The Politest Gig

It’s 1988. December 13th in fact. 

We’re wending our way down the M20 to Folkestone in a white Montego, dressed to the nines in charity shop Crombies, scuffed winklepickers and carefully managed mullets. The reason? To see Tanita Tikaram live in concert at the Leas Cliff Hall. 

Honestly, we were. 

Why, you may reasonably ask? Well, when you’re fifteen years old, reasons can become hard to pin down. Someone heard about it and word got round; “Shall we go and see her down in Folkestone?”. A few of us thought it was worth a tenner, or whatever it cost. ‘Good Tradition’ was okay, as was ‘Twist in My Sobriety’. Why not? Live music, a surreptitious under the age piss-lager and close proximity to the opposite sex. It didn’t dawn on us that the music would hardly be conducive to a rock n’ roll riot. Nevermind though, a gig’s a gig.

The Leas Cliff venue itself is described thusly on it’s contemporary website;

If an impressive setting – clad with opulent decor and exquisite attention-to-detail – is what you dream of, you need look no further than The Grand Hall. Living up to its majestic name, this beautiful hall can seat up to 450 guests, with ample room left for a stage and dance floor. It’s a guaranteed way to make your event stand out from the crowd.

And here on a technical spec sheet of the venue;

Capacity Seated 1004 without stage, 872 with full stage. Please deduct 14 seats from all the above if a mixer position is required. Standing 1514 – General Admission. Comprises 1300 Standing and 214 seated on balconies unreserved seating Guest lists form part of the capacity and CANNOT be added on top Main Hall 

Dimensions 37.2m wide x 20.5m deep (122ft x 66.5ft) (including staging) Stage Details: Width of Stage: 48ft Depth of Stage: Ranges between 15,21,27ft Height of Stage: 3ft 6in Height from Stage to Grid: N/A Height from Stage to Ceiling on Apron: 23ft 7in (7.3m) Height from Stage to Ceiling Fixed Stage: 12ft (3.7m) The stage is not raked or heated.

I guess both are accurate in their own way, but it’s not how I remembered it. 

Anyway, we shuffled in, slightly disheartened by the fact that it was a sit down affair. Not much opportunity to mingle. None, in fact. There were a lot of Mum’s and Dad’s, and some Gran’s in there too. Our naive hopes of music enhanced lust were obviously seriously misplaced.

Was there a support act? My mind doesn’t wish to reveal that. I do have a generally vague recollection of Tanita though. It was professionally presented with solid players, and in her own way, was mildly engaging, if only for the fact that she was a newly minted pop star and was all but a few feet away singing in that distinctive, contralto voice. It must, in fact, have been the Basingstoke pop-folkster’s first proper tour, and possibly early on too. Entirely inoffensive. All the Mum’s, Dad’s and Gran’s clapped along and were politely appreciative between songs.

But, by God, we were bored! 

One friend, who I shall call Steve, decided three quarters of the way through that enough was enough. He got up, politely made his way to the end of the row and began to dance his way to the front of the stage. For at least 3 minutes he gyrated on his own to the mid tempo sixth form poetry folk pop of our Tanita. A small coterie of previously unnoticed-by-us young ladies began to clap and cheer near the front, then got up themselves and joined the now rapturous dancing of Steve. Many others soon followed, and by the end, during the smash hit everyone (I assume) had come to hear (Good Tradition), at least half of the crowd had joined at the front. I reluctantly got up and joined my other friends on the periphery, finding it difficult to truly ‘get down and boogie’ due to the nature of the music and my own crippling self-consciousness. It was all somehow quite ridiculous. The concert mercifully ended, and Tanita looked pleased, having, in her eyes, brought the house down, albeit with the not insubstantial help of our good friend, the lunatic Steve (who by the way, was now eagerly chatting up two of the prettiest girls who had joined him earlier).

We all went home with a fuzzy glow and in the knowledge that we may have made Tanita’s night. Little did we know that come the following March we would see the mighty Fishbone in the same venue and experience the other extreme of what live music can offer. And that’s another story.

Four Great Solos – George Duke

There’s nothing quite like a good synth solo to get the blood racing, and one of my favourite proponents of such things is the incredible George Duke. The man had chops, as they say; acceptable to jazzers, but there are enough soulful blues in his lines to appeal to the non-connoisseur. Not to mention the great sounds that emanated from his ARP Odyssey. I’ve picked four, but there are many more, but these just hit the spot for me. Whenever I hear these I whip out the air synth, open my shirt and get my stank face on.

Solo 1 – Festival (Follow the Rainbow – 1979) Solo starts at 04:16

This track kind of stood out from the rest of the album with it’s Brazilian fusion stylings. It features a fantastic acoustic guitar feature from, correct me if I’m wrong, Icarus Johnson, a crazed high energy percussion break and a memorable Rhodes outro jam from Duke. But it’s the ARP solo following the percussion orgy that melts me every time. It glides majestically over an ever evolving chord progression that leads euphorically to the Rhodes solo. Simply sublime stuff.

Solo 2 – Life & Times (Billy Cobham, Life & Times – 1976) Solo starts at 02:29

On this largely under looked Cobham record, Duke is credited as ‘Dawilli Conga’ presumably for contractual reasons. I’m fairly certain he plays the big solo on the title track – it reminds me of his work with Zappa, in particular ‘Inca Roads’ (see below). If it is in fact Cobham himself, then it’s still bloody great. This one builds from the ground up and enters galaxy levels by the end, all underpinned by Cobham’s frenetic and passionate drumming. It’s funky, spiritual and psychedelic all at the same time.

Solo 3 – Inca Roads (Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All – 1975) Solo starts at 07:10

A spiritual precursor to Life & Times in some respects; the complex up-tempo rhythms with a glorious, ever evolving synth solo that lifts the fidgety, angular and clever song into space. Duke is just a God on this track, with incredible Rhodes comping and soloing, and of course his effortless falsetto. Avant Garde Fusion doesn’t get much better than this.

Solo 4 – Corine (Follow the Rainbow – 1979) Solo starts at 01:44

Another one from the more overtly R&B album ‘Follow the Rainbow’. The track is a smooth concoction which is the perfect early summer evening starter (with a glass of Prosecco, of course). By the time the solo kicks in (a plucky, sensual banger),  I’m ready to get my beige, viscose flares on, a pair of Ray-Bans and start up the old XJ-S (White of course) for a drive to the beach. Wonderful.

1984: Musician George Duke performs onstage in circa 1982. (Photo by Jon Sievert/Getty Images)

Short Takes – The Nightfly

Short Takes – The Nightfly – Donald Fagen (1982)

What more can be said about this much celebrated album? Probably not a huge amount, save for my own personal reflections and memories. The Nightfly holds a particularly mythic place in my life, and is ingrained so deeply into my personality that is impossible for me to conceive of it never existing. And by mythic, I mean mythically apocalyptic. It always conjured up something of the end times, of humanity gazing lovingly back at it’s optimism soon to be snuffed out. Fagen alludes to this nostalgia in the liner notes;

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

It may have also had something to do with the fact that I was reading The Stand for the first time, and would often have the album playing in the background as I attempted to read King’s dense epic. 

There is something so unequivocally American about it, that I found, and still find, so alluring; the dense barbershop style vocal harmonies, rich and intriguing Jazz influenced chord progressions, consummate musicianship, all with a twist of blues (thank you Larry Carlton – check out his solos on the title track and Greenflower Street). As a child, I had no idea how slick this record was, it just sounded great to me and from my bedroom in Kent, UK, it was the sound of a glamorous, far away adult world. Later in life, when discussing this album with friends in the pub, I would be excoriated for liking the extreme sheen of the recording (and other Steely Dan records, in  particular, Gaucho). But, as I always argued, this was part of the aesthetic that interacted closely and explicitly in tandem with Fagen’s wry lyrics. How could I.G.Y (International Geophysical Year) communicate its sense of bright eyed optimism if it’s glacial, digitally thin soundscape was absent? Yes, it’s smooth, but also at the same time, world-weary and noir cool. I eventually won this argument after around a decade and a lot of ale.

There aren’t many albums that can hold my attention from start to finish, and this is one of them. I venture that this is about as perfect a record as can be made. It’s certainly something Fagen has yet to replicate, although there is still much to enjoy in later works. But  where the Kamakiriad’s sequenced fluff feels like a demo (Springtime, anyone?) The Nightfly literally, well, flys.

Liner notes:

http://aln2.albumlinernotes.com/The_Nightfly.html

Song for the Gatekeepers

I am of the generation that has experienced possibly the largest changes in the way we consume media, in particular music in its recorded form.  As a ‘Gen Xer’, I have had the privilege to travel from the end of the vinyl era, through tapes to the false utopia of CDs, the wild west of mp3’s and torrents and into the AI cloud of our benevolent overlords.

I started my listening journey, as a nine year old child, through the medium of cassette and vinyl.  The tapes were nicked from my Dad, and for some reason that is still unknown to me, a pitiful collection of vinyl which included a set of Disney songs and a compilation of third rate Glam rockers in the form of Mudd and Showaddywaddy.  The tapes were far more interesting by way of the nature of their illicit procurement.  I remember vividly swiping ‘In Rock’ by Deep Purple (Oh, the cover – who were those hairy men? And why were they carved into the living rock of a mountain?), ‘The Early Tapes’ by perennially unfashionable Brit-funk popsters Level 42, and a water damaged copy of ‘In Through The Outdoor’ by Led Zeppelin.  And with these three albums, my descent into musical nerdery, pedantry, fun and wonder began.  Locked in my barely decorated room with a shit Binatone tape player (model long forgotten), my brain was subjected to an aural stimulation that may be akin in some way to the great leap of humankind from hunter gatherers to highly organised psychotic God worshipping supremacists.

Every moment of those albums was digested, repeated over and over.  I even knew to the nearest second how long the gaps were at the end of each side.  The covers were studied in minute detail and I even made hand drawn facsimiles, replete with my own naive ‘improvements’.  The joy of listening to those recordings is etched in my psyche forever.  In my innocence, I had no perception whatsoever of their critical value, their place in the great pantheon of pop culture (who cares about that when you’re nine?).  This soon led to more swipings, and overtime, I devoured my Dad’s musical tastes; from the frantic rhythms and spiritual fret wankery of Santana’s Abraxas, the urbane smooth-perv muzak of Avalon by Roxy Music to the strange art-rock of early 80’s King Crimson.

Later, as I grew into pubescence and modest funds became available, I would buy one or two albums from Woolworths, tape them, then go back for either a refund or an exchange; “Can you say why you want a refund?” I would be asked.

“I don’t like the music”, or “the sound is faulty”, I would reply, waving the receipt in the air as if it were the coup de grâce.

Nine times out of ten I would get my way.

After a decade of pirating albums onto cassette, the age of CD dawned.  Now much older, I engaged in an exercise of re-discovering classic albums and favourites in the belief that the sound quality was amazing, and more importantly, definitive.  Thus, a more po-faced and pedantic consumer was nascent. The format was certainly more reliable (and with less undesirable hiss than cassette), but as we all know, many early examples of CD transfers were pretty terrible.  However, the CD age enabled countless re-issues, remasterings, extra content, special mixes, extended cuts and glimpses into the creative process (The Beatles’ Anthology series is a good example of this).

And what about LP records, or vinyl as they are referred to today?  Well, they still had a charm, and I had an ever growing collection of rare Jazz juxtaposed with oddities and easy listening kitsch purloined from charity shops.  With this triumvirate, my musical needs were happily satiated; cassette mix tapes were still important, as were archival CD and nostalgic vinyl.  What linked these different formats was the album itself, as an art form as important as the novel or play.  It was the intended form of the work (albeit filtered through record label commercial considerations). In other words, the artist’s were speaking directly to me. 

Collections took years to put together and many items eluded even my roving eye, and that was definitely part of the pleasure. Just like Christmas, or desire itself – the real joy was the anticipation, the thought of unwrapping unknown delicacies, rather than having them.

Then something went a bit funny, a bit off. I bought my first mp3 player in 2004. It was a Creative ZEN Touch Silver/White DAP-HD0014 Portable MP3 Player (20GB). An incredible change in my music listening dawned! I would be able to carry around pretty much my entire collection and access it whenever and wherever I pleased. The choices to make! The endless playlists! But, as I was to discover, this was part of the problem. One thing it did do well was to enhance my already OCD pedantry. In fact. The ability to alter metadata was a gateway to a deeper malfunction and skewering of the original pleasures of music. But, the worst effect that this new technology had was the democratisation of sound. I soon became miserable, obsessed with categories and obvious and not-so-obvious juxtapositions of songs. A pleasure, you may think, but not in my case. I became overwhelmed by the sheer size of my music library, and with this a disconnection and apathy set in.

How could this be? All of the music that had ever influenced, moved, backdropped my life now had become just like all the other noise. The static between am radio stations held more fascination. Was this because of age (I was in my early thirties, so surely not?), a mental dysfunction brought on by other factors in my life, or was it the new format for consuming music? I plodded on with the infernal machine, and as time progressed, my music collection graduated to my smartphone, then online music lockers (such as Google Play Music). My misery continued, and my nostalgia for the old ways grew.

Concurrent with the world’s inevitable move into the smartphone prison was the rise of Spotify, and others. Now the entire (as good as) world’s music could be accessed at will, with a nihilistic swipe over gorilla glass. Most people seemed happy with this, except for the musicians themselves who now found that they were receiving the ultimate butt-fuck over the counter in this history of entertainment. Royalties dried up overnight, and the old decrepit found that they had to tour their arses off to pay for their medical bills. The rest of the music chain was informed to stop relying on record royalties, and become multimedia business gurus instead. They were all told that this was a new golden age dawning, full of opportunity.

As a consumer, the same issues were there with streaming as with using an MP3 player, but with one difference; your every interaction was captured and analysed for monetization, to add to the great consumer avatar that exists somewhere in an arctic server. For 9.99 earth units a month you could pay for the privilege of having your emotional states monitored in exchange for every sound you could have ever wished for – a strange and somehow de-humanizing activity, and one that benefitted the corporate digital access technologies more than anybody else. But why should I, or anybody else complain? Don’t I have it all now?

The answer, of course, is that where’s the fun in all that? Like a child given the only key to the world’s largest toy and sweet shop, we sit like gluttons in a musical excel spreadsheet, victims of a technology that has become so adept, so slick, so terrifyingly good at categorizing, organising and homogenising the world.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just screaming into the future like an irrelevant old mollusc. The inexorable march of time has no sympathy for the holdouts, who become proud stalwarts of the old ways, left in the dust of convenience and centralised control. It is true that we can still access vinyl, cassettes and CDs (even MiniDiscs), and in fact a vibrant sub-culture exists for those who have the patience and time to enjoy music this way. But, I hope you might agree with me, that something special has been lost. Where will those first kindlings of musical awareness spark if there is no physical representation? My formative experiences of discovering music through my Father’s crappy tapes surely cannot be replicated by the bequeathing of a Spotify account from a parent to their child? 

**Insert inspirational quote about enjoying the journey, not the destination here**

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