Dear John

John Wetton just passed away. Many fans have known that this brave and talented artist had been fighting cancer, going through successive treatments that did not lead to recovery. I didn’t know John, only met him twice, but I love his work and have great respect and admiration for his life and journey. The verses and choruses of his greatest music have been running through my head this morning since waking to read the sad announcement. He was and will be remembered as one of the most important and prolific rock artists of our time.

Just want to say a few things, without a deep encyclopedic review of the man and his work. While John lent his time to several projects early in his career, the first really impactful music I heard from the man was from his work with King Crimson. Back when we used to accost our friends to exclaim, “listen to this record!” one of mine handed me two LP’s – wettonjohn2017_crimson_lark_72dpiCrimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (1973) and Starless And Bible Black (1974). I found this music cast a kind of strange spell while at the same time being aurally shocking, challenging beyond belief, utterly lacking in the kind of sound that would attract anyone but serious musicians. It captivated me and made me a lifelong fan of those who contributed. These two albums capture almost everything that made John such a compelling songwriter, player and vocalist. To be sure, his work on that thunderous monster bass was often stunning – take “The Talking Drum,” a relentless dissonant instrumental driven by Bill Bruford’s tuned toms and John’s four-string attack. The momentous sound of his bass could and sometimes did overwhelm the mix in concert. Full stop… one great bass player.

But what always stuck with me, and kept me collecting John’s work through the next 40 years was his truly golden expressive voice. There was a majestic power to that voice, an incredible sustain and phrasing that alternated between sarcastic and sublime, often with a touch of vibrato but more frequently long clear pitch-perfect tones. This was a voice tailor made for progressive rock, particularly on those songs that seemed to come from an earlier time, that pre-industrial acoustic-meets-electric modern renaissance. Take his gorgeous vocal on “Book of Saturdays” and lines such as “Every time I try to leave you, You laugh just the same.” Or, something more intense and biting from “Easy Money” “Getting fat on your lucky star… Making easy money.” John had an uncanny ability to deliver what dynamic prog music demanded, a lead vocal that could easily flex between gentle and more violent passages. Right from the start, that voice had everything in its arsenal -a yearning that brought the blues, a bite, a howl for justice, a plea for sanity, or just a call to celebrate.

wettonjohn2017_uknancover_72dpiAfter Crimson’s untimely disbandment in 1974, John cast about a bit, eventually forming U.K. with prog luminaries, a band that racked up just two albums followed by a live one taken from the tour I saw, their sophomore outing supporting Danger Money when they opened for Jethro Tull in 1979 as a three piece. This legendary band, though short-lived, tops my list for great Wetton compositions played with maximum dynamics by virtuoso musicians Eddie Jobson, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth and Terry Bozzio. To a great extent, while similar to Crimson in dynamics, this work finds John in his best voice, alternating between near ballads like “Renevous 6:02” and “Ceasar’s Palace Blues.”

When this outfit also broke up, John released his first solo album, which made clear that he was well capable of writing music that was easier on the ears, more major tones, a bit less minor. With this under his belt, John went on to form “super group” Asia where he found the commercial success that had eluded his more musically challenging work of the 70s. With the debut Asia album John finally made a more accessible form of pop music that also captured a wider audience. The concert in support of the album was unforgettable, a master class in prog and pop that I will never forget. I’ve seen him live in concert numerous times over the years, and never saw a lazy or subpar performance, even when he had a cold or off night.

John left behind a large catalog of solo work, and collaborations with so many peers, including most notably keyboard player Geoff Downes and guitarist Phil Manzanera. These albums explore every facet of the rock art – some jazz-infused, some progressive, most really essential rock music with some pop to balance it all out. He worked tirelessly, releasing numerous albums, touring frequently. Sure there were some bumps in the road, but there is so much treasure in the man’s large catalog of music that it will stand the test of time as a major contribution to the form.

wettonjohn2017_arkangelcover_72dpiMy favorite moment of John’s is on his 1998 solo album Arkangel. It reportedly came at a time of personal challenges for this artist, and it’s hard not to consider the title track and some of the content overall as autobiographical. Opening with a crack of thunder, this powerful tome includes fitting lyrics for the fighter:

You are my arkangel, my heart and my right hand
When in the face of danger we stand

The danger is over, the artist now quieted, rest in peace John Wetton, safe journey.

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Because John is featured in my book for his work with both U.K. and King Crimson, I searched for months for photos of the man, and fortunately discovered Lisa Tanner, one of the great photographers of the era, who captured this really beautiful shot of John and his frets…thank you Lisa!

Circuline’s Counterpoint

circuline2017_counterpoint_72dpiNow that we are in the new year, I am compelled to catch up with some reviews and activities that unjustly fell off the plate during a very busy period leading up to 2017, right when my new book was released. To begin, one of the best new albums I heard last year was the excellent second release from prog rock band Circuline, titled Counterpoint.

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Circuline was founded three years ago and released Return in 2015. That debut garnered positive reviews and the group moved forward to produce this spectacular follow up. Counterpoint features Andrew Colyer (keyboards, sound design, vocals), Darin Brannon (drums, percussion, keyboards), Natalie Brown (lead vocals), William “Billy” Spillane (lead vocals, rhythm guitars), Paul Ranieri (basses) and new guitarist Beledo. What’s really unique about the sophomore outing is that there are no less than seven guest guitarists contributing to the album, including Randy McStine (The Fringe, Lo-Fi Resistance) who also contributed lyrics and vocal melodies, Doug Ott (Enchant), Alek Darson (Fright Pig), Ryche Chlanda (Fireballet, Renaissance), Alan Shikoh (Glass Hammer), Matt Dorsey (Sound of Contact, Dave Kerzner) and Stanley Whitaker (Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun).

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Occasionally I find modern prog music a bit wearing as so many new bands employ the ‘wall of sound’ approach that grates as the years go by. Yet on Counterpoint while there is epic prog intensity it is all balanced out with a deft use of dynamics. There is a separation in the field of sound, lots of space for us to hear bass or drum led passages, and meaningful lyrics delivered by beautiful vocal leads and multi-part harmonies; the warm vibrato of Brown/Spillane shines throughout. Critically, Colyer’s default keys are played on real grand piano (courtesy of Yamaha) layered with warm synth patches atop Brannon’s well-tuned toms. It’s not by accident that the music is so listenable – Brannon/Colyer write most of it and you can hear the result of how much thought and effort they put into their choices. It leads to a set list that is melodic and rhythmic in the way that a focused pairing of keys and percussion can achieve. Yet expert frets abound both at the low and high end – there is ample room for Ranieri/Beledo along with everyone that contributes.

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Highlights abound across these ten songs – lush harmonies on “Who I Am,” Colyer’s gorgeous piano intro leading into long form suite “Hollow,” Darson’s searing guitar solo during “Forbidden Planet.” “Erosion” builds tension before “Nautilus” kicks in with more major tones, and great solos on frets and keys. “Stay (Peter Frankenstan)” is a favorite of the set – jazz-infused chord progressions, rumbling toms, impactful lyrics, and a smooth, winding lead from ace-guitarist Whitaker – a cycle of vocal harmonies to finish it off. “Inception” and “Summit” finish the set in a way that will please fans of prog and all-round creative music. The latter opens with a slow build and jazzy riff that pins down each verse, the chorus is set to dramatic phrasing as the band comes together, building on the themes rather than overwhelming them. The instrumental conclusion includes a section with intricate grand piano atop more tuned toms, building a theme that grows in intensity before easing it all back down to end the album. Lyrics reflect the ascent:

I left my life there
And laid my soul bare
Scaling the summit for truth

The song is a powerful coda to this excellent album – if you missed it, now is a good time to remedy that and add it to your playlist.

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Midge Ure Returns

Oh the ravages of time… over the last several years, I’ve been picking up tickets to concerts by bands from the “New Wave” era as they do the rounds, whether they are out on the road again for the sheer joy of playing live, because they are out promoting new work, or just due to the fact that the rock industry has no retirement plan! Midge Ure, formerly of the British new wave band Ultravox, dropped by San Francisco to perform several times over the last 5 years. He returned to kick off 2017 with a two-piece band backup, delivering an assertively played set that highlighted a large number of popular ‘80s Ultravox songs along with a selection of solo work. It’s dubbed the Something From Everything Tour as the songs featured spanned Ure’s long career.

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Many readers will be aware that there were two different frontmen who led Ultravox(!) during their life span. Early on the band was led by founder, singer Dennis Leigh (who took the stage name John Foxx). The early work by the band, while creative and oft compelling was not commercially successful and Foxx left before the dawn of the ‘80s to make a go as a solo artist. Midge Ure took the reigns on guitar and vocals, joining keyboard player Billy Currie with whom he worked in the band Visage. The band released Vienna in 1980, their fortunes grew, and they released four more albums before Ure called it a day and went on to begin his own solo career.

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At last week’s San Francisco show, Ure was in good humor and fine voice, particularly considering how challenging his ‘80s vocal work is. A couple of years ago when I saw him solo at a small bar Ure confided to the audience that he wished he had written more of his popular songs in a lower key or register, so difficult it is to sing many of those high notes as the years go by. The truth of this revelation was obvious at many points during this year’s show, most notably during one of the most beautiful romantic ballads ever written, “Vienna” when Ure reeled back at least 3 feet from the microphone to call out the name of the titular city. Nonetheless, this quality artist puts everything he’s got into the performance, including being his own roadie (!) and the results are impressive. The audience was enthusiastic, dancing as much as older bones allow, laughing at Ure’s cracks and singing along to his melodic compositions.

midgeure_ultravoxhits_72dpiUltravox staples included the triple play “Hymn,” “The Voice,” and “Vienna” followed shortly by additional hits “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” Just about all of the Ultravox songs he played were on what was one of the greatest “best of” albums in the day Ultravox: The Collection. The set began with one that was not – the 1988 top 10 solo tome “Dear God” and it ended with a heartfelt encore that found us all singing along to David Bowie’s “Starman.” One highlight for clubbers of the day the inclusion of “Fade to Grey,” a song Ure co-wrote and produced for Visage in 1980. For anyone who wanted to rekindle the flame this artist lit in the day, or any who came to dance, the show did not disappoint!

p.s. thanks to Amy Lynn for the featured photo!

Rockin’ Angels Interview

Jon Downes, editor of Gonzo Weekly interviewed me last week about my new book, Rockin’ the City of Angels. Here is the transcript, also up at GonzoWeekly.com:

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Tell us about the book

When I was a teenager (way back in the 1970s), I was lucky enough to be able to attend dozens of rock concerts staged in Los Angeles, (aka the City of Angels). Rock music was life to me, and probably due to 7 years of piano lessons I was in love with prog rock. My collection of records and concert tickets included Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd, along with what I felt were the highest quality rock bands like Zep, The Who, Queen, and Kansas. Music patronage became a lifelong passion for me. The concerts at that time were becoming amazing spectacles, with elaborate theatrical productions. As the lyrics were often as important as the music to me, the fact that many bands dramatized the themes of certain songs, or even whole concept albums made for artful theater.

I wrote this book as a “love letter” to rock musicians of the ‘70s— focused ultimately on the concerts and the films that captured them. I used only photos of the bands live in concert – no portraits. I wanted to show and tell the story of these concert performances from the standpoint of a fan, hoping a reader would relate to a guy who might have been a few seats down the row at these shows, who might have raved about what we just saw on the way home.

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As an example of a chapter, one covers the Genesis tour The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. There are fantastic shots by Armando Gallo, a Melody-Maker cover showing Gabriel’s grotesque Slipperman costume, pages from the concert program, a ticket stub from the date at the Los Angeles Shrine auditorium, and sample frames from the film. The written material illuminates the album and tour, the special effects, and the film of the production’s slide show, which many fans might not realize exists (it’s on the 71-75 box set). This was a blueprint for all 36 bands covered.

How long has it taken to research and write?

At one level its taken 45 years of “field research,” record collecting, and study. But from the time I started writing and finding the photos it all took 2.5 years. I spent a lot of this time tracking down a selection of iconic photographs from around the world, sometimes digging through archives at agencies, others directly with the photographers of that day. I was fortunate to meet several of those photojournalists including Neal Preston, Armando Gallo, Neil Zlozower, and Lisa Tanner, who opened their archives for me at their studios or homes. I could not believe how many amazing shots exist that have never been seen by fans, shots that captured our musical heroes in their prime.

mccartneypaulwings_rockshowcover_72dpiAnother thing that took a lot of time was combing through more than 100 rock films from the decade, all part of my private collection. You and I know that TV appearances, professionally filmed 35mm movies—even celluloid left in the can for years, sometimes decades after light hit the film—are finally getting home video or streaming media release. I remember going to see many of these films at the local cinema that featured Led Zeppelin, Yes, AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Paul McCartney and Wings, and so many others. Now, just about every major band of the rock world can be seen performing live in one format or another, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment, Warner Home Video, and others who are helping to keep their legacies alive. I’m still that guy, the one who collects the high quality digital transfers available on media, rather than streaming them. Having said that, many of these films are available on streaming services like YouTube.

Were there any gigs you didn’t go to which you wished you had seen?

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Oh yeah! For each band I had to select what I think in retrospect was their finest hour –the best album and concert, and the best film covering that band, hopefully for that same tour. In the case for instance of Jethro Tull, I had not seen the Passion Play tour, but I knew through older friends and research that it would have been for me their best, and that is my favorite Tull record after all. Same with Genesis’ Lamb tour, though tribute band The Musical Box recreated it professionally just recently.

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In a few examples, I did not get to see the band in the ‘70s but instead did catch them later. Only three bands out of 36 eluded me completely. I was never inclined to see AC/DC (although I did enjoy the great film, Let There Be Rock!), and Happy The Man never toured the west coast (and, there is no film!). The worst mistake was missing the mighty Led Zeppelin. In the case of the Zep ‘77 tour, I loved Presence, and that was the concert to see, but I was instead booked to see Pink Floyd’s Animals concert just weeks before and budgets kept me from seeing more than one show every couple months.

What was the best gig you ever saw?

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All of that is in the Genesis family – I will never forget the Wind & Wuthering tour in 1977, and the first time I saw Peter Gabriel solo at the Roxy Theater the next year. But number one was Gabriel’s tour for his 4th album (also dubbed Security) which came early in the ‘80s – it’s a bit of a cheat as I cover that show in this “70s” book, but it’s really for me, the epilogue of the ‘70s decade. He absolutely stunned the audience and finally emerged on his own at the level of performance he had achieved while in his former band. Armando Gallo’s unbelievable shots give a very good idea of the drama. As there is literally no film of this seminal tour, we examine the So movie, particularly those songs he performed in the same way as that prior tour (like “Lay Your Hands On Me”).

Others in the top tier include Paul McCartney’s Wings Over America tour, Queen’s News of the World tour during which Freddie held the audience in complete awe, Kansas Point on Know Return featuring Steve Walsh giving the most physical performance I’ve ever seen, Dixie Dregs with their stunning virtuosity, Camel, ELO – so many incredible shows I will never forget. For the Floyd, while Animals was spectacular, I suffered a bit of “bad vibe” that night in the gi-hugic Anaheim Stadium, and it was eventually to be Roger Water’s restaging of the Wall this decade that became the ultimate live experience of that band’s music for me.

How did you go about the picture research?

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This was the most difficult part of the book’s production, hands down. Thank God for Google, but even with all the search engines in the world, it was amazingly difficult to find some of the photographers and shots that eventually did appear in the book. One snap alone, of Camel in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra on the night they recorded The Snow Goose together, took 7 months to find and it was sitting in the vaults at The Daily Mail, having also been recently unearthed by a researcher at PROG magazine (RIP). I never found shots of Ambrosia and Happy The Man until I actually reached a member from the band themselves, who had boxes “in the attic” with old shots and memorabilia. A lot of the shots in the book came from slides I was allowed to borrow and scan at Dickermans in San Francisco.

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Ambrosia’s David Pack, Joe Puerta

What is your next project?

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWell, this book was so expensive to produce that I have to sell all the copies I ordered during this year. Provided that happens, I will move to the next decade, sliding into the ‘80s with late ‘70s punk, then covering the era of New Wave music, including bands like Depeche Mode, The Cocteau Twins, Japan, Echo & The Bunnymen and so many others that were part of the second “British invasion!” I’m really looking forward to that as I’ve not seen any great ‘80s genre books that include what for me were the best bands of that decade with any kind of stunning photography.

Thank you to Jon Downes and his long time support of my work at GonzoWeekly.com

Hey ma, I got the cover!

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Rick Wakeman & Tony Ashton’s Gastank

wakemangastank_ad-breakRick Wakeman just released DVD and CD/DVD sets of the original series called Gastank, a unique show aired in the U.K. on channel 4 back in 1982-1983. It featured Wakeman interviewing a host of musical artists as diverse as Steve Hackett, Ian Paice, Andy Fairweather Low, John Entwistle, Eric Burdon, and Godley and Crème, then joining these musicians for a few live numbers with stalwart cohost Tony Ashton and friends. The show was beloved by fans of rock and prog music who had the chance to see some well established rock ‘n’ roll heroes, along with a few overlooked artists of the era, play bar blues, classic, progressive old and new songs live in an intimate setting. It’s available via Wakeman’s site and at Gonzo Multimedia here: http://www.gonzomultimedia.com/product_details/15960/Rick_Wakeman-Gastank_(DVD).html

Anyone interested Wakeman’s mid-period work, or any of the guests on this show are advised to pick up a copy of this rare set. Every segment is interesting and even of historical importance in some way, be it the interviews or live numbers. One of the best moments of the set is Wakeman and Ashton sharing a piano for a hilarious bit simply called “Keyboard Adlib.” That and Steve Hackett’s “Boogie” alone are well worth the price of the set! Sound good? Read on…

Background / Interview with Rick Wakeman

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Rick Wakeman and Steve Hackett

The year is 1982. Popular music has gone through several tumultuous years, an understatement for artists of the time. Classic and progressive rock musicians are at that moment reimaging themselves, their sound, and their stagecraft, in light of new influences, and the tremendous impact of music videos via the juggernaut called MTV. Punk has come and mostly gone, but continues to influence a host of bands, all plying slightly different musical territory, be it goth, ska, “new wave” dance or one of any number of increasingly eclectic musical styles.

In the face of these events, Wakeman and Tony Ashton, established a new television show called GasTank. Produced by Paul Knight with associate Ralph Tobert, Directed by Gerry Mill and recorded in a pub setting with stage and small studio audience, the show aired in the U.K. on channel 4 in 1982-1983.

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John Entwistle and Rick Wakeman

As an example, GasTank #1 kicks off with a couple of pieces by Ashton and Wakeman, then features friends Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, a reggae band The Cimarons, then legends Alvin Lee and Eric Burdon. Ashton brings a sense of humor, honky tonk bar-band blues piano and gritty vocals to his featured songs – his bits are often tongue-in-cheek and always enjoyable. Wakeman is, well, the man and musician we’ve come to know over so many years in the business – funny, disarming even, and as always brilliant on the keys. The house band includes long time Wakeman drummer Tony Fernandez with Chas Cronk and Jerome Rimson on bass. The rest of the crew play their parts whether an original tune from their catalog, or a suitable cover, such as when Eric Burdon introduces a long time Elvis Presley favorite. It’s intimate and thoroughly enjoyable for any fan or interested viewer.

Three cameramen, Richard Dellow, Andy Watt, and Mike Hand Bowman capture the action primarily from positions just in front of the small stage, or on it, affording us an upfront view of fingers, frets, and performances. The sound by Mike Erander and enduring quality of the footage itself is exceptional.

GasTank has long been unavailable on home video in any format. The box set from Gonzo Multimedia puts that right. It includes every episode of the series, presented over 2 DVDs (and in the larger set 3CDs as well) along with an interviews book and other goodies.

But there is a bit more to the story of GasTank, and for that we talked to the man himself, Rick Wakeman to learn more.

Rick, how did the concept for Gas Tank come about?

My dear friend Tony Ashton came up with it. The whole idea of the program, of playing live with people was his brainchild. He came up with the name as well, which I thought was a great name – back then “gas” was a hip expression. He was wonderful to play with – all Tony wanted to do was play piano, which worked well cause I played synths. He was a great boogie-woogie rock player – bands like Ashton, Gardener and Dyke and all the other groups he worked with are evidence to that. He was so, so good. It was sad when he died. One of the nice things is when I watch the programs – it’s the memories of seeing Tony play and all the good times that we had that I cherish. We did have amazing amounts of fun.

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Tony Ashton and band

What to you are some of the standout moments from the interviews or performances from the show, from your perspective?

There were quite a few standout performances. Phil Lynott was a great friend who came on and you’ll see when you watch it, he introduced a new member of Thin Lizzy, one that became a very important part of the band. John Entwistle’s solo appearance will remain with me forever. I asked him to come on – he was a great friend. I said “I want you to do a long solo – imagine an extended “My Generation” type of solo.” He said okay. So we wrote this piece for him and he did it in rehearsal. It was a good solo – a bit subdued, but I thought it would be really nice. Then his roadie took me aside and said ‘be prepared for tonight – that was just playing around.’ The solo he did for the taping was just jaw dropping – he absolutely knew how to take it to that next level. We had some good fun things on there. Suzy Quatro, Maggie Bell – lots of other performances. There were fun things as well – odd comments made, John Entwistle made one comment and his ex-wife sued him!

We had a great house band – we had a lot of fun with the house band – all great friends and camaraderie. Alvin Lee was on as a guest and he was fantastic. He loved it so much, he asked to come down and play in the house band. We had that with a few of the guest musicians – not just playing and leaving but most staying all day and watching the other people that came in. We had it set up like a club, and it was a great idea and it would still stand up today.

Give us one or two humorous anecdotes about the proceedings, something that went wrong or was surprising or even shocking?

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Rick Parfitt came in and it was the first time he had ever performed solo. And I remember him saying to me “I’m nervous, I never get nervous!” He helped overcome his nerves before we did the interview, by getting completely rat-faced; mind you I was as well. I sat with him doing the interview and I saw the lights were on but no one was in, and he could see in me there wasn’t anyone in either! I asked him a question (mumbles) “how did it feel to do your first solo” and he just grinned – and you can’t see this part because the footage was lost, but he came off the stool and he stumbled by me and landed on the floor (whack). The producers voice came down from upstairs and he said, “probably best to do this interview tomorrow!”

We used to do the interviews after the recordings, we would record in the morning then we would have a liquid lunch then we would do the interviews in the afternoon. They organized a green room, which was heavily stocked with alcohol – better than most pubs and bars. After the incident with Parfitt the green room was only opened after the interviews had been done!

More of this interview can be found inside the set’s booklet, including artists of today who would be on Rick’s wish list if there show were to be revived… and a recollection by dearly departed talent Tony Ashton

Not included, however, is Rick’s perfect pitch for the DVD/CD Box Set:

I can truly recommend that you buy this wonderful collection. The reason I can say this is, I’d buy it myself! It contains so much history, so much fantastic playing, interviews that will never be heard again from a lot of people whom sadly are no longer with us. There’s some music that was never recorded anywhere else. It’s part of our heritage and history and if you’re old enough to remember it, it will bring back great memories. If you weren’t even born at the time, I’m sure you will like a lot of the music, and will like going back and learning how so much of it came about. The GasTank collection, there will never be anything else quite like it, I can guarantee that!