Anderson and Tull Revealed

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 9.55.05 AMA Passion Play – The Story Of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull
By Brian Rabey, 2013 – Soundcheck Books, LLP

As we get some perspective on the golden age of progressive rock, there have been a number of books written about the bands and people behind the music.  These include biographies both authorized and unauthorized about many progressive rock giants, including Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull.  Some of these are interesting, giving us insight into how the artists crafted their work, their inspirations, the interpersonal dynamics of the band members, and stories from life on the road.  Others are much more definitive, giving a deeper insight into the creative process, both musically and lyrically, and telling a more complete story about the band and their art.  The success of these tomes depends on the knowledge and skill of the author and level of involvement from the subject artists themselves.

In the case of the new biography, A Passion Play, The Story of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull, we have a new and definitive look at the band and it’s driving persona.  Author, Brian Rabey, began the project already very knowledgeable about all things Tull, having learned the songs on flute during his teenage years, as a fan, and then interviewing and writing reviews on the band for years as a journalist.  For this bio, the author augmented that study with hours of new interviews taking time with many of the more than 20 band members past and present.  These discussions, in the bands own words, along with the author’s keen observations are woven together to create the whole.  It is a thoroughly researched, fascinating look at a band that’s endured for more than four decades with their stories told from many perspectives, not just that of Ian Anderson, who has led the band since it’s inception.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 9.59.11 AMThe book is divided into two major parts – part I being a history of Jethro Tull, and part II dedicated to extensive interviews of Ian Anderson himself.  To begin part I, the birth of the band is covered in great detail.  We learn much about these early formative years, including the revolving door of early members, how they found gigs, and got their start.  We learn exactly how bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (bass), and Barrie Barlow (drums) drifted in and out of the early bands, why Mick Abrahams (guitar) ended up on exiting after their first release, and how John Evans (piano, keyboards) ended up not appearing on the first two albums – making his more formal debut on the third release, Benefit.  This exhaustive early coverage is important to understanding the formative years of the outfit.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 10.50.06 AMThe rest of part I is taken with a segment about each album, each of which interweave authors’ notes with observations from band members culled from their interviews.  Included with this are stories about the comings and goings of the various members, and their reflections on those times.  This section leads to my only quibble with this exceptional book, which is the uneven amount of text dedicated to each of the bands extensive catalog.  The deepest coverage is fairly awarded to the first seven releases – averaging a handful of pages about each album, including many key revelations, most notably a thorough explanation as to how A Passion Play (1973) came to be rewritten and re-recorded.  But this coverage tapers off after that release, such that the core mid period from – 1974’s Warchild, through 1979’s Stormwatch each receive just a page or so of space.  It’s as if the interviews and author’s added commentary tapered off for an intermission, and while picking back up never return to the longer more informative earlier passages.  In particular most fans would agree that Minstrel in the Gallery (1975) was a high point for the band, and while the author notes how solid the release is, and guitarist Martin Barrie is shown to agree, more coverage would have been useful in particular to illuminate the top notch acoustic center of this work spanning from “Requiem”, “One White Duck…” and the phenomenal “Baker Street Blues” suite.  In the end, a minor complaint, as many of the bands albums are so fully explored, along with the detailed interviews on all subjects.

IMG_0650As noted, part II of the book “The Thoughts of Ian Anderson” focuses on the man himself, Ian Anderson, via a series of interviews, and author’s framing commentary.  This an exceptionally presented, informative series of musings, admissions, and observations on the enduring music and legacy of Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson.  In one rare segment, Ian reflects on issues with his vocal performances during the last many years.  While not naming a specific malady or damage done during the “Under Wraps” tour of 1984, he notes honestly that given he is not a traditionally trained vocalist, the wear and strain of repeated performances and attempts to extend his vocal abilities in the early 1980’s has taken it’s toll.   I’ve not seen as much clarity in print as to Ian’s voice until this book captured it.

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 10.47.15 AMMore importantly, Ian muses about band members past and present, talks of inspirations, instruments and his ability with each (no more alto sax for Ian!) his writing and recording and a fair amount of reflection as to why he keeps going after all these years.  In addition the author captures Ian sharing many thoughts about the industry and his contemporaries in the music field.  There is even a bit about his family, although brief, acknowledging he’s always been rather private about his personal life.  The book wraps with some information on each of Ian’s own solo releases.  Of great interest are the thoughts on the creative process including Ian noting that he writes about pictures – visual imagery driving his lyrics.  Anyone who has puzzled over his writings will enjoy this segment.  Also within are some honest observations about other musicians including his enjoyment of Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart, and some bits about Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, and Lou Graham.  All told, very interesting interviews with this musical genius – there will be something new for even for well read fans.

Overall, this is an exceptional work from Brian Ramey – a solid presentation with rare photos – highly recommended to fans and others interested in this seminal band, and it’s reclusive leader.

Warm Blips and Clicks

1st_commercial_Moog_synthesizerDuring the time I was learning to play piano (badly) in my youth, I was witness to the rise of modern electronic music.  In 1968 we purchased Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos and my love affair with the Moog analog synthesizer and the artists who mastered it began.  That same year, my older brother bought me The Beatles White Album for Christmas, and I also heard Dick Hymen’s first electronic album which included the single “”Topless Dancers of Corfu” – a fun bit of pop that showcased many of the sounds possible from analog synthesizers.  This early combination of adventurous rock, classical, and electronic sounds became the basis for much of progressive rock music, from expert practitioners in bands such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes. The sonic depth of this music, and that of their contemporaries was trans-formative – the sound fused to the analog past, and electronic future where all things might be possible.  The sounds made by those early synths still seems fresh today, and is still incorporated in all kinds of music.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the mid 70s the all-electronic music of Kraftwerk came to my attention via their first several albums, most notably The Man Machine from 1978. As we entered the 80’s I was primed for a new wave of bands that employed synths to drive pop and goth music of the period.  Of the groups from the era, several, like Kraftwerk, used only synth and vocals in their work.  None were more prolific and successful than the musical genius Vince Clark.  Vince was a founding member of Depeche Mode, Yazoo (Yaz), and Erasure – the latter still writing and recording today.  Of these, Yazoo holds a special place as being a perfect blend of pop, soul, and cold clear electronic music.  Singer Alison Moyet provided the vocal warmth with her powerful, soulful delivery on tracks spanning their two releases Upstairs at Eric’s (1982) and You and Me Both (1983).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlison’s post Yazoo work is varied.  All of her releases since Yazoo have charted in the UK, as she graces any music that backs her massive powerful voice.  This year she released The Minutes, a welcome return to electronic music and an excellent album in it’s own right.  Her tour led to three dates in the states – we hit the San Francisco stop at the Fillmore auditorium, November 14. The show was wonderful, highlighting the new record and long solo catalog along with a handful of Yazoo tracks. Alison’s voice is undiminished, lending a warmth to all the blips, clicks, and patchwork of traditional synth sounds, still fresh and compelling ear candy after all these years.

Goblin Haunts

I’ve always been a junky for the exploitation cinema of my youth – the b-movies peddled from the 1960’s through the 80’s as double features, which included any number of horror, science fiction, martial arts, biker, and other films of the era.  Of these, many were international movies, from France, Germany, and in particular “giallo” works from Italy.  I saw every Mario Bava giallo film before being old enough to realize what a genius he was, instead just reveling in the colored lighting, unique cinematography, and parade of troubled killers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1977 one of my best friends moved from our neighborhood in southern California to Philadelphia, and it was during our trip out there we ducked into a trashed downtown theater of the “grind house” variety to see the latest Italian import, “Suspiria.”  As the movie began with the sound of bells, bouzouki, and demonic voice chanting “la, la, la, la, la, la, la…..la, la, la, la, la, la……witch!” I knew this was no low budget import, but something more accomplished and frightening, driven by the bizarre prog-horror-rock music of Goblin.  We were very well scared by this movie, and it’s become a favorite – I’ve kept upgraded versions in my collection ever since this first viewing in that creepy run down theater.  After this film, and 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead (Zombi),” more of the soundtracks produced by Goblin came to my attention, along with their first two releases – 1975’s “Profondo Rosso” and their progressive rock debut – 1976’s “Roller.”  I also purchased their strange and challenging progressive rock release “Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark” from 1978, which includes vocals in Italian.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo it was with great anticipation I attended the first tour put on in the United States by the remaining members of Goblin this October at the Warfield theater in San Francisco.  The show paid off on expectations, though parts were rather repetitive, interest was sustained as the 5 piece band was augmented by clips from the horror films that inspired so much of their music, in addition to a lovely dancer who graced the stage during several key sequences.  Standout tracks included “Mad Puppet” from Profondo Rosso, “Goblin” from Roller, Suspiria, and Tenebre – a rare example of vocalization, even if via “vocoder.”  The band including original members Claudio Simonetti (keyboards) and Massimo Morante (guitars) along with additional musicians, were all very adept at recreating the sinister, haunting sound of the original soundtracks, in addition to a selection of their excellent progressive rock works.  It was clear the band was as excited to be playing in San Francisco, as we were to be seeing them here.  After 36 years, quite a wait, let’s hope they rise again.

Camel Coming Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamel are one of the greatest yet least known of the “progressive rock” genre bands that came to life in the early 1970’s.  Associated with the Canterbury music scene in Britain, with Andrew Latimer (guitar, keyboards, flute, vocals) at the helm, the band navigates rock and jazz motifs, prog / space rock, and English folk.  Much of their work is surprisingly sunny – while Andy’s evocative guitar style might be compared to David Gilmore of Pink Floyd fame, there is less gloom in their work as a whole.  At the start, Peter Bardens (keyboards) co wrote the first six records from 1972’s self titled debut “Camel”, through 1978’s “Breathless.”  Peter left the band before the Breathless tour and went on to success as a solo “new age” music artist.  Other group members playing bass, keys, and drums have changed multiple times, with the most persistent member being Colin Bass, an amazing bass player who also offers warm vocals to many tracks since 1979.

The band has become Andy’s life occupation, being the one remaining original member, and who save for a hiatus from 1985-1990 remained productive, with regular releases and tours all the way through their 2003 tour.  At the end of that tour Andy and his wife moved from the US back home to Britain.  After a prolonged illness which made playing too difficult during the last ten years, Andy re-recorded their 1975 release “The Snow Goose” and booked a short series of concerts in Europe and the UK this fall to perform this release and a series of songs from their large catalog.  We flew to London to catch their stop at the Barbican Hall, October 28th, 2013.

The concert was a huge success.  The audience stood to applause for what seemed minutes before the band could play the first note.  Tears were shed.  Notes wound out of Andy’s Gibson Les Paul like siren songs.  Colin and Andy retain their rich vocals and the rest of the band played fabulously, as if no time had passed since their last outing.  The first half of the show found the band playing The Snow Goose in its entirety, with a few deviations from the original work, played beautifully and leaving the audience enraptured.  The second half of the show included early tracks starting with a half pace rendition of “Never Let Go” – beautifully executed, making it hard not to think of Andy’s triumph over health issues with the lyrics:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMan is born with the will to survive,
He’ll not take no for an answer.
He will get by, somehow he’ll try,
He won’t take no, never let go, no…

Then on to others including “Song Within a Song” from “Moonmadness,” a gorgeous rendition of “Tell Me” from “Rain Dances,” “Echoes” from “Breathless,” and the encore “Lady Fantasy” from Mirage.  Their 1979-1984 work was skipped to include more from “Harbour of Tears” and “A Nod and a Wink” – their 1996 and 2002 releases. While I would have included the mid-period work in the set list, it was really special to hear them play The Snow Goose and so many key tracks again after 10 long years.

The dynamics of Camel’s music are so important, where volume, drums, double keyboards and particularly Andy’s plaintive emotive guitar played live are beyond what can be captured on record.  Comparisons to Clapton, Gilmour and the great slow-hand note benders are apt – and fortunately for Camel’s rapt fans, time and illness did not diminish Andy’s skills nor those of his band.  Camel continues the journey and after such a long break, made a welcome visit home.