I've been writing about.  Go back and find the early stuff and you'll be more than amazed.  This band was so very much more than Rock You Like A Hurricane. 

Thanks to a great band for so much great music for so many years.

peace, tc


Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Replacements: Not the band

Writing last week about the gifted Glenn Hughes, and previously Ronnie Wood, it got me to thinking about pinch hitters.  Musicians who replace established players in established bands.  A tough situation for both band and fan. 

I just listened to no less a talent than Steve Vai getting mercilessly hounded by Yngwie fans at his first show with Alcatrazz back in 1984.  At that time Vai had little sway in the metal community, being better known amongst guitar geeks and Zappa fans.  Steve was greeted with a chorus of, "Where's Yngwie," and "You suck," before he had so much as played a note.

On the other hand Ronnie Wood was hugely lauded by Stones fans based largely on the word of Keith Richard's championing his old drinking buddy.  Artistically, it set up the great debate amongst Stones' fans as to which version of the band was best, the Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, or Ronnie Woods versions.  That's how the eras of the band became known in fact.  I'm a Mick Taylor guy, being a fan of the classic lead player, but can see the validity of all three.  Jones brought great versatility and experimentation to the early bluesiness of the band.  Then finally, along came Woods who outlasted them all by a great margin, remaining with the band longer than both predecessors combined. 

Deep Purple replaced two members at the height of their glory and suffered little, in fact becoming a more versatile, interesting band, as David Coverdale's vocals were routinely challenged by Glenn Hughes's almost unearthly vocal skills.  They were the Everlys of british hard rock, and the pair brought a funky swagger to the band that served them well, allowing the band to stylistically forge ahead, breathing new air.  Their second album together, Stormbringer, may still be the best blues rock album to ever come out of England, an amazing stew of funky keyboard, rhythms and vocals doing battle with Ritchie Blackmore's rebellious hard rock guitaring.  It may have contained no smash singles, but every song is a winner and I defy you to find a more exciting record.  Coverdale and Hughes mixed and matched vocals better than any duo in hard rock history.  The band also saw huge success as headliners at '74's California Jam, which culminated with a furious Blackmore destroying a network camera and another nice Strat.

Germany's teutonic rock opera of The Schenker brothers has made for interesting comings and goings, as brother Michael flew in and out of The Scorpions and UFO with dizzying regularity.  Artistically, The Scorpions couldn't have done better than replacing Rudolph's younger brother with uber guitar wiz Ulrich (Uli Jon) Roth.  Roth took the band to new levels of sophistication, and almost singlehandedly took heavy metal guitar playing into the world of classical influence.  Half Hendrix/half Paginini, Roth's use of exotic scales, mixed with exceptional trem bar histrionics had to have influenced Yngwie Malmsteen as much as Blackmore. 

The Scorpions huge success the world over didn't occur, however, until both Schenker and Roth had exited, to finally be supplanted by Matthias Jabs, a fine player by any measure, though not as innovative as either of the band's earlier axemen.  Jabs was in, then out, then in again finally, as Schenker struggled between sibling loyalty and his draw towards his own muse.  In the end, the band profited by being finally lead by the artistic vision of Rudolph Schenker.  Rudy wrote, Matthias played solos and that was that.  While never again as exciting and innovative, the band found a focus previously unseen, and it took them to the top of the charts across the planet.  It's hard to argue with success, though I still pine for albums like 1977's, Taken By Force.

UFO also had many issues with replacement players over the years, as they tried and ultimately failed to keep Michael Schenker on board through a great many trials and tribulations.  Paul Chapman came and went several times, never achieving either the popularity or the musical success that the band had with Schenker.  Several guitarists made appearances over the years, including non-descript outings with Lawrence Archer, and fine but unnoticed records with Atomic Tommy McClendon, a fabulous player who never got a decent listening I'm afraid.  Now the band carries on with long time replacement Vinnie Moore, a fine player, but one without a strong identity of his own.

The name of Steve Vai always arises when discussing the role of the pinch hitting gunslinger, having followed his stint as Yngwie's replacement in Graham Bonnet's Alcatrazz (which netted the band their finest record, Disturbing the Peace), with perhaps the gutsiest of all replacement missions, that of following Eddie Van Halen as David Lee Roth's right hand man.  Vai did fantastic work on both occasions, then surprisingly failed miseably when he replaced the fiery John Sykes with David Coverdale's Whitesnake.  This I blame on a bad premise, that of thinking that Vai's otherworldly, etheric guitar atmospherics would meld well with Coverdale's bluesy songs and vocals.  Sometimes two rights can make a wrong.

Replacing a guitarist in an established band is never easy, given the stylistic peculiarities of individual players.  Jake E. Lee never quite got out from Randy Rhoads shadow with Ozzie Osbourne, but time heals all, and  over time Zakk Wylde became Osbourne's musical voice, as the world eventually got beyond Rhoads's death.  Zakk's harmonic squalls have become as much a part of Ozzie's sound as Rhoads's astounding solos and unique riffing.  Had Wylde immediately followed Randy's departure, he'd have had it much rougher.

Sometimes, changing guitarists can sound a band's death, as it did in the mid-'70s for England's Mott the Hoople.  While Mick Ralphs took his burgeoning songwriting talents to platinum success alongside Paul Rodgers in Bad Company, the Hoople died, as Ralph's replacement, Ariel Bender (Spooky Tooth's renamed Luther Grovsner) proved to be a better drinking partner for Ian Hunter than a musical foil, proving to be barely functional in the studio.  Then to finally put the band in it's grave (perhaps intentionally), Hunter brought in the ultimate rock and roll Tonto, David Bowie's brilliant guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson.  Though Hunter and Ronson remained partnered for the rest of Ronson's all too short life, with Mott they only made a few shows and one single, their glorious goodbye, Saturday Gigs.  Ronson came into Mott and took too much power and influence from the remainder of the band and proceeded to sink an all ready teetering ship.

Speaking again briefly of Deep Purple, Blackmore's departure (his first of several) was followed by Tommy Bolin, a guitarist who's reputation far outweighs any evidence of greatness.  Terribly out of place in a hard rock band, and terrifically hampered by drug problems, Bolin never fulfilled his promise.  I saw the band shortly before Bolin's death, and it was pathetic.  Never had I been so disgusted by a performance.  The man could barely walk, let alone play.  Live recordings bear this out as well, with Bolin buried under Jon Lord's keyboards.  This was a shame and a tragedy, as Bolin had been touted as such an amazing replacement and seemingly had such potenial that never came to fruition, aside from his work with Billy Cobham.  Deep Purple now soldiers on admirably with virtuouso Steve Morse, but they aren't remotely the same band (not that they need be,oe even should be - hat's off to them here) as the one that gave the world, Made in Japan.  For some fans this is fine, for some it is near heresy.  Such is life.

This parade of pinch hitters probably began with Clapton, Beck, and Page with the Yardbirds.  Ever since, there's always been great discussion controversy and interest whenever a major band replaces their guitarist, or a guitarist departs from a band.  It certainly keeps things interesting and provides a fascinating look at what we like and why we like it.  I didn't even get into Thin Lizzy, Humble Pie, Yes, or a hundred other interesting examples.  Or singers, drummers, or even keyboardists (Yes?).

peace, tc


Monday, January 18, 2010

Black Country: The Real Vultures?

Based on what I'm hearing so far, it seems that the closest we may get to Zeppelin-esque nirvana in 2010 may not be Them Crooked Vultures after all.  With six tracks in the can and more on the way, the new blues/rock supergroup, Black Country, featuring Joe Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian, and Jason Bonham, should have a Kevin Shirley produced album done by late March, and it may blow away anything previously done by any of the group's members.

Kevin Shirley has stated that the group would most likely complete their first record and have it out by late summer, and has expressed amazement at the group's sound and initial progress.  Shirley has produced such acts as Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Iron Maiden, and he did the remixes for Zeppelin's How The West Was Won. 

Judging from Hughes and Bonamassa's jam at Guitar Center's Night of the Blues in November (several vids available on youtube - especially a great version of Deep Purple's Mistreated), this project will be perhaps the sleeper event of the year for fans of guitar oriented rock and blues.  With Sherinian said to be supplying mostly "distorted Hammond Organ sounds," the group sounds like the closest we'll come to a classic Deep Purple-styled outing.  As much as I'd love to see Ritchie Blackmore tread the boards with his former band mates again, I'm not holding my breath given singer Ian Gillan's distates for the man, and David Coverdale's throat problems.  I know Deep Purple is an ongoing concern, but what they do now is admirably a bit removed from classic Purple.  Steve Morse has been with the band a great many years, and has made it an entity of it's own that while doing great work, isn't really classic blues rock, which is what old Purple did best.

Glenn Hughes has been recording and touring to great success for many seasons, but has until now failed to find a partner with which to share the stage.  Said to be issuing an autobiography this year, which should be a great read, given his amzing discent into addiction hell and his subsequent recovery.  Unknown to most American rock fans, Hughes plays to sold ouut audiences all over the world, and is amazingly prolific on the album sidee of things as well.

Hughes's bands have featured some fine guitarists, but no one with a strong identity, or an established sound of their own.  He's not had a challenging regular bandmate with which to share the stage since David Coverdale.  This has now changed, especially given Bonamassa's increasing rock and roll stance over the last couple of years.  He's been inching closer and closer to rock and roll, and this should finish the job.  The world may finally get what it's never received from Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker's ill-fated attempts at reliving the promise of Cream over the years, or Purple's post-Blackmore progression.  Black Country could be the new champion of progressive rock and blues.  Having Kevin Shirley behind the mixing console is a great sign.  Having Jason Bonham onboard - great sign.  My assuption is that these two stalwarts will push the duo firmly in the direction of rock.

What I like about this is that there is no talk of remote recording, or any of the malarky that so often goes along with these supergroup type collaborations.  No, these guys are writing and recording together as a band, with the producer on hand, and none of the Pro Tools as Houdini bullshit that oftens occurs.  Many is the project that features bands that have never played in the same room, and the problem is, they always sound like it.  Working with Shirley in actual sessions, and sessions spread out over some time, not just knocked out in one day also bodes well for the project's success.

One area that concerns me is the songwriting side of things.  If I have a problem with Them Crooked Vultures, it's in the realm of songcraft.  Granted it's only my view, but I wish Grohl's sense of melody and structure had more strongly figured into their equation.  I'm a song guy, and in the song category, I don't hear myself humming any Vultures tunes yet.  My guess is that Bonamassa's more simple blues based sound will combine with Hughes's ultra-sophisticated take on rock and funk, and come to an agreement somewhere in the middle taking both to a higher level.  If I'm right, we may have a monster on our hands.  Here's hoping they exceed beyond all expectations.

I can easily see these guys on tour with the newly formed/reunited West, Bruce, and Laing in the fall.  I've yet to hear Leslie West and Malcom Bruce (Jack Bruce's son who has filled his father's shoes in this reunion) play together, but I hear good things, and entertain my usual high hopes.  West's 2007 album of  Dylan covers, Masters of War, remains one of the finest hard rock guitar outings I've heard in many years, and I'm hoping he's still on track.  If you never heard the Dylan tribute, look it up and have your mind blown.  I listened to it just the other day, and I'm always pleasantly surprised to hear West singing and playing better than ever.

I've been a huge Glenn Hughes fan since first hearing Deep Purple's, Stormbringer, and have been aching to hear him perform with a guitarist with a own sound and character of his own ever since.  He came close twice.  Once with Tony Iommi on the proposed Iommi solo record that became a Black Sabbath record, The Seventh Star.  Then a few years later, he recorded a few great tracks that ended up on Gary Moore's, Run for Cover.   Both outings sadly lead nowhere, and since, Hughes has done fine work on his own, but has never had a cast as strong as his lead.  Now that may well change, and the world may get a great surprise and a great new band.  Wouldn't (may I should say - won't) that be great?

I'm placing much of my faith on the fact that Derek Sherinian, a fantastic keyboard player, is being used to largely play the role of a latter day Jon Lord.  This tells me that the Purple vibe is being carefully considered, and that could be very cool, indeed.  The combination of this with Kevin Shirley's vast experience as a producer and engineer tells me volumes about this project.

My prediction is that this will be the sleeper of the year.  We'll see, won't we....coming in late summer, 2010.

Black Country.

Edit:  By the response I've received, it's obvious that I should point out the fact that Glenn Hughes has been amazingly prolific for the past decade.  He's made several records with Iommi since the Sabbath record.  My point in the blog is that Glenn hasn't had a regular partner for touring or recording that is equal his amazing talent or stature, and I think every artist benefits from this. Blacck Country should prove this.  Find out more on Glenn and Joe, and Black Country at: (Kevin Shirley's site) (hughes and bonamassa doing Mistreated)

and thanks to Mark ( a reader) for correcting my gaff on the name of Seventh Star (a great record incidentally, my favorite to ever bear the name Black Sabbath).  Fire at will, Dio, Gillan, and Ozzie fans.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Paul McCartney: As a Musician (Reprint From 2010)

Lots of thing are said about Paul McCartney these days, but it seems that very little of what's said is about his music.  Most of what I see involves his social life, and personal matters, none of which are of my interest or concern.  And really shouldn't be anyone else's either.

What interests me is wondering if possibly Paul is the finest musician that ever lived, and why.  I can already hear the naysayers, and the Lennon fans.  I love Lennon's music, don't get me wrong, but I also am not under the impression that he was anywhere near the level of McCartney in pure musicianship, nor did he have any interest in such.  Before you dismiss this possibility, ask yourself this:

Has anyone ever done as many different things musically as well as McCartney?  Sure, there might be better singers, but Paul's a great one.  There are writers as good, but perhaps none better over the long haul.  As a pianist, he's as facile as rock's best ( Martha My Dear, Maybe I'm Amazed, Let It Be, Hey Jude)....pretty good, eh?).  His arranging skills are superb.  As a guitarist, he's a brilliant lead player, and no one sounds like him on an acoustic: beautiful and unique.  Paul the Bassist?  The capitalization is intentional.  He's almost inarguably the best bassist in the history of rock and roll.

Often overlooked is McCartney's fantastic abilities as an accompaniest.  Listen to his bass work and background vocals on George Harrison's Something.  Wow.  Listen to his playing on Lennon's songs.  Paul was much more of a team player than he's ever been given credit for.  How many cool songs did he write for Ringo Starr to sing?  How many writers give away an A Little Help from My Friends, or a Yellow Submarine (granted a weird one, but was it not perfect for what it was?).

His mastery of style is awesome ( a word that's become terribly misused, but I mean it here as intended - awe inspiring).  Early on he rocked I'm Down, then crooned Yesterday. He did Michelle around the same time he did, Got to Get You into My Life. Later, he gave Linda My Love, and Maybe I'm Amazed, while banging out Let Me Roll It, and Live and Let Die.  He even tackled country rock with Rocky Racoon. He also regularly travelled the well paved roads of Ray Charles and Little Richard with piano fueled rythym and blues.  Seems there's no style he can't do and do well.

As a bassist, Paul is not in a league of his own, but he's got scant company.  It may be said that James Jamerson played as inventively, and as beautifully on most of the Motown hits of the '60s and early '70s.  John Entwistle also is a member of the small group of bassists I'd consider truly as great.  I'd throw in the underrated John Paul Jones as well.  While these guys are in McCartney's league as a bass player, none of them sang while they played for the most part, nor performed their own compositions, either, with the exception of Entwistle, occasionally.

McCartney's bass work is all you could ever asked for from a player.  Even the reasonably rather easily tossed off later hit, Coming Up, has a stunningly great bass line.  His playing is perpulsive, melodic, inventive, and unpredictable.  I recently enjoyed Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick's performance of the whole of the Sgt. Pepper album, and as impressed as I was with his playing,  I was more taken by the fact that McCartney had originally conceived and performed such wonders.  There's not a song on the record in which Paul sounds like he did anything but laboriously think out, and contribute his best effort.  On most every track from his long career Paul has made an effort to play a great part, as opposed to a tagged on bass line.  That's where his skills as an accompaniest shine through most brightly.  He always played his heart out, never once mailed it in.

I wonder how many people listened to The Beatles's, Taxman, then went on to rave about George Harrison's ripping guitar solo, never realizing that the indeed ripping solo had been laid down by Paul McCartney.  His electric lead guitar playing is brilliant, and mostly overlooked when people discuss great guitarists.  While he's never made an appearance in any top 100 guitarists type polls, that's both a shame and a crime.  Listen to his lead lines on his solo track, Maybe I'm Amazed.  I'm absolutely amazed, alright.  There's loads of great guitarists who've never played a solo as beautiful, succinct, or better for a song.  Paul played lead guitar on a great many Beatles tracks, as confirmed in several books that chronicle the band's recordings.  Geoff Emerick, who engineered much of The Beatles's catalogue, discusses this a great deal in his excellent book, Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording The Beatles.  While to a discernible degree a McCartney apologist, Emerick's personal opinions may be one thing, but I can't question his veracity.  His facts are indisputable.  Fact is, McCartney is a tremendous guitar player, and that fact has been given short shrift.  He's a great, great guitarist, regardless of how you look at it.

McCartney the singer?  If you fancy yourself any type of capable singer, try a few McCartney tunes on for size.  His range and abilities are stunning.  Wimpy?  Tell me that what he sang on Helter Skelter is in any way wimpy.  You kidding me?  The man has been critically derided for most of his career because he happens to be as good a singer of love songs as anyone ever.  We can't go about supporting someone actually espousing the beauty of love, now can we?  Paul's performance on the end The Beatle's final recording, Abbey Road, should end any discussion concerning his abilities as a vocalist.

Not often mentioned (people rarely discuss such matters), is McCartney's skills as a background vocalist.  He's perhaps the greatest that ever lived.  Again, give a listen to his accompaniment of George Harrison on Something, and you will be amazed.  Throughout the entire history of The Beatles, Paul sang his heart out every time he contributed a harmony to someone else's tunes.  The art of harmonization is finally returning to the world of rock after a long absence, and this is a beautiful thing.  No one did it better than the Beatles.  From day one they were performing wonderfully complex and sophisticated harmonies.  McCartney's vocals not onlt boast great tone and range, his note selection also cannot be overlooked.

Martha My Dear, a love song Paul wrote to his sheepdog, started out as a piano playing exercise.  McCartney, a musician always seeking to improve his skills, devised the piano on this track as a way to sharpen his chops, and the results are obvious.  One would never know that this is not the work of a brilliant pianist, which, of course, it is.  Paul wrote more hit songs on his piano than perhaps anyone but Cole Porter, and his playing is always spot on.  I listed but a few of these hits earlier in this article, but go back and listen to his piano playing.  It stands up to the work of such greats as Nicky Hopkins, Leon Russell, or any other great rock and roll piano player.

Arrangement is an art that many listeners never consider, but one that can't be overlooked (using that word a lot, aren't I?).  In the history of recorded music, has anyone ever recorded a better suite of songs than that which wraps up Abbey Road?  Or, how about the middle eight, bridge section of Lennon's, A Day in The Life, where McCartney supplied the brilliant, "Woke up, Fell out of bed" section?  Much of Lennon and McCartney's shared brilliance lies in their ability to arrange their songs, not just play them as written.  This may speak to work ethic as much as it does to talent, but they had that in spades, and it can never be forgotten that hard work is what develops great skills.  Later on, McCartney showed the brilliance of his arranging and producing skills by reuniting with George Martin on the incredible, Live and Let Die, which is so seamless that you almost don't notice how complex and majestic the composition and recording are.  It's a musical marvel made to sound effortless by Paul's great talents.

Did I mention that he's also a very competent drummer?  I didn't even go into his marvelous acoustic guitar playing, simply because that deserves it's an article of it's own, he's that good.

Yeah, for my money, Paul McCartney may just be the all round greatest musician who ever lived.  Beethoven never sang his compositions, Sinatra never wrote his songs, and no one I can think of ever so ably contributed to the work of bandmates.  He wrote them, played them, sang them, and produced them.  Who ever did it all, better? It's an interesting question.        

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mick Ronson: A Hall of Famer in Any League

There's currently a push being put on to get Mick Ronson placed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  A complete no brainer.  One of the most obvious selections available.  Ronson was the most valuable player on every team he ever joined.

As David Bowie's guitarist and musical director, Ronson created as much of the Ziggy sound as Bowie.  Whether it came from his spitfire guitar work, his excellent piano work (Lady Stardust), his brilliant background vocals,or his prodigious arranging skills, Ziggy's sound does not exist without Ronno.

I just finished listening to the old bootleg of Bowie and The Spiders at the Santa Monica Civic in 1972, and am amazed once again at just how powerful a figure Ronson could be.  There's very little audible piano work by Mike Garson (unfortunately), so it's largely left to Mick to provide the melodic underpinnings for Bowie's vocals, and it's a tour de force.  Using just a Les Paul, an American Tonebender, a wah pedal and a Marshall Major 200 watt amp, Ronson paints amazing tone pictures on every tune.  His performances on Width of a Circle, and Moonage Daydream put him at a place Jeff Beck never really got to in terms of explosive guitar-work within the framework of a song.  By staying clean and sparse on verses and intros, his fireworks are all the more amazing when he kicks on the distortion and the wah pedal.  For rock and roll wah work, Ronson stands with German guitar wiz Michael Schenker.  These two both made the wah-wah a major part of their repertoires and it's a huge part of their distinctive signatures and a root of their expressiveness.

In the studio with Bowie, Mick Ronson played a role that cannot be downplayed in any way.  Listen to Bowie's work prior to Ronson's joining up, and it's all to clear.  Ronson gave Bowie a sense of melodic sophistication only hinted at earlier.  By Hunky Dory, Ronno's role grew to loom as large as Bowie's.  His arrangements, especially his string arrangements, rival anyone's in rock and roll history, and I'm including John, Paul, and George Martin here.  Perhaps only The Beatles were as accomplished as Bowie in terms of arrangement strength.  Bowie and Ronson together jumped from music hall to space rock in the blink of an eye, doing both as well as had ever been done, and never making it sound forced or incongruous.

When The Spiders had grown to big for their britches, and Bowie had bounced them, Ronson took a swing at solo stardom, a role he performed well, but did not relish.  Any fan of glam or guitar rock in general needs to give his second solo LP, Play Don't Worry a listen.  The title track is angelic perfection, incredibly well written, sang, played and produced.  Guitar fans can witness perhaps the pinnacle of wah pedal perfection on Ronson's cover of the Pure Prairie League nugget, Angel #9.  His tone on this tune is perfection, it damned near makes me cry, it's so good.  His vocals are surprisingly strong as well, for a guy people said wasn't a singer.  The album has other grand gifts as well, in the guise of tunes such as, The Empty Bed, and the Lou Reed/New York scene influenced, Billy Porter.  Another listen to solo Ronson is warranted.  Much better than what you can read in old press clippings, which were predisposed to put the guitarist in his place.

From there it was off to a great many years as the musical foil to Mott the Hoople visionary Ian Hunter.  Ronson had, of course, briefly joined the final version of The Hoople, but it really ended before it began, excepting his brilliant guitar solo on the band's final single, Saturday Gigs, recently referred to as, "the greatest song ever written about being in a band."  True enough.

Ronson did the same thing for Hunter that he had done for Bowie, helping a brilliant writer shine even brighter through the presence and musicality of Mick Ronson. 

I saw the Hunter/Ronson Band open a show for Cheap Trick at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum in 1980.  It may have been the best performance by a band that I have ever witnessed.  The love and partnership between the two musicians trumped anything I can think of off the top of my head, and I've seen many, many amazing performances.  They owned the stage and tore through a tremendous selection of Hunter/Mott classics.  In 1980, not many bands were capable of blowing Cheap Trick off the stage.  That night the Hunter/Ronson Band decimated them, and I say that with great respect to the Tricksters, one of the greatest bands in rock history.  They were just that good that night.  So good that Cheap Trick's management/crew turned on the house lights before the final notes of the opener's set had died.  I smile recalling Ian Hunter hurling a full Heinekin beer acroos the stage in anger.  Still, all was patched up by the time of Trick's encore, which had Hunter and Ronson out for The Beatles's Daytripper.  A night of rock and roll bliss, my friends.

There are many great moments of Ronson's greatness throughtout Hunter's solo years.  I'll leave them for you to search out and discover (that's half the fun -I ain't playing that internet shit of spoon feeding you everything you need to know).  There's a ton of them and they're all worth the search.  Go find 'em, then immediately if you have not yet done so, go to and place your vote for Ronson's rightful place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

There's much more to Ronno's great career, I didn't even touch on his time with Dylan, McGuiness, Lou Reed, Elton John, or many others.  It's out here, go find it.

But please, please hit that petition and let's get maybe the best sidekick lead guitarist in the history of rock where he belongs.

I gotta mention Ronson's work on Lou Reed's Transformer album.  Yeah, it's down as a Bowie production, but I hear a huge dose of Ronson all over this brilliant record.  His work on the classic tune, Perfect Day, by itself should be enough to get that Hall nomination.

Mick Ronson, rock god extraordinaire.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reconsidering Doug Gillard (A Guitarist's Guitarist)

Here's a reprint of something I wrote a while back about Doug's early years in Guided By Voices.  I hear Doug's playing a solo set in New York City tonight, and I wish I were there.  If you aren't all ready a fan, get there.  Doug put more classic guitar parts on Guided By Voices records than you can imagine.  Tons of great, great stuff.  Do yourself a favor.  Check 'em out.

The Gillard Episode:

MAG EARWIG, track 3….All of a sudden the band is playing in lockstep rhythm with every hair in place and an aggression previously only suggested….As close as GUIDED BY VOICES ever got to standard radio friendly hard rock….

What makes a band of gifted auteur/amateurs suddenly morph into a group sounding more like Aerosmith/Early to mid Alice Cooper, than Wire, Devo or any other latter day influence on Pollard??? Enter Doug Gillard, and the rest of his Cleveland cohorts….

Immediately the differences are very palpable and apparent….BULLDOG SKIN is perhaps the first tightly recorded, fully realized Pollard composition….It’s even got background vocals that are relatively in-tune….And, Gillard is soloing off the cuff and it’s a slashing, ripping solo that obviously Bob had heard in rehearsals, as he invites Doug to “get wild”, and indeed He does….My main wish at this point is that these solo flights had continued….

I know the need for eloquence of musicians has become as unimportant as integrity in a politician, but I miss them both….The musicianship more, but I digress….Doug entered the band playing his ass off….The heavy, insistent chording on NOT BEHIND THE FIGHTER JET sound like Gillard was definitely looking for wider acclaim and a shot at rock star dreams….Suddenly the bass and drums are in the same room, the timing is much improved and professional….Drum fills on PORTABLE MEN’S SOCIETY announce the departure of the tortured exercises of Kevin Fennell and the loops of Sprout, Pollard and Pollard….While they were always interesting, risky efforts, they’d only get you so far on the wings of an A/R department….

Doug’s playing is a cool distillation of many different guitarists and styles….Obviously a master of turning others styles and strengths into an unrecognizable conglomeration that ends up his own, DG does exactly what every aspiring guitarist should do…. He listens, he learns, he regurgitates, he mutates, and finally devise his own recipe that harkens old masters without infringing on their copyrights….Doug sounds like Doug….

Equal parts punk, prog, metal and jangle, I can never recall hearing a Gillard guitar part that made me smirk and say, “That sounds just like…..anyone”….

If this is the only thing one guitar player EVER says about another, it is the high-water-mark of praise….I hear a lot of others in Doug’s playing….I hear glimpses of Steve Howe (Yes), Elliot Easton (Cars), Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Alice Cooper’s guitar team and many others….I’d say Mick Ronson and Bill Nelson should also be mentioned….Yet, never have I heard a copy of any of these artists’ work in Doug’s recordings….

On my GBV wish list were always two things….One, a greatest hits package of classic Geebs tunes re-recorded by the latter day band of Doug, Nate, Tim, and Jim….I love the weirdness of the earlier efforts, but am under no illusion of the inaccessibility of the music due to the ragged productions….Bob would be among the first to say that the sonic quality of the early recordings were a result of financial strife and lack of musical education….I never question the brilliance of the native genius, I do wish that the songs had been given a greater opportunity in the marketplace by being a bit more polished….

Personally I like a well greased band playing on the more developed tunes, and Bob playing and singing the quirkier stuff on his own….Never again after MAG EARWIG was Doug to play so free and unedited on a GUIDED BY VOICES record or tour….A shame to my guitar soaked soul…..

MAG EARWIG is a near perfect transition record….Half new/half old GBV it is a great record of a band changing to fit into the pr-conceived notions of their creator….Doug didn’t change GBV, Bob did….Doug was the medium, not the message….

Fast forward to DO THE COLLAPSE the most controversial effort in the band’s discography….We jump from a record of mixed messages and styles to straight up radio ready hard rock….Gone are the out of tune guitars, the falling down the stairs drum fills, and we’re greeted with big studio synths, accurate, powerful drumming (supplied now by the incredible Jim MacPherson, ex-Breeders stickman), this had to be shocking to the ears of GBVs indie rock supporters….This, in reality is GBV as I’d ALWAYS heard Bob describe his aspirations….

Perhaps this is where we get the greatest division of opinion of the GBV opus….No longer is the band something that could only be found by the fan who claims as their own, a band so quirky, so strange that only a few could absorb and appreciate the beauty….DtC is to my thinking Doug’s greatest record….

By now, Doug is obviously the musical director, taking Bob’s acoustic demos and converting them into band songs with more fully realized arrangements, musical interludes and, yes, soloing….Listen to IN STITCHES, this is basically a new take on metal with a wonderful dose of psychedelia….Doug switches from jagged hard edged chording in effected arpeggiated sections and makes it sound perfectly natural…The use of acoustic guitars as underpinning and textures are new to a band that previously struggled to get the main idea out, though occasionally brilliantly….Listen to the solo here….This has BALLS, testosterone….A brilliant arrangement….

Moving to the perfectly timed strumming that ring in DRAGONS AWAKE….Again, a new sound for the band this is as tight as any REM tune, though much more melodic….And, then strings serve to flesh out the song that in an earlier cantation may have been another 1 minute gem…..

SURGICAL FOCUS….Jesus Christ, perhaps Gillard’s finest arrangement, I’d bet this is about 80% Doug….The playing on this is just divine….Maybe the greatest marriage of Bob and Doug’s combined artistry….This sounds like the perfect hard rock outing to me….Great song, incredible drums, thunderous bass, and a guitar part that keeps guys up late at night pissing off their neighbors with their belabored efforts to figure out each perfect fill….

I can’t bring myself to criticize anything Doug does on COLLAPSE, and I would guess that upon it’s completion the band had to have visions of Platinum and Rolls….

MUSHROOM ART evokes Rush of all bands, with its highly compressed power chords and melodic section connectors….Again, Doug’s playing is such a cool combination of influences, originality and taste….

Criticize MR. BUCKLES if you must, as many do, but not I dare you, for the guitars….I know Bob and his musical intentions well enough to say that this turned out exactly as Bob envisioned….

This whole album is a testament to Bob’s love of good arena rock….Growing up Bob was a huge fan of bands like The Who, Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, BeBop Deluxe and AC/DC (Bon era only)….This had to somewhat fulfill an ambition to make a huge, grand big rock record….

Dislike hard rock if you like, but admit that DtC is a pretty great example of the genre….Listen to Doug’s work on WORMHOLE and come away les than amazed, and I wonder what the hell you were listening to….

LIQUID INDIAN again evokes memories of stylistic moments in guitar history, without ever pandering or taking that which does not belong to you….Slightly psychedelic, somewhat hard rock, somewhat Cars-like (listen to the synth work….)….

I was always surprised that Bob never lost Doug to a better paying, higher profile gig….As a musical director/right hand man, you couldn’t ask for more….Listen to WRECKING NOW and try to figure out where to classify Doug’s playing will leave you scratching your head, but also admitting that this is one of the finest, if not the finest guitarist of the 90s….Who was better, more consistently???? No one, that’s who….

If not yet convinced….fast forward to PICTURE ME BIG TIME for more pure brilliance….If you can come up with a guitar arrangement this perfect, this creative, this well played, consider yourself a GREAT musician….

Simply put….Doug Gillard recorded more brilliant rock and roll guitar in the late 90s than any other player in the genre….Wanna fight about it?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Monterey 1997 - 30 Years Later - A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix

On Sunday June 18, 1967 Jimi Hendrix electrified the world with his guitar histrionics, and by pyrotechnically assassinating his Fender Stratocaster at the end of his now famous American debut.  That day, more than perhaps any other, began our fascination with the guitar hero.  From that day forward the gaunlet had been thrown down and a guitarist could no longer just stand and play.

Of course, I'm generalizing a bit, and some would say that Eric Clapton had all ready began the "guitarist as god" schtick, or that Townshend had been busting up guitars in England, but I'll stick with my premise that it really got kick-started at Monterey in '68.  I'm more than OK with letting others have the final or decisive word on such matters.  I know that Clapton and Townshend have always worshipped at the electric church established by Jimi, so I'll leave it at that.  He amazed them both, and they copped to his greatness - enough for me.

30 years later a few friends and myself decided to commemorate this occasion, so we decided to make a pilgrimage to the site of the festival on it's anniversary to pay our tributes.  Now, I'm not exactly sure who's idea it was, but since it 's my story, of course I'll take the credit for how we handled the festivities.

We decided that to properly pay our respects in the time tested traditions of the world, a sacrifice had to be made.  It was decided that we would burn, as Hendrix had burned, a Fender StratocasterOn the very stage that Jimi made his own on that summer night in June of '67. And it had to be an American Standard, no cheaper off shoot, or imitation import.  It had to be the real deal.  It had to be done properly, with love, honor, and respect.  No other way would do.  To do anything less would be a cheap bastardization, and could only serve to disgrace the entire affair.  And that wouldn't do.  What's the point of paying homage if you don't do it with dignity?

We made a day of it.  All of us had taken the day off from our jobs and reserved the whole day.  We left Sacramento for Monterey early mid-morning, filming the entire trip for posterity.  The group was made up of my dear friends Robb Phillips (as big a Hendrix fan as exists, and a major force in the planning and implementing of this adventure), Phil Klinkenberg, Kyle Kovalic, and yours truly.  On the road to Monterey we played all Hendrix recordings and pontificated throughout exactly what Hendrix had meant to us, our lives, and the world of the guitar and music fans the world round.  We probably also drank a beer or two, and smoked the odd joint.  I make no excuses for our behavior, we're grown damned men and we handled ourselves appropriately.  This trip was all about the rock and roll experience and we took no shortcuts.  We handled it like champions.

We arrived in Monterey around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon.  Kovalic being familiar with the area directed our group to the fairgrounds, which we had no idea what we would find.  For all we knew, we may or may not be able to gain access.

Luckily, as fate would have it, our way was impeded by nothing or no one.  It was as if the gods had made us a path.  Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that no one else had chosen to may their way back toMonterey for the 30th anniversary.  That kind of shocked me, actually.  We did pick up a kindred spirit who had his trailer inside the grounds for an art exhibit the next day.  He was old enough to remember the era and seemed accordingly honored that we allowed him to join up with us, but who could deny a fellow traveller?

Once we made our way to the stage, what we found amazed us.  It looked as if the festival could have been held the day before.  Nothing had been altered or appreciably changed.  The wooden stage still towered over the huge expanse, and you could literally feel where it had all taken place.  The area was completely empty and the silence truly inspiring.

We climbed the stage and began assembling our pyre.  We had made sure to bring aluminum foil to protect the old dry wood of the stage.  Our lighter fuel of choice?  Ronsonal, of course, same as Jimi had used 30 years previous.  Then, having made the preparations, we proceeded to play the enire Monterey recordings of Hendrix's set.  As the soudtrack played, we continued to discuss all that Hendix had meant, how he had instigated our lives in music, before we even were aware.

Finally, the set progressed to the Trogg's classic, Wild Thing.  The day turned to twilight as the song played.  It was as beautiful an evening as I have ever seen,or ever spent.  I then added the lighter fluid and set the guitar aflame.  As the song roared to it's conclusion, I did my best imitation of Hendrix, Townshend, and Blackmore, and a Strat was tossed and broken on this stage once again. 

We all knelt before the body of the broken soldier, gave our consecrations, and proceeded to light the fire.  As soon as the fire lit, quite amazingly ajet flew over, very low and very loud.  It seemed somehow appropriate and sounded fantastic.  The guitar burnt, and we said our final words over the once beautiful Stratocaster.  Our tribute had been completed.  Once the fire had extinguished itself, we cleaned up the mess and returned the guitar to it's coffin (case).

It could not have gone better in our wildest dreams, again, as if fate and the gods had known we were coming.  I look back upon this moment not simply only as one of the most pleasurable days I have ever spent, in the company of great friends and fellow musicians, fans, and music professionals, but also as if we had done something that had meaning deeper than just breaking and burning a guitar.  We had genuinely paid tribute and our respects to a momentuous occasion, and one of the true musical gods, Jimi Hendrix.  It felt right because it was right, of this there can be no question.

We filmed the entire event, and it makes for a rather incredible and moving 4 hour home movie.  Perhaps in the next year I can reconvene with my friend and confidante, Robb Phillips, and we can edit it down to a document we can share with other Hendrix, and guitar devotees.

In the meantime I will look back and smile for the greatest day I ever had in the guitar business. 

My thanks to my dear friends and fellow guitar lovers, Robb Phillips, Phil Klinkenberg, and Kyle Kovalic.

No disrespect was ever intended in the destruction of a fine American Fender Stratocaster. It was an act of great devotion, and respect committed in loving tribute to both the player, the fine instrument and the role rock and roll has played in all our lives.  Long live rock and roll.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Strat Guys and all others

When it comes to signature guitar tone, nothing seems to speak more truly than a Fender Stratocaster.  There's no confusing Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, or Eric Clapton's classic tones, are there?  You recognize them from the first note.  Granted, they all have unique techniques, and different rigs, but hey're all playing roughly the same guitar.

More than any other single instrument, the Strat allows the soul of the user to shine through.  Listen to anything by Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Instantly, you know it's him.  In a world in which it's getting tougher by the moment to recognize who's who in the mainstream rock world, I notice that fewer and fewer players are wielding Strats, instead opting for the de riguer sound of humbuckers thru Rectifier sound, and there's so much gain that all sense of personality and individuality go out the damned window.  Can you really say the signature tone of Metallica's Kirk Hammett?  Not to pick on him, he's a helluva player, but can you really say you recognize his lead tone the second you har it? I can't.  I can hear Hetfield's right hand though, letting me know it's them.  My point is that I guess I'm not hearing anything in the way of seriously distinuishing tone signatures going down these days, and that fact saddens me.

Listen to almost any Pink Floyd song, and Gilmour's tone jumps out bigger than life.  Granted he's a fabulous player, but that's another thing about athe Strat.  It seems to coax more of the soul of the guy who's playing.  Give a listen to the big Gibson Les Paul guys, Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons for instance, they're more definable by their writing, and arranging than for the sound of their guitars.  I always hoped to hear Gibbons tackle a Strat, but he avoids single coil pickups like the plague.  Even when he opts for a Tele shaped guitar it generally features humbuckers, and he EQs his tone massively to achieve a Gibson-esque tone.

Maybe it's that the Strat's tone is less massive than a humbucking pickup's and in this world of louder, louder, louder, there's just not a need for the individual voice, or there's too much space to fill for the dynamic voice of a Strat, to which I say, bullshit.  Now, more than ever, from a whisper to a scream, we need some uniqueness to show itself in the world of rock guitar.  Who are the great new players?  I don't know.  There are seemingly no new guitar heroes.  And that's a shame.  You may say that all that showing off is vanity, but what great, classic band didn't have a recognizable guitarist with recognizable tone?  Hell, even Yngwie Malmsteen, the man more responsible than any, perhaps, for the shred guitar antics of the 80s, got there with yet another unique Strat tone.  He got his kicks from Blackmore (yet another Strat genius), and Hendrix, yet sounds nothing like either.

Why? Simple.  The Fender Stratocaster.  All three used a Fender Strat and a Marshall 100 watt amp (yeah, Blackmore's may have been beefed, but the tone remains the same).  They achieved their uniqueness, their tones, using one guitar and one guitar only.  I love Rick Nielsen dearly, but he has not had a moment of unique guitar tone since he quit using Strats early on in Cheap Trick's career.  I hear a huge difference in tone once he went to pretty much all humbucking, Gibson type sounds.  The fact remains that the Strat is the one tool that can more than any other single piece of equipment, get a guitarist closer to finding the soung of their own soul.

Shredders like Satriani, Vai, and Van Halen would have all done well to pick up a Strat and give it a whirl.  Aren't their tones all somewhat generic, especially as time has marched on?  Van Halen had a unique tone at one time, and no one sounds like Satch or Vai, but I hear their hands way more than their guitars, and for me something is missing in the soulfulness of each's individual tones.  Maybe it's me, but I don't think so.

Check it out, give it all another listen and see if you don't go, I'll be damned, he's right, nothing brings out a player's personality more than a Fender Strat.

Good guitar tone seems more rare with each digital moment.  Remember, or find out the difference now, before it's too late.

All this digital crap is homogenizing the personality right out of rock.  And that sucks.

Fender Stratocaster + tube amp = rock nirvana.

Peace, love, and loud guitars,