Category Archives: Music Review

The Beginning and the Enz of an Era Part III, the End of the Enz

As we learned in part II of this 3 part series, Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). Tim’s younger brother Neil joined the band for their 1977 album Dizrythmia. While punk was raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was still recording decidedly-not-punk music, while making quiet preparations to draw the world into their loving circle.

Split Enz Vol_III Band Photo

Where we left off, this marvelous act had released a two-fer-of ear candy – True Colors (1981), and Waiata (1981). The two albums that came next will forever go down in the cannon of proggy-new-wave music as absolutely perfect records based every possible measure.

Split Enz Vol_III Time&TideCover_72dpiTime and Tide was recorded in 1981 and released in 1982; the third number 1 album Split Enz brought to ANZ. Tim’s opener to side 1, “Dirty Creatures” (also written by Neil and Nigel) and accompanying video were instant classics for new wavers of the 80’s. “Pioneer/Six Months in a Leaky Boat” grace side 2 and similarly nail every newly minted model in the new wave genre, while being a bit of a sea shanty at the same time! Said to be somewhat autobiographical, the Creatures/Six Months tracks were instant Tim Finn-led classics. In between, Tim’s “Never Ceases to Amaze Me,” and “Small World” cap a brilliant collection from this tenor wonderkind.

The pair of Finn brothers are credited with “Lost for Words,” quite possibly the greatest Enz song on record. Great lyric: “I can’t relate, to your vicious excuses, the damage has all been done, and talking is useless….” Now listen to the bass/drum beats of the verse/chorus and in particular the middle section, while Eddie plays a haunting set of chords that chill, leading back to the verse “I’m looking for words, I give it all I got, And I’m lost for words, you don’t even listen – its’ all been said before so I’ll just turn and walk away.”

Neil is not to be outdone on this classic Enz record. He checks in with “Hello Sandy Allen,” (the world’s tallest woman) and my favorite early Neil track, “Take a Walk.” The lilt of his upbeat guitar, the happy yet seriously dramatic sound of Eddie’s piano thrill as Neil sings:

I could take a walk again
Up a mountain to a stream
Standing on the open rock
Looking out over the sea
Funny when we move ahead
Never worry what we leave behind
Remember what a friend of mine said
You gotta be kind

Truer words…..

Now, before the band composition “Make Sense Of It” which closes the record, the brothers each pen a classic seemingly autobiographical two-fer – Tim’s “Haul Away” (“at 21 I was thirsting for experience and my brain was about to burst”) and Neil’s more haunting, dramatic reading, “Log Cabin Fever:”

It’s cold out hear the wind howl down the chimney
Wish I could just cry out to someone, help
But we live in isolation of the cruelest kind
Scared to show our colours to the world

Time to break away from my condition
Rejoin the human race, see what I’m missing
Try to face the day my private passion
Is eating me away

It’s well worth mentioning at this point that Noel Crombie (drums) and Nigel Griggs (bass) have honed their fine skills to the point that every song is anchored and embellished with their work. Many of the most effective parts they play are based on a kind of aboriginal tribal sound, a compelling combination of tones that will move even the most jaded listener. They teach a master class at the low end.

Split Enz Vol_III Live VHSThat any tour dates from the Time and Tide tour were caught on video is a miracle. It was getting more common by the early 80’s to capture bands on video, but we have many examples to share of groups that have paltry little to show in terms of live in concert documentation.

The live show is taken from an evening in Canada at Hamilton Place in 1982. While to date only available on VHS and YouTube, hopes remain that a proper restoration will come to light for those who never saw the band in their prime.



Split Enz Vol_III ConflictingCover_72dpiThe final recording to feature the classic 1980-1983 lineup of Split Enz follows Time and Tide. Marred by a lack of basic PR — hampered by mistakes made by Mushroom Records, they do only a short tour for this record upon its release in 1983. Instead, Tim releases his first solo album, a beautiful work titled Escapade, and the band, essentially, spontaneously dissolves. This time though, Tim’s outside work allow more focus on Neil, who pens 6 of the tracks on this final brothers-together album Conflicting Emotions. Importantly, Neil’s work includes the ode to his newborn son, Liam, called “Our Day.” Considered by this ardent fan as Neil’s greatest lyrical achievement (with unbelievable band backing) the singer /multi-instrumentalist /songwriter pens the greatest cautionary welcome to a child, still in the womb, ever attempted:

Let our love create another life
It’s growing even as we speak
He don’t know what’s waiting for him here
Suspended in his dream sleep
His mother’s all around him
His father’s just a sound to him, singing gently
We have promised him a future
So I’m hoping that tomorrow
Is, was, and will ever be

And we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
The old age is near the end
The new one’s just begun

There’s a face that I will come to love
That I have never seen before
There’s a brain that’s absolutely free
From any kind of conscious thought
You are me, and you are she
It won’t be long ’til we meet
And I’ll be going on a journey
In a flimsy paper boat upon a stormy sea

And so we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
The old age is near the end
The new one’s just begun

Yes we’re waiting now
For something burning far away
Tear the old age down for good
Welcome the young one

I’m shaking like a leaf
Wound up like a spring tonight
You say this ain’t no place for children
Oh God, I hope that what we’ve done is right
Am I vain to feel as if the world
Owes anything at all to me
Searching, burning, tossing and turning

And so we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
Can’t imagine what the future holds
Just hoping there is one

Yes we’re waiting now
For something burning far away
Tear the old age down for good
Welcome the young one

Hear this my son, I promise you the best that we can do
We love, we love, we love, we love, we love, we love you…

© Neil Finn / Split Enz

(I hope sincerely that Neil does not mind the reprint here – I do not like to do this, but I talked to Liam about this song, and he shared that it was truly written for him, and it’s just one of the best lyrics written ever, ever, ever, period (peace Neil)).

Neil Finn just nails everything he does on Conflicting Emotions, including opener “Straight Old Line” (also objectively, the best video of the band) “Message To My Girl” (which sent hearts a flutter all over the world), and “No Mischief” followed by “The Devil You Know.” At this point it’s clear — and fortunate, Neil is ready to lead the band, and eventually form his own, Crowded House.

Tim contributes stellar tracks once again, “Working Up An Appetite,” “I Wake Up Every Night” ” (ode to dance lover – this time he do want to dance!), “Conflicting Emotions,” (their most spacey, proggy cut of the band’s catalog and an overt vocal display of vibrotechnics (my word)) and the absolutely gorgeous, heart rending finale “Bon Voyage.” Any listener who by this time does not understand why Tim is one of this earth’s greatest ever tenors, is frankly deaf.

Yes there is some controversy over this album, ignore it, the greatest art we have in this world is marred by controversy, and this is no exception. But, it does mark the point where Tim leaves the band he had started way back in the 70’s, just after Conflicting Emotions, the band’s finest hour.

Photos of the Conflicting Emotions Tour © 1983 Graeme Plenter:

Split Enz Vol_III See Ya RoundNeil bats “clean up” in 1984 with a collection of songs that were B-sides (“Kia Kaha (Ever Be Strong)”), or were destined for the first Crowded House release (“I Walk Away”). “This Is Massive” is credited to new drummer, and future CH skins maestro Paul Hester. Titled See Ya ‘Round the final album caused more than a few dry eyes to tear up, as it represented the Enz of an era (I can’t help myself). It’s a great album in it’s own right, and while Neil was reportedly uncomfortable going it alone as to Finn family members, it does not show in the results. Tim returned for an “Enz With A Bang” tour, an Australasian outing that once again missed the UK, Europe, and North America – Tim sings his first solo hit, “Fraction Too Much Friction” as part of the long set list and over and out it was. The live album taken from the tour is fantastic.

Split Enz Vol_III Big CanoeAs fair readers will know, to round out the period from 1977-1987, Tim released his second solo album, the masterwork Big Canoe in 1986 and Neil released the first Crowded House album also in 1986. It’s important to state here clearly that Tim’s Big Canoe is a critically overlooked work —  it’s at once accessible, complex, multi-layered music that has to be heard on a proper stereo, hopefully with a small bit of dance floor, waiting near by.


The rest is history, including reunions, Tim joining the House for Woodface (1991) and the Finn brothers very special first album together and alone, Finn (1995).

Split Enz Vol_III Band Photo 2

So many of my friends who were drunk on the elixir of “prog rock” did not “get” Split Enz, while I frankly and gladly left them in the dust listening as they did to 80s era Yes/Genesis. What a loss for them! How an album like Time and Tide could only make it to 58 on the U.S. Billboard charts and penultimate album Conflicting Emotions lagging at 137 shows just how clueless we were in the states as to this legendary band. I blame, in part, Mushroom records, and the unfair fate of so many of our greatest artists. Nonetheless these men went on to great success and all is well in our very very small world (it’s not a very big house for a large family!).

Fair readers, this is seriously awesome music you need to hear – again as fresh today as the day it was released. I was privileged to see the band, in the gym of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – for the Waiata tour — an amazingly fun, artful show that sold me forever on this important, influential band. Check it out, along with Tim’s and Neil’s post 1984 work, along with the rest of the individual band members, who together and apart continued to labor in relative obscurity.


The Beginning and the Enz of an Era Part II, the Hard Act To Follow

Split Enz Vol_II Band2My next book will be about the era from 1977-1987 when music changed for the better and new heroes were born. The intro will expose the “glam” and “quirky rock” phase of the 1970’s, which ran from approximately 1972 – 1977. During that time as fair readers will know, we loved the Bowie, the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, T-Rex, and… wait for it…. Split Enz, the Beatles from “down under.”

As we learned in part I, Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn, in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). Tim’s younger brother Neil, joined the band, for their 1977 album Dizrythmia. While punk is raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was still recording decidedly-not-punk music, while making quiet preparations to draw the world into their loving circle.

The band, now a bit more honed, recorded and released their final album from the formative years, Frenzy (1979). By now, punk has splintered into a dozen branches of far more interesting music, goth, ska, Burundi/jungle/island themed rock, and…”the” new wave. Standout track “I See Red” leads to the Split Enz 1980’s work, refining and honing what it means to be an “art rock” band, sometimes almost “prog rock” yet be danceable, fun, and truly what we came to call the “new wave.”

Split Enz Vol_II True ColorsIndeed 1980’s True Colors was a complete revelation. Less makeup, soon to be none little circus atmosphere, save stage craft and coordinated brightly colored suits (classy yeah!) just serious new wave music designed perfectly to make everyone love the Enz, and love them us smart ones did. Kicking off with their first big hit “I Got You” a Neil Finn composition and lead vocal, an ANZ #1, this was now music to be reckoned with. Add to that, follow up Tim Finn rocker “Shark Attack” and you are talking one fine album! Now take the standout ballad, “I Hope I Never”- if you can really, really listen to those lyrics, and Tim’s yearning, soulful voice singing,…

“I hope I never, I hope I never have to seeeeeeee you again”

Split Enz Vol_II Tim Finn

…and not wrest a tear from your eye, you are, as I like to joke to non-criers frequently, “made of stone.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs of the 1980’s and it’s important to note, because by this point keys player Eddie Raynor who graces this one with synth strings and amazing grand piano, is really giving the 70’s proggers a run. Really. Tim kicks off “side 2” with “Nobody Takes Me Seriously” indeed. Neil “fights back” with “Missing Person” sung together with Tim, initially intended to be the first single (really?). Now, spin the next one, and to me the one that shows how ready this band is for stardom.  “Poor Boy” is another Tim Finn gem – take the bass/drum sync of Nigel and Malcolm, expertly pinning down the track on the bottom end, the spacy-synth – “she speaks to me with ultra-high frequency” and Neil’s tightly wound guitar licks…. Gonna listen till I grow old, for sure, yes, please – this music stands the test of time. Those of you who know these songs can follow this chain of thought, this unadulterated affection for the band. The rest of you hit the Spotify, Apple Music, or disks and study up!

Split Enz Vol_II WaiataIt’s tempting to categorize 1981’s Corroboree/Waiata as a sequel to True Colors. Not so. Here is the track list of the most important songs – can you even believe the first “side” of the LP is so perfectly arranged, and “side 2” does not, in any way let up? It may be their most perfect “non proggy” album, refining as it did the definition of new wave music, for the (much much) better.

All songs written by Tim Finn, except where noted. Side one:

  1. “Hard Act to Follow” – 3:17
  2. One Step Ahead” (Neil Finn) – 2:52
  3. I Don’t Wanna Dance” – 3:34
  4. “Iris” (N. Finn) – 2:50
  5. “Wail” (Eddie Rayner) – 2:49
  6. “Clumsy” – 3:29

Side two:

  1. History Never Repeats” (N. Finn) – 3:00
  2. “Walking Through the Ruins” – 4:15
  3. “Ships” (N. Finn) – 3:01
  4. “Ghost Girl” – 4:26
  5. “Albert of India” (Rayner) – 4:03

Just “Hard Act” “One Step” and “I Don’t Wanna Dance” would make a successful album. The third is the most new wave of the new wavers, so danceable, so much vibrato, so much tenor/falsetto – Neil’s guitar, Eddies synth patch, bass/drums all building the story of the boy who is too het to dance, without his sweetheart. On record, this is now one unbelievably great band. Follow up tracks “Iris” “Wail” (not my favorite) “Clumsy” complete side 1. Side two cracks open with “History” then “Walking” later “Ghost Girl” which is better than it has any possible right to be – are you kidding? “Don’t get too close boys to the ghost girl, she’s already haunting you” the clever lyrics seem so easy, so natural for them, both brothers always and to this day make it sound so easy – but just try to turn a simple phrase like that with just the right musical backdrop – art indeed.

So many of my progger friends just did not get this music, while I frankly and gladly left them in the dust listening to 80s era Yes/Genesis. What a loss for them.

Split Enz Vol_II Band

So fair readers, this is seriously awesome music you need to hear – again as fresh today as the day it was released. And, it was the first and only time I was privileged to see the band, in the gym of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – an amazing fun, artful show that sold me forever on this important, influential band. I remember the band in good spirits, “talking the piss” out of each other, Tim doing push ups, Neil generally appearing a bit more dignified, and all of the musicianship being plainly stellar, with Eddie standing out even live with those amazing ivories. Check it out. Part III soon.


The Beginning and the Enz of an Era — The Early Years


My next book Rockin’ Fog City, will be about the era from 1977-1987 when music changed for the better, we danced a lot more, and new heroes were born. The intro will expose the “glam” and “quirky rock” phase of the 1970’s, which ran from approximately 1972 – 1977, leading directly to the decade that followed. During that time as fair readers will know, we loved the Bowie, the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, T-Rex, and… wait for it…. Split Enz, the Beatles from “down under.”

Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn, in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). They released a couple of albums with Tim and Paul at the helm, The band in costume, makeup and with Tim in front, the voice of an tenor angel, and moves a-quirky, all of which accented the music. Sometimes called “art rock” sometimes alternative, with elements of vaudeville, Split Enz of that early era was a strange brew of “music hall”, “performance art”, and just-plain-fun music, making them maybe the earliest progenitors of what became “new wave” music. As smart music lovers know, in 1977, Tim’s younger brother Neil, joined the band, and history was made.

SplitEnz_MentalNotes_72dpiSplit Enz released their first album Mental Notes in 1975, and Second Thoughts in 1976, Recorded in London, their second effort is the first really listenable Enz album in this writer’s humble opinion. The record included several reworked songs from their debut, and some new bits. Contained in the result is a lot of what made this band great and what also makes anything the Finn brothers have done since, exceptional. Check out “Sweet Dreams” from that album for evidence of their supremacy. Check out the cast members – Ti

SplitEnz_SecodThoughts_172dpim & Phil, joined by Jonathan Chunn (bass), Noel Crombie (percussion), Emlyn Crowther (drums), Robert Fillies (Sax/Trumpet), maestro Edward Rayner (keys) and assorted luminaries. Get this all, who engineered this album… Rhett Davies (Supertramp anyone?), and who produced it… none other than Roxy Music guitarist Phil
Manzanera! The Enz had opened for Roxy Music on their first Australian tour, and had decamped from New Zealand to Australia to build their fan base. Phil was intrigued, and arranged their travel to London to record this gem. Second Thoughts were thunk, and the group’s fortunes grew from there.

SplitEnz_Dispythia_72dpiEnter younger brother Neil Finn in 1977 for follow up Dizrythmia (1977). Anyone ever have “jet lag” will get the title’s reference and applicability to the band’s experience at the time. At first, Neil plays into the vaudeville, circus atmosphere. Phil & Mike are there but abut to be gone from the band, as Neil takes over on guitar, and new permanent member Nigel Griggs on bass. They have the first “bigger” hit, “My Mistake.” While punk is raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was making quiet preparations to draw us into their loving circle.

Check out Tim’s performance of Dizryhmia’s “Charlie” in London

Split Enz V_1 Tim Finn

Fast forward if you must to the 6 minute mark of this video, though who does not have 6 minutes to watch the whole thing? At 6 minutes, Eddie takes center stage musically, features his amazingly beautiful grand piano chops, as Tim sings, “Sunlight, halo, you look wonderful, darling Charlie…, pale and deathly still… for heaven’s sake wake up….Charlie”

Clearly the songwriting partnership of brothers Neil and Tim was kicking into gear, as you notice the touching lyrics, Tim’s delivery, and Neil’s blooming chops on guitar, soon to be co-writer-lead-vocalist as well.

SplitEnz_Frenzy_172dpiFinally, catch the follow up – forth album Frenzy, the first to really push Neil to the fore, with his growing skills on guitar, vocals, and songwriting. Tim wrote most songs, and there are some gems. “I See Red” indeed!


Split Enz V_1 Band Frenzy

But, it’s still a bit of a distance to what was to come next, a honed down version of the band, ready to record 4 absolutely exceptional albums, starting with 1980’s masterpiece True Colors and ending with 1983’s absolute masterwork, and unjustly ignored diamond Conflicting Emotions (1983).

If you are not aware of the pedigree and history of Split Enz, you should be, my friends. But… be warned, while the first four albums, covered here, ending with Frenzy, may excite your eyes (see the videos) it might not be candy for your ears. It’s a tad quirky to say the least, while Tim and the band were finding their way to stardom.

Split Enz V_II NeilFinn_Portrait_cAG_144dpi


Bad Company Lives Live!

badcompanylive_cover_72dpiBad Company is one of the most important rock bands of the 1970s. They topped a hard rock core with silky smooth yet gritty production values, hooks galore, and pedigree in each musician. They are a band I had to, regrettably leave out of my upcoming book Rockin’ the City of Angels. The omission is due in large part to a few issues – most importantly that the book is a celebration of the outstanding concerts of the ‘70s including classic rock and prog bands, and I did not get to see them in concert until recently. I could not find any footage nor official live albums of the band during that decade. That last excuse has just been remedied with the release of an outstanding double-CD set of Bad Company Live in concert 1977 and 1979.


The release is exceptional in every important way. The first set, recorded in 1977 at The Summit, Houston Texas, May 23, 1977 captures the band tearing through 15 tracks over 76 minutes, starting off with the title track from that year’s album Burnin’ Sky (1977) and ending with the mega-hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Label mates Led Zeppelin played the same venue just two days earlier, and this show similarly brims with crackling intensity. The second set is just two minutes longer with the same number tracks, taken from the Empire Pool, Wembley Arena in London March 9, 1979, where they did three shows to 12,000 fans each night, just a week before the release of Desolation Angels (1979) considered by most to be their last strong album. The set list begins with the title track of their debut, Bad Company (1974), and ends with another hit “Can’t Get Enough.” In between quite a number of the “then new” tracks are included, most notably “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy.” In addition a cover of the Hendrix breakout hit “Hey Joe” was taken from the Capital Center, Washington DC, also in ’79.

Overall, the sets are edited so that there are only two tunes repeated between the 1977 to 1979 shows – just “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” appear on both discs, smartly leaving buyers with a generous helping of 28 songs performed live. Most importantly, these sets sound fantastic. There are no overdubs made to either show, a fact noted on the promo sticker. Fans of the band know how unnecessary sonic tinkering would have been, as the original four-piece Bad Company lineup was known as a non-nonsense powerhouse in concert. My book designer Tilman Reitzle saw the show in ’79 and told me the band was the most rehearsed, professional group he had ever seen, able to be precise while still keeping the energy and excitement at the highest level. Between-song chatter was kept to a minimum, and you can now hear the remarkable economy and precision of their delivery on this set. It comes from the rock-steady beat of drummer Simon Kirke (ex-Free), to the baddest fretless bass from Boz Burrell (coming off a stint with King Crimson), amped guitar riffs from Mick Ralphs (ex-Mott The Hoople), and pitch perfect vocals from Paul Rogers (also ex-Free), certainly one of the genre’s most talented, dependable vocalists, not to mention his capable chops on piano and guitar, which helped to round out the band’s sound.

The booklet, authored by David Clayton is informative, if a bit shy on photos of the guys on stage and off. Having said that, the shots that are included, by Brannon Tommey, Bruce Kessler, Alan Perry, and Aubrey Powell are fantastic. There are also snaps of memorabilia – mostly ads for the shows, tickets and backstage passes. The booklet includes a background with lots of information about their progress in studio and the extensive, sometimes punishing touring schedule. Clayton puzzles as to how these tapes remained untouched in the vault for 40 years, something we can all agree on. He also provides this, a favorite quote about the band: “guys wanted to be them and girls wanted to be with them.”

It’s said that manager Peter Grant’s belief that live audio and film recordings took away from the impetus to see his bands live contributed to the unavailability of these artifacts from Bad Company. Grant also managed Led Zeppelin who released limited and rather poor live audio and filmed material during the decade, something that has also been rectified in years since. Fans can now rejoice that at least on the audio front this has been corrected with this superb new CD release. Add it to your collection, and hang on for video that hopefully one day will follow…

Paul Rogers, still rockin’ today


Best videos I’ve located from the 1970s are almost exclusively from television appearances:

Feel Like Makin’ Love:

Can’t Get Enough:–uI



Happy The Man

Rick Kennell

While working on my upcoming book on rock concerts and films of the 1970’s, I’m thinking about how to organize the chapters. A recent idea is to break down the list of bands into categories, like “Rock Gods,” “Entertainers,” “Shaman,” and a few others. I left a chapter open for Happy The Man, and am thinking that of all the types of bands we loved in that decade, they belong most firmly in the category of “Virtuosos.” I discovered Happy The Man quite by accident, as an epic composition from their debut album “Mr. Mirror’s Reflections On Dreams” was played on a local radio station in San Luis Obispo just before a feature on the band Camel. My college roommates and I had just become fans of Camel, and planned a trip to the Roxy theater in Los Angeles to see them for the first time supporting the album Breathless (1978). Little did we know we would not be hearing their amazingly talented keyboardist Pete Bardens at that show, as he sadly left the band prior to the tour. Even more surprising was when Camel’s follow-up I Can See Your House From Here (1979) included compositions and keyboards from Happy The Man alumni, Kit Watkins, the “slow-hand” of the bending synth lead (yes, that’s a Clapton reference!). With all this kismet, my friends and I became avid fans of these guys and their brand of complex polyrhythmic progressive rock.

HTM_DebutCover_72dpiWhat we soon learned is that Happy The Man was the most ambitious American progressive rock band on record. Founded by guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell in the early 70s, the band worked in studio and on stage for five years, eventually gelling as an ensemble by the mid 70s with Kit Watkins (keyboards, flute), Frank Wyatt (vocals, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and drummer Mike Beck. This lineup was signed to the Arista label after they arranged a showcase in New York to see the band – including label president Clive Davis – in the summer of 1976. At that point, the group went into the studio to record their first self-titled album Happy The Man, released in August 1977.


The band was enamored with the engineering and production on Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and when Arista asked them to submit a three producer “wish list” it read: 1. Ken Scott, 2. Ken Scott, and 3. Ken Scott. Ken was known for work with artists such as Jeff Beck, Supertramp, Elton John, David Bowie and the Beatles. In a mix-up that benefited the band, their demos were sent to the west coast Arista office in the east-to-west coast “pouch.” Ken went over to Arista expecting to pick up another project he was considering, but the HTM Demos were handed to him instead. He loved the band and came to Washington D.C. for a showcase at the Cellar Door a week or two later. As he already had time on hold at A&M Studios for another project, everything came together very quickly. The result is a debut album that is striking in its beauty and complexity – bridging jazz, classic and symphonic rock to produce a unique sonic experience. It’s been justly hailed by critics over the years, most recently making the top 50 list of “The Greatest Progressive Rock Albums of all Time” at Rolling Stone magazine. The band toured around the east coast of the U.S. with their largest show supporting Hot Tuna for more than 10,000 festival goers in Long Island, New York.

HTM_CraftHandsCover_72dpiTheir second album Crafty Hands (1978) was similarly enthralling and featured new drummer Ron Riddle. It kicks off with the vaguely sinister “Service With A Smile,” and features arguably the best concise introduction to the band. Ron was an early original member of The Cars and this tune was written in tandem with their keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Another standout track “I Forgot To Push It,” features staccato interplay, hand claps, and an enticing example of smoking-hot dual leads on guitar and synth. Bassist Rick Kennell recalls, “The name came when the band was attempting to record an early demo of the song, and when the playing ended, Kit proclaimed I forgot to push it! meaning he did not push the record button. It went on to become a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for the band when Arista couldn’t really figure out how to market, promote or push the band.”


It’s tragic and short sighted that Arista declined to release and distribute their 3rd effort, which was recorded with the fantastic French drummer Coco Roussel, leading to their breakup. The group never had the label’s support to tour west of the Mississippi; much less the U.K. and Europe. Kennell added, “In 1979, with the advent of the disco and punk movements, and bands like Talking Heads becoming popular, the suits at Arista had a three martini lunch – and decided to drop every progressive act on the label – including our band, Phil Collin’s Brand X, Aldo Nova and Stomu Yamashta’s Go.”

Stanley Whitaker

Listening through their entire catalog, which was augmented in the 1980’s with releases of their earlier work, their 3rd effort, and a live concert recording, it’s hard to describe the emotional impact this band’s adventurous music can have on attentive listeners. Passages of dreamy atmospheric beauty mix with challenging, assertive, serpentine adventures. For the uninitiated, take a listen to the opener on their debut “Starborne,” which invokes a sonic trip to the stars. Brace yourself then for the amazing interlocking leads on “Stumpy Meets The Firecracker in Stencil Forest.”

Frank Wyatt

Now try to compare these sounds to any band you’ve ever heard – very difficult indeed. I’ve heard a few tracks from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa that could be referenced, but this band was clearly onto something utterly unique and exceptional. The interplay between Watkin’s keys, Whitaker’s guitars, and Wyatt’s keys and winds backed by Kennell’s exquisite bass leads and Beck/Riddle’s percussion – demonstrate a level of musical competence that places this rare band above most of their contemporaries.

The group reunited in the year 2000 with new keyboardist David Rosenthal replacing Kit Watkins for a show at Nearfest followed later by release of The Muse Awakens (2004). Though this was a very worthy new start for the band, no additional work has been released since under this original moniker. However band members are always busy, working together on albums under the names Oblivion Sun and Pedal Giant Animals. Stan Whitaker also lent his chops to the short-lived ensemble Ten Jinn. Anyone captured by their work would be well served by picking up any of these more recent albums.

Kit Watkins

Also notable is the long solo career of keyboard and winds player Kit Watkins. After working with Camel, his solo recordings ranged from songs that invoke the allegro jams of his former band, to lighter jazz-influenced collections like the fabulous album In Time, on which he worked again with drummer Coco Roussel. In addition, Kit has recorded and released more than two-dozen peaceful, ambient albums and occasionally darker works beginning with Azure (1989). Hard to pick favorites from so many wonderful albums, but interested listeners might start with Sunstruck (1990) and Beauty Drifting (1996). Check for these recordings on CD Baby.


HTM_LiveCover_72dpiThough Happy The Man eventually released an exciting, at times sonically startling live album on CD, Live (1978), and performed more than four-dozen concerts during the 70s in New England, there is almost no known film of the band playing in concert. Dedicated fans can access a short documentary from the 1970s and two songs performed live at their Nearfest reunion show here.

In addition, Kit can be seen playing live on the film The Gathering (2005) in his most contemplative mode, ala Beauty Drifting, performing solo works during a rare one-man concert. All of these releases are recommended for any fan or interested collector.



Billy Sherwood and Citizen

BillySherwood_CitizenCover_72dpiBilly Sherwood’s inventive new concept album Citizen is available now. Each of 11 songs follows a central character, “the citizen” who is reincarnated into different periods in history, experiencing the time he’s inhabiting, whether it be as a WWI soldier, an American Indian on the trail of tears, or a stock broker during the market crash of 1929. It’s a vehicle that allows Billy to delve into many emotions with matching soundscapes, leading the listener to experience the triumphs and tragedies of man’s history. Billy plays almost all instruments on the album including bass and drums on every track but the opener “The Citizen,” which contains the last recording from Yes bass player and long time Sherwood collaborator Chris Squire. Billy also adds guitars and keyboards on many tracks, joined by an A-list of collaborators like Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Patrick Moraz, Geoff Downes, Steve Morse, Jon Davison, Alan Parsons and more. I talked to Billy this week about the new album, and his role with Yes going forward.


Citizen has so many guest musicians – how much of that was done in person – what was your process for getting it all on record?

Well, file-share is a big part of the world we live in. If we tried to pull together a record like this back in the day it would be a very, very expensive process, traveling around, shuffling tapes. The way we do it now is doable. I recorded Jon Davison in my house, and I went to Alan Parsons’ studio to record his vocal for “Empire.” For the track “The Citizen,” which features Chris Squire on bass, we recorded at a Holiday Inn near his home. Since I carry my mobile recording studio with me on the road, I just set up in the hotel and turned it into my studio for the day, and he did a great job.

The thing about working with artists on this level, is they know exactly what to do – I don’t need to be sitting over their shoulder saying “it’s a B-flat!” they can figure that out on their own. I really just lay out the format of the songs and tell each musician to feel free, to add anything else they want to interpret to the song, to add their stamp on the piece in any way they think improves the song. I’m always thrilled when I get these files back because they are consistently great. I sit there smiling to myself when I listen to it all; it’s a blessing to have these kinds of players on my record.

When you listen to the song “The Great Depression,” it wouldn’t be that song without Rick Wakeman adding that great piano work. He enhanced that melancholy feeling to the whole thing. I said to Rick when I sent the file, “this is about a guy who’s at the end of his rope, this citizen is reincarnated as an investment banker from the Great Depression and he’s lost it all and is about to take his own life.” It made me sad to sing that song; even though it’s a fictional character, I was feeling for that guy. That’s something about music that’s important, to evoke those emotions from the listener. The track is very melancholy and instead of a synth solo, Rick’s piano piece was exactly what I was looking for.

Everyone on the record delivered that same quality and expertise, their performances accentuated the lyrical content. These guys have been doing it for so long, they’re not playing it for their ego; they’re playing for the song. And that’s what music is all about – to make the song shine and there are many components that do that. A guitar player coming in and shredding over the top of something to show his chops is not what it’s always about – it’s about lending the right notes and vibes to the track. They know exactly what to do.

“Trail of Tears” is another standout track, and features Patrick Moraz on keyboards

Watch the video for Trail of Tears on Youtube

He played some amazing melodies that lent themselves to the emotion of the song. When I saw him in Florida recently he was raving about what the lyrics meant to him and how he loved being involved. The lyrics are kind of heavy, talking about the trials and tribulations of the American Indians and what they went through at that time, and it moved him – he was expressing that to me and so translated those emotions into his work.

I wanted the listener to be able to put on headphones with eyes closed, to have a sense of becoming the citizen, in that moment, and to be transported into that time period and feel that emotion and trepidation, or joy or whatever the case may be. I’m happy with the way it came out in that regard. It’s a concept that could be taken further with more records. There are so many amazing moments in world history. With an album you only have so much time to speak and there is a lot more that could be said with this character. I tried to key into these monumental moments in history that were not only profound for the Citizen character, but for all of us. For this record I chose what I thought would be interesting subjects and historical facts. In one way it is complete fiction, in the other it is hardcore reality. For instance when you get to “Age of the Atom” it is kind of frightening and scary because we’re talking about nuclear technology and weapons and who’s got them, particularly in light of current events.


Do you foresee touring for this album, and if so who would be in the band?

We are going to tour it, and I’ve got management looking at gigs now. Yes has become a priority in my life, which it always has been. Whenever they call I answer. I’ve always been there for the guys – it has come in and out of my life so many times. Chris wanted me to take his position in the band and so did the other members. But there is time still to do other things, and my other priority is to get Citizen on the road. I’ve built a core band already. I will be playing bass and lead vocals. I will be joined by Scott Conner from my band Circa on drums, John Thomas from the band XNA, a band I produced, on guitars, Scott Walton who appeared as an auxiliary keyboard player on the Circa Live and Conspiracy releases. The core of the band will be the four of us, and we plan to have guests playing with us as well – there’s nothing confirmed yet but I’ve spoken to several musicians from the album, and they’ve all mentioned their desire to participate, schedules permitting. That’s the plan.

I want to say “thank you” to the fans, thanks for supporting the project. I can’t wait to get out there on stage – please come see it live!

Here’s one patron who will make it a point to get to one of these shows. Last week I returned from Cruise to the Edge (CTTE), the rock festival, where Billy performed on bass and vocals, stepping in for Chris Squire who passed on earlier this year. It was a remarkable show, and Billy did Chris proud, replicating his trademark sound while still interpreting the songs anew. We talked about the Yes tours for a few minutes.

Billy, the CTTE Set list included “Soon,” a surprise track that sounded amazing. What have you experienced or learned playing and singing with Yes on this tour?

In all my other bands I’m the lead singer, so approaching the background vocals for me is actually easier to do. That said it’s also tricky, there is a lot of dexterity required for playing while singing. Delivering those crazy bass lines and singing simultaneously is a challenge. One example would be “Tempus Fugit.” You sort of have to detach the two sides of your mind and let one go one way and one go the other. If I really stop and look down at what I’m playing it confuses me so I try not to look at the fret board! That’s something I always admired about Chris – how fluid and easy he made that look, but it is tricky. And then there are the bass pedals to put into the equation!

“Soon” is a beautiful piece of music from Relayer. It is so cool the way Chris composed that bass part. As there are no drums, the tempo is derived from the bass part. When I was starting to play bass around age 16 I always tried to play to the hardest stuff I could find. “Gates of Delirium” from Relayer is an example, a bear of a track to learn. The bass line is intense and relentless. I love that record, used to play to that record every day to get my chops up.

Will the Drama/Fragile tour make it to the US?

I hope so because it’s a lot to learn! I’m confident that we will be bringing it to the states next year. There are plans to do a lot more touring around the world. Yes is my passion and priority and I look forward to the future of Yes.


Photo Credits:

Michi Sherwood
Doug Harr, Diego Spade Productions, Inc.

Citizen Credits

1: The Citizen
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Drums
Chris Squire Bass
Tony Kaye Keyboards & Hammond Organ

2: Man & The Machine
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Hackett Guitar

3: Just Galileo And Me
Colin Moulding Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Harmonica / Bass / Drums

4: No Mans Land
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Morse Guitar

5: The Great Depression
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Rick Wakeman Keyboards & Grand Piano

6: Empire
Alan Parsons Lead & Backing Vocals
Jerry Goodman Violins
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

7: Age Of The Atom
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Geoff Downes Keyboards

8: Trail Of Tears
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Patrick Moraz Keyboards

9: Escape Velocity
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Jordan Rudess Keyboards

10: A Theory All it’s Own
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
John Wesley Guitar

11: Written In The Centuries
Jon Davison Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

Looking for Natalie Merchant

NatalieMerchant_PortraitNatalie Merchant, the American singer/songwriter originally known for her work with the band 10,000 Maniacs, has enjoyed a long and successful solo career. In the coming months, she is releasing a new album of original compositions, Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, which will harken back to her first solo release, Tigerlily (1995). That first solo album, along with her second release, Ophelia (1998) feature her warm, resonant vocals and lovely poetry set to mostly down-tempo, dreamy electric and acoustic instrumentation. After her third release in this style Motherland (2001), she expanded her pallet with two compelling explorations into historical music and literature, introducing listeners to a series of oft forgotten artists of the past. These were The House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003) and Leave Your Sleep (2010).

NatalieMerchant_HouseThe House Carpenter’s Daughter found Natalie playing musical anthropologist, taking listeners on a journey through a collection of primarily American folk music from traditional to contemporary ballads, hymns, and protest songs. Before the studio album was even recorded, I was able to catch her on a tour that showcased these songs and it is still the best performance I’ve seen from this artist. She was visibly happy, telling stories about each piece, and connecting the audience to their shared history, via a well-chosen set of rescued folk classics. During one of the songs from that evening, an old children’s ditty from the Deep South, “Soldier, Soldier” she skipped rope, as the song was originally intended to accompany that diversion.

NatalieMerchant_LoseCoverSimilarly, her next album Leave Your Sleep presented a collection of poetry for children put to music. The tracks were a result of six years conversations with her daughter about poems, stories and songs she found to, as she says, “delight and teach her.” What she discovered is a wonderful selection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring her to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match. She spent over five years researching and writing the “poem-songs,” finally whittling what ended up being 50 songs down to 26 for the release. The 2 CD package came with a picture book based on the album, for which Natalie collaborated with award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara McClintock. The introductory prose by Mother Goose says it all:

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street

I was able to catch the supporting tour for this unique recording at the Fox Theater in Oakland.  The show was filled with a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience.  She projected a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet and accompanying artwork along with a story, a bit of the author’s history and why she chose it.

On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the diverse all-acoustic set, played in varying traditional styles, at mostly slow tempos. But as performed in concert the music and imaginative arrangements came to life.  The first set was all from Leave Your Sleep, after which Natalie returned for a collection of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with 10,000 Maniacs going back to their seminal release In My Tribe. In short it was a beautiful performance.

NatalieMerchant_CoverLast year Natalie released her sixth studio record simply titled Natalie Merchant, her first album of all original material since Motherland. I completely missed this one, only learning about it while preparing this article. It’s a shame, as the album continues where she left off in 2001, enriched by scores of musicians including strings and woodwinds players, and supported by a tour with some dates including a full symphony orchestra.

In her liner notes to The House Carpenter’s Daughter, Natalie Merchant, opining on the great tradition of folk music writes, “…a song that is universally loved and understood will endure the test of time and become folk music because it has made itself useful to so many of us.” To her fans, this applies to her music, meaningful poetry, and compelling live performances. Looking back over her career, seven albums in 20 years might not be prolific, but each is a quality work of art. We are now eagerly awaiting the next showing.