Category Archives: Video Review

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Make Brain Salad Surgery

ELP_BSS_Cover_72dpiAnd did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?

…croons Greg Lake, in powerful melodious voice, to begin the first track of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s most progressive, conceptual album, 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. The opening track, a beloved and patriotic English anthem, sets the stage for what is to come; a series of intricate compositions and virtuosic performances from Lake (vocals, bass, guitars), Keith Emerson (keyboards, computer voice), and Carl Palmer (drums & percussion synthesizers). The album represented a high water mark for the band, both in the studio and for their stunning live performances, which culminated in America when the group played to over 200,000 fans at “California Jam Festival” in 1974. Nearly forty-five minutes of this show was captured on film, later released on DVD as part of the Beyond the Beginning collection. In addition, fans were treated to a triple album capturing the band at their peak.

ELP_EmersonSolo_72dpiI never was able to catch ELP in concert, and have always been more of a Rick Wakeman fanatic rather than a Keith Emerson fan. Keith’s keyboard attack always seemed a bit too violent and prolonged for my ears, whereas I felt that Rick focused more on melody and song craft. Nonetheless, I never thought the critics were fair to this band. After hailing them as the “next super group” they were savaged by accusations of being pretentious and bombastic. Instead I felt that the hints of these qualities made sense as part of the package, and that it was more talent, confidence and showmanship that the critics unfairly assailed. I did get the chance to see Carl astound us all when playing with Asia, and always loved Greg’s rich baritone on anything graced with his tones. And, as the years passed, I’ve warmed to the ELP sound, finally catching them live on their Black Moon tour. It’s clear no matter one’s musical palette, that these are three of the most talented musicians of our time. Brain Salad Surgery is to this listener their undeniable masterpiece.

CONCEPT & MUSIC

ELP_ComputerMalfunction_72dpiThe centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery is “Karn Evil 9”, a suite presented over 30 minutes in three parts, or “impressions.” The themes in the “Karn Evil 9” suite, a “carnival of words and music” came in parts, moving from a disaffected generation witnessing the evils of the world, culminating in mankind facing a war-ravaged world taken over by computers. King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield and Lake collaborated on the lyrics during intense writing sessions, weaving together the disparate movements. In the early sixties Sinfield had worked on a mainframe computer that he claimed could actually play the song “Daisy, Daisy” a tune which listeners may also recall from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself a study of the man-machine battle. On a recent CD reissue, Lake explains, “Some of the lyrics would be surreal, then the next day we would feel that something needed to be said, for instance like the way the media make money from photographing people suffering. The whole concept of computers dominating peoples lives, and the one line Load your program, I am yourself – they were rather prophetic words… I really do question sometimes how much good it’s doing us, all this bloody technology! That’s what Brain Salad Surgery was to some extent about.” Taken as a suite, the themes of the composition leave the listener to interpret the whole, a hallmark of the best conceptual rock in the 1970’s.

To round out the album, four initial tracks display the band’s prowess in every possible manner. Already known for interpreting classical and contemporary works by other composers, the band began the record with “Jerusalem,” by Sir Hubert Parry, with words from the poem by William Blake, and follow-up “Toccata,” a complex instrumental piece based on the 4th movement of Alberto Ginastera’s “1st Piano Concerto.” This cut includes a credit to Carl Palmer for his synthesized percussion movement; a startling aggressive workout on his new electronic kit. Lake’s ballad “Still… You Turn Me On” is the primary “radio-friendly” track on the album, a serene and catchy love song. The comedic music hall number “Benny The Bouncer” gives Lake a chance to work out raspy vocals in a Cockney accent, with boogie-woogie piano by Emerson and Palmer keeping pace on small kit. The centerpiece, “Karn Evil 9,” began on side one of the original LP and continued by filling all of side 2.

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For the album cover, the band went with an evocative painting by artist H.R. Giger, whose work later in the decade would be used in the Alien movies. Emerson had been introduced to Giger while on tour in Switzerland. The band went to his studio to peruse his work, and he produced the cover henceforth. The painting, featuring industrial machinery housing an embedded human skull, presents a portal through which an image based on a portrait of Giger’s wife’s is partly visible. Opening the album’s gatefold cover revealed the complete picture. This inventive design perfectly suited the album and it’s themes. Famously, the record company forced the band to tone down the painting’s sexual content, replacing an image of a penis with a slightly vague shaft of light.

Reflecting on the album, band members look back fondly. “I think what people really found appealing about the band was more it’s fantasy side,” says Lake, “and that side of ELP was more predominant on the earlier albums.” “We were doing things to push the boundaries of experimentation and recording forward,” adds Palmer.

LIVE PERFORMANCE

ELP_WelcomeBack_CD_Cover_72dpiBrain Salad Surgery came during the time when there were major innovations in technology and recording process. The band deployed these on their prior album Tarkus, but found the songs difficult to recreate in their live shows. For the new album, they ensured all tracks could be played live by the band before going into the studio. The resulting concerts benefited tremendously from this foresight, as the band was able to deliver precise yet energetic renditions of each track with flights of improvisation as well.

ELP_EmersonSpin_72dpiThe tour started in America in late 1973, and represented the most complex stage, sound and lighting system of that time, including quadraphonic sound, and for some of the dates, a “flying piano” setup that allowed Emerson to appear to be playing a grand piano while spinning head over heels in 360 degree loops. Not to be outdone, Palmer’s massive drum riser weighed almost 1.5 tons, including a revolving platform, church bell and gongs. The 1974 three LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen was produced from the band’s February 1974 shows in Anaheim, California, and is one of the best selling triple-album sets of all time.

 

ELP_DVD_Cover_72dpiThe DVD Beyond The Beginning (2005) contains a documentary of ELP, but more importantly includes the best available concert film of the band at this pivotal time. The 44-minute picture was taken at their last stop on the American tour, headlining at California Jam, playing for over 200,000 people. The professional color film is a top quality production for its time, featuring lengthy close-ups of fingers, sticks and picks, capturing the virtuosity of each band member.

The set list begins with Palmer and his synthesized drums playing the solo in “Toccata” after which we are treated to two of Lake’s ballads, “Still… You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man.” Emerson’s astounding “Piano Improvisations” follow and they are caught in detail, along with the first segment of “Take A Pebble”. The real treat follows, an almost note-perfect live rendition of the 1st and 3rd impressions of the “Karn Evil 9” suite which includes a lengthy Palmer drum solo, highlighting his rotating drum riser, followed by Lake’s powerful vocals, Emerson’s polyphonic Moog leads, and the simulated destruction of the villainous computer. The film concludes with “Great Gates of Kiev” during which Emerson deploys the spinning piano stagecraft, before the coda and fireworks.

ELP_LakeClose_72dpiThough on the balance this film is priceless, there remain a few quibbles. Most importantly, this DVD hosts an incomplete edit of the concert, as originally edited before being broadcast on ABC television. Opening songs “Hoedown” and “Jerusalem” are cut as is “Tarkus” which followed “Toccata” in the set list, and “Karn Evil 9″ 1st impression part 1, and all of the 2nd impression. Additionally there are a few instances where songs are truncated, such as “Toccata” and “Take A Pebble.” As to the camerawork, the only inadequate scenes are distant shots meant to capture the full band across the large stage, as these are grainy and unfocused. Otherwise, the edits are well timed and camera angles are expertly planned, yielding brilliant shots of each musician in action. As to the performance, Emerson and Lake visibly and rather annoyingly chew gum throughout the evening, but otherwise these artists play with precision, enthusiasm, and aplomb. Lake for one claimed in a recent interview that those shows were never be surpassed for their emotional intensity and capacity to impact the audience, and this reviewer agrees. For those who missed it, this film remains the best way to capture this most impressive moment in in ELP’s history.

 

 

Alice Cooper’s Nightmare

Cooper_Alice3_5x3_72dpiAlice Cooper was a band, and a man, that originated in Phoenix (via Detroit) featuring Vincent Furnier (vocals), Glen Buxton & Michael Bruce (guitars), Dennis Dunaway (bass) and Neal Smith (drums). The group’s performances are some of the first examples of overtly theatrical rock, meant to shock and excite young audiences of the 70’s. Because of their antics and stage sets that included guillotine, live snakes, baby dolls, fake blood, spiders and an electric chair, the group was banned more than once in multiple countries. In 1974 after 7 albums and countless concert dates, the group took a hiatus. Furnier legally adopted the name Alice Cooper, and embarked on a long and fruitful solo career.

Cooper_DVDCover_3x4_72dpiHis first solo record, Welcome To My Nightmare (1975), is a concept album that takes a journey through the childhood nightmares of Steven, the central character. The album, though less gritty than prior works with the full Alice Cooper band, is a classic in the rock genre, spawning a television special, international tour, and concert movie of the same name. These concerts, and the film that captures them represent a milestone in the presentation of a rock concert as a theatrical experience.

The Welcome To My Nightmare concert film, taken from a performance at Wembley Pool in September 1975 (with added footage from Shepperton Studios) was produced, directed, and choreographed by David Winters. The movie had a limited run in 1976, at which time I saw the film at a local Cooper_Chorus_72dpitheater outside Los Angeles and was struck by the brilliant performance, along with the rapturous audience that night. It captures the fantastic theatrical production, complete with dancers depicting skeletons, spiders, and other characters, and featuring narration by Vincent Price. In one segment Cooper decapitates and kills an 8-foot-tall Cyclops, in another he battles with giant spiders, and throughout he plays the lead showman, rocking the crowd, and even dancing in a chorus line, clad in a white tuxedo, recalling elements of Vaudeville. One of the most unique and striking set pieces of the show, designed for the song “Escape” features Cooper and four dancers appearing onto the stage by leaping out of a movie screen, and then dancing in and out of the ongoing film. The concert ends with a series of tracks that better feature his band, which includes Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (Guitars) and Whitey Glan (Drums).

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Of the many rock bands in the 70’s that strove to stage a theatrical performance, Alice Cooper stands among those that invested significant time and energy in the pursuit. “We were trying to create something that hadn’t been done. And what hadn’t been done is nobody took the lyrics and brought them to life…. you use the stage as a canvas. It’s all vaudeville and burlesque” according to Cooper. Sets and costume designs, some created by Disney studios combined to create a stunning evening of macabre entertainment.

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Of their place in history, Cooper sums it up best in the documentary interview: “From the very inception of Alice Cooper [the idea] was, there are so many rock heroes, we need a rock villain. I want to be the rock villain. I want to be the personified Captain Hook of rock. I don’t want to be Peter Pan. But I wanted Alice to also … have a sense of humor. I enjoyed playing the heavy… a bizarre vaudevillian character.” Later, he adds, “We couldn’t go on stage and do a straight rock n roll show – we had to do it theatrically.” With many number one hits, awards, and a place in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, Alice Cooper hit those marks and sustained a long and successful career in music.

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Though the film is a bit dark, it is of high enough quality to be enjoyable, and does capture this show for posterity. The 1999 Rhino Entertainment DVD release, clocking in at 109 minutes, includes an interview and commentary track with Cooper, and a few other extras. Also of note, there is a television special called Alice Cooper: The Nightmare (1975) that preceded this film, and is itself heralded as an early example of long form video, featuring the entire album plus an additional track, and appearances by Vincent Price. The show won a Grammy award for Best Music Video, Long Form in 1984. While it was released on home video, it has not been issued on DVD. Instead, the best way to see what the commotion and controversy was all about back in 1975 is the Welcome To My Nightmare film.

For those interested in more on Alice Cooper, the band, and the man, consider picking up the brilliant documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper (2014) which is every bit as artfully presented as his unique stage shows. It provides deep insight into the madness that created the Alice Cooper character, a persona that almost killed the man.

Film Credits:

Welcome To My Nightmare (1975)
Executive Producer Willam Silberkleit
Producer, Director & Choreographer David Winters
Set Designer Jim Newton, Costume Designer Casey Spencer, Special Costumes Jack Shaften, Make-up Delores Wells.

© Copyright 1976 by Tommy-J Productions
Photos@Michael Ochs Archives/Venice, CA
Program @Rhino Entertainment Inc. (1999)

The players (cast) included:

Dick Wagner (guitar)
Steve Hunter (Guitar)
Whitey Glan (Drums)
Vincent Price (Spider Voice)
Sheryl G. Goddaard (Ethyl)
Robyn Blythe (Bat Woman)
Eugene Montoya (Voodoo Man)
Uchi Sugiyama (Frog Man)

–end–

Midlake Live on in Denton

Midlake_DVD_advertMidlake is a band that mixes a bit of folk, psychedelic, and alternative rock into a unique brand of heartfelt indie music. The group has weathered personnel changes and is now at their strongest with guitarist and lead vocalist Eric Pulido joined by Paul Alexander (bass/vocals), Joey McClellan (guitar/vocals), Jesse Chandler (keys/flute/vocals) Eric Nichelson (guitar/keys) and McKenzie Smith (drums). Notice if you will, that’s a lot of guys who can sing, and they make full use of that vocal talent. Led by Eric’s rich baritone their four-part harmonies fill the latest album, Antiphon (2013), infusing normally down-tempo sounds with beautiful warm tones. Structured compositions give way to free flowing instrumental excursions, mixing flute, lightly distorted guitar leads, and strong lyrics, from the lost love of “Aurora Gone” to the prose admonishing us to bear the “Old and the Young:”

Awoke from a long one that came on the heels of a day
Where sun would arise and then grant us the kindness of ray
Fields full of gladness surrounded by droves that await
And look for the grave in everything adorn
Bear the old and the young

Midlake_Antiphon_CoverFans of Wilco, Badly Drawn Boy, Sea Wolf, The National, and other bands of this kind take note – its challenging, soulful music that’s stands a cut above – one of the best records of its kind so far this decade. Best listen to the title track, “Antiphon” to experience the whole. Follow up with the propulsive beat of the melancholic yet hopeful “Old and the Young.”

Midlake – Antiphon – Title Track (Youtube)
Midlake – Antiphon – Old and the Young (Youtube)

At points, the use of flute, Hammond organ, inventive bass leads, and propulsive drumming will put you in mind of classic rock and progressive contemporaries of long ago. Musical influences like Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd have been suggested by others, but importantly this music sounds very much of today – an unique combination of these elements and more without being derivative.

Midlake_DVD_Cover_DSHAfter spending some time on the indie film circuit, last month on Record Store day, Midlake released a DVD of a movie by Jason Lee and Eric Noren: Live in Denton, TX. I snagged the last copy at our local Amoeba Records store in San Francisco. The film is a rare document of this band playing in a small club in, you guessed it, Denton, Texas. The footage captures the concert, interspersing close shots of the band during performance with shots of the city of Denton, it’s inhabitants, and workaday life. The career-spanning set list includes many of their best songs – lots of tracks from their earlier albums including Bamnan & Slivercork (2004), The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006), and The Courage of Others (2010) along with six from their newest, which is really a big step forward for the band. The musicianship and vocal delivery is top notch, and the soundtrack reproduces the live set perfectly – lots of deep bass & drums, with shimmering keys, flute, guitars, and Eric’s amazingly strong lead vibrato, backed by those beautiful harmonies.

Midlake_DVD_Eric72DPIThe film’s images are crisp and clear – lots of deeps hues, colored lights, and interesting use of varying points of focus. Due to the small club setting, and possibly also to represent the experience of those in attendance, many shots are captured from positions in the crowd, which obscures a bit of the action, and the club and stage itself is often so darkly lit it can be tough to catch the musicians technique. Still, it’s fitting to the sometimes-brooding compositions and the drama of their songs. Near the end of the set we get a little more light on the band, and might well recognize them when, hopefully, the next tour rolls into town! Don’t miss it.

Midlake_DVD_Denton72DPI

Kansas Miracles

Kansas_Miracles_CoverThe band Kansas turned 40 last year, and to commemorate the event, they reunited to film a new documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” – about the only time they have all been in the same room since 1981, when Steve Walsh split following the Audio-Visions album and tour. The group members have come to terms with that which separated them and here embrace the chance to be together, to reflect on their shared history during their formative years. Directed by Charley Randazzo and clocking in at 78 minutes, the focus of the documentary is limited to those early beginnings up through the multi-platinum Point of Know Return album and tour. The theme is really that the band, through hard work, some luck, and maybe even a few miracles, made it to the top of the rock world, and had their dreams come true.

Phil Ehart (drums) is one of the producers of the film, and is joined by band mates Dave Hope (bass), Kerry Livgren (guitars, keys), Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) Richard Williams (guitars) and Steve Walsh (vocals, keyboards). They focus on the positive experience of the times – no typical stories of drugs and excesses or the debate over religious content in later lyrics. Instead the tone is one of wonder at how it all came together, and of gratitude and thankfulness for those who helped the band succeed and prosper. Their story makes compelling and worthwhile viewing for any fan of Kansas or of classical and progressive rock in general, or any musician hoping to build a lasting career in in the business.

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show

While often being considered a progressive or classical rock band, the members state here that American R&B, soul and Motown, rather than the bands of the British invasion influenced them more directly. Acts like The Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder inspired them. Robbie states, “Wilson Pickett and James Brown were my all time favorite screamers – and I wanted to learn how to scream like that.” Phil adds, “When we got together we did not bust into some Yes song, we were playing the Four Tops, Otis Redding, The Temptations.” As they developed their own sound, all agree that the combination of Kerry’s writing plus Steve’s soulful voice and Robbie’s violin made the combination that sparked the emergence of Kansas. Their challenge, as Kerry puts it, was this – “We had absolutely everything necessary for a band to make it…. except we were living in Kansas!”

Promo shots from live album, Two for the Show
More promos from live album, Two for the Show

As the story unfolds, we learn that Kansas got themselves out of state, and eventually put a demo into the hands of Don Kirshner who was just starting his label. After sending a scout to see them perform, he and the label ended up believing in the band. This figures prominently in the documentary as the group needed marketing and support, building a fan base through three albums that spawned no hits, and by touring incessantly, playing nearly 250 shows in a year. During these times, for their first few records, Kansas were featured on Don’s weekend television show – Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (these fantastic films are available on DVD as part of the Kansas 30 year anniversary box set “Sail On”). There’s a fun story about how the band put together a concert in 1972 advertising “free beer” and an admission price of 25 cents in order to draw a crowd and impress the label. The band was picked up, and simultaneously signed away all their publishing rights for what ended up being over 30 million in album sales. Still it was their break, and they seem to hold no grudges while covering these aspects of the past.

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Kerry Livgren*

As the story continues, we get some rare bits and some frank recollections from the band. There is a great segment about Steven Tyler unplugging the band’s power during a show where they were going over particularly well as opener. There is some time devoted to evaluating the songwriting of both Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren. Steve was writing more of the rocker tracks and Kerry was going in an increasingly progressive direction as they advanced album to album. Steve is magnanimous in the interview, saying “A lot of the songs I wrote for Kansas… they were really written for the wrong reason… a

Steve Walsh*
Steve Walsh*

few of them were heartfelt and a few of them I’m proud of but not very many – it was Kerry’s songs that came through as the fingerprint for the band.” It has to be said, while Steve honoring Kerry is just, it was the combination of head and heart, brains and brawn that made up the Kansas sound and live presentation.

As part of the documentary, all band members contribute commentary, and are joined by interviews with Budd Carr (booking agent) and Jeff Glixman (producer) who add color to the band’s story. Rolling Stone journalist David Wild and Brendan O’Brian (producer Pearl Jam/Bruce Springstein) add color about the bands impact on fans, media and “prog heads”. Country artist Garth Brooks and Queen guitarist Brian May provide musicians perspective. Kansas opened for Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack tour in 1973, and as Brian notes were very well rehearsed with amazing vocals, seeming to share the same dreams as his legendary band.

Robbie Steinhardt*
Robbie Steinhardt*

There is an important message that comes in the liner notes of this set – “Warning: Attempting to dance to Kansas music may cause injury” –given shifting meters, keys, and sometimes jagged progressive song structures, it’s advice to be heeded while listening to the CD. That disk contains no rarities, and is instead intended as an introduction to the band, which will appeal mostly to new fans, with 2-3 well chosen songs from each of their first 5 records, interspersed with quotes from the documentary. Two of the best selections representative of the Kansas sound would be “Song For America” and “Miracles Out of Nowhere.”  The impactful lyrics, which are so important for this band, are shown on these youtube versions. The “limited edition” version of the set comes with a bonus DVD of the guys talking together informally, and there are several songs presented by Jeff at his mixing console, isolating tracks and describing the cuts. These extras are best suited for dedicated fans. At the end of the DVD there are two live film clips of the band in 1978.

In terms of live concert video, as with many groups of this era, there exists scant footage of the group during their most successful period. While the Kirshner Rock Concert videos are excellent at covering their early years, there is nothing I’ve seen from the Leftoverture tour, my first. For that tour, I saw Kansas at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium on January 14th, 1977. The show was spectacular in every way – the band was on fire, playing faithful renditions of all their most complex compositions with almost impossible precision. All the lighting and staging added to the experience – as an example, in one memorable moment, near the coda of “Cheyenne Anthem”, Robbie sang the final verse lit only by a tight spotlight:

Soon these days shall pass away, for our freedom we must pay
All our words and deeds are carried on the wind,
In the ground our bodies lay, here we’ll stay…

At that point, the instrumental coda crashed in and the lights came up to reveal an empty stage. This was a clever moment of unforgettable staging, as Robbie had whisked his way off the stage in just a few seconds of darkness to complete the effect. Another recollection from this time is just how impactful Kansas lyrics were, and how their emotive live presentation brought out the meaning and import of their verse. Songs like “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “The Wall” and others made an enriching impact on the attentive listeners soul.

Steve's Acrobatics!*
Steve’s Acrobatics!*

By the next tour, to support Point of Know Return, Kansas were playing at arenas and we saw their incredible performance on New Year’s Eve 1977 at the Long Beach arena, with Cheap Trick opening. On this occasion they pulled another stunt, departing the stage one by one, while seemingly still playing the ending jam of “Sparks of the Tempest.” Overshadowing all staging on that night was the increasingly wild, athletic performance Steve Walsh gave during his lead vocals – exuding the physicality of some crazed gymnast, while simultaneously singing his powerful lead vocals at full tilt. Two songs on this set’s DVD are from that Point of Know Return tour, filmed at Canada Jam in August of 1978 – “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind” both of which are excellent. While the clips have been on Youtube, these are the best presentations to date and they capture the band at its peak.

Garth Brooks nails it when he intones that rock is the root of everything that moves us about live music- its what “makes us all get up, pump our fists, and feel like we can go home now and transfer that energy to whatever we do and be a monster at it.” This sums of what a Kansas show delivered and the band are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. As Phil concludes, “We reached a point of surpassing all of our dreams.” Hear about it in their own words, and, do yourself a favor, read the lyrics.

 

*select photos of Canada Jam videos

Rick Wakeman’s Quadraphonic Arthurian Legend

Wakeman_Arthur_QuadRick Wakeman’s third album, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), is a masterpiece of orchestral progressive rock. It’s also the first time Wakeman made a studio album sporting all of his gear, with complete orchestra, English Chamber Choir and ‘Nottingham Festival’ vocal group, given that prior release Journey to the Center of the Earth was recorded live, not in studio, and subsequent conceptual album No Earthly Connection skipped the complete orchestral treatment. Thus Arthur stands as a milestone in Rick’s early career, and is one of the greatest demonstrations of the potential of symphonic rock and the “concept” album ever recorded.   From the opening narrative “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil, is the trueborn King of all Britain” to the closing refrain from singer Ashley Holt, “gone are the days of the Knights” on “The Last Battle”, the album fuels the imagination about these times, while sonically amazing us throughout.

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Rick and The English Rock Ensemble Photo @Bob Elsdale

Rick’s playing on the record is fantastic – between the beautiful grand piano, amazing synth leads, and other keyboards, it stands the test of time as a favorite for many fans. Listen to Rick’s piano and harpsichord backing “Arthur”, to his Moog synth leads on “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight” and “Merlin” and throughout, it’s a magic voyage. This would be the last record to include Gary Pickford Hopkins on vocals, and he hits some of his best leads and harmonies while accompanying Ashley, who stayed on as lead vocalist for the English Rock Ensemble. While some fans decried the melodramatic sound of these vocalists, it could be argued that their presentation was most fitting to Rick’s concept albums, resembling something plucked from the rock theater of the time – think Hair or Godspell and you’ve got the sound they achieved – to these ears amazing.

Engineered by Paul Tregurtha, Arthur always sounded amazing on record. Rick’s keys, including piano, harpsichord and moog synthesizers, were frequently heard alternating left to right and back in the field of sound to psychedelic effect, definitely making this a record to love on headphones, and one of the greatest uses of stereo sound at the time. The LP was even released in “quadraphonic” sound for the few audiophiles back in the 70’s who were set up with four speakers and the required gear.

Over the years there have been numerous re-releases of Arthur on CD, from bare bones sell-through to paper sleeve editions and beyond. The feature of this latest Universal Music release is the inclusion of quad mixes on a second DVD. The complete list of mixes:

96/24 MLP lossless remastered Stereo
96/24 MLP lossless 5.1 remastered Quad
DTS 96/24 5.1 remastered Quad
Dolby Digital 5.1 remastered Quad

While the quad versions may appeal to some, particularly those looking to recreate their experience with that format, I found a distracting lack of punch to the sound, and muddiness in the rear channels that spoiled the mix to these ears. In contrast, the MLP lossless Stereo mix is a crystal clear stereo presentation – absolutely stunning and the best I’ve found in the CD format. If you don’t have this music on CD, or your copy is one of the aged sell through versions, this release is a must have.

The set also contains a complete booklet with a new Wakeman interview that includes a teaser indicating we may again see the show staged on ice. In fact, no discussion of Arthur would be complete without recalling that the original concert was staged in London on ice, with 58-piece Orchestra, 48-piece Choir, and 19 ice skaters. Film of this show exists, and can be found on DVD at Gonzo Multimedia.

Wakeman’s King Arthur Live – Recorded live at The Empire Pool Wembley

Wakeman_Empire_PoolIt’s a wonder we have this film of Rick Wakeman presenting the King Arthur story on ice Wembley, then the Empire Pool. Fans will already know the story of how this show came to be, and it’s place in progressive rock history. That we may see it on video, with clear shots of Rick playing piano and other keyboards simultaneously, the stage surrounded by castle walls, and skaters representing the historical figures, is really unbelievable. Early on during one of the opening numbers, Anne Boleyn, for example, Rick takes a moog lead which develops into a monster solo – we see this in detail via bird’s eye view.

After the “ice has been broken” with a few tracks, Rick introduces the centerpiece simply: “this is King Arthur and the myths and legends of the round table.”   With that a voice rings out with to introduce Arthur, and Rick’s synth lead sounding as a trumpet heralding the future King is chilling – a simple but beguiling phrase that introduces the majestic framing melody of the whole piece. As the vocals to Arthur begin, we get the best shot on film of Ashley and Gary delivering their parts, and when they hit the segment “a churchyard in the wood, the sword and anvil stood, and Arthur drew the sword out of the stone” the orchestra, choir, bells and entirety of the band bring the accompaniment to wild crescendos.

With Guinevere, we get the first effective use of the ice, with a royally clad skater Pat Pauley playing the queen, and her court attending, the queen actually pulling off some athletic, flowing moves. By the time we get to Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight, everyone is tuned in and warmed up – we get skaters clad as horsemen atop steed, in an effective use of costuming. The use of skaters to illustrate the story is well done – not Olympic grade, but nicely presented and fun to see.

From one perspective, the whole Arthur show could be considered a folly, and indeed it’s been cited as an example of progressive rock excess, making a few lists, and possibly recalling a bit of Spinal Tap. But for those of us who were fascinated by the potential of rock theater, who loved Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis, and the very visual, poetic stories they told, this was the golden age of art in rock, and Rick stood firmly at the center of this movement, as a shining example of what was possible. This video captures it, and comes highly recommended.

Supertramp in Paris, Again

Supertramp_DVDAnyone within range of an FM radio in the 1970’s has heard a lot from the band Supertramp. The group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history. Last year they released the stunning video Live in Paris ’79 – one of the best-filmed concerts from any rock band of the era, coming to the market 34 years after the event.

Supertramp’s radio-friendly sound was a mix of progressive and pop – incorporating elements of rock, blues, jazz, and lots of honky-tonk piano, they balanced light and dark compositions to an exquisite blend. Joined by the accomplished John Helliwell on winds, Dougie Thomson on bass and steady drummer Bob Seibenberg, their core work from Crime of the Century (1974) to Famous Last Words (1982) brought the band increasing success.

Supertramp_RickV
Rick Davies

Rick and Roger added different skills to the group – Rick a tougher edge – more cynical lyrics backed by a mean honky-tonk piano or roadhouse blues as tight as Elton John. Roger more frequently displayed a gentle, spiritual personality, imploring listeners to open their minds and hearts. His vocals and accompaniment on 12 string acoustic and electric guitars as well as keyboards are stellar. The two composers, when they collaborated, when trading off ideas, alternating vocals – at times even speaking to each other within a song, created a sum that was bigger than the parts, even when they seemed to be coming from different walks of life. Witness lyrics from the bluesy ballad “Just a Normal Day,” from their under-appreciated masterpiece Crisis? What Crisis? (1975):

Rick: Well, I just feel, that every minute’s wasted,
My life is unreal….

Roger: …I don’t know what to say;
It just seems a normal day

Roger Hodgson
Roger Hodgson

By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) they were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Roger’s “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Roger on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Rick on grand piano. Among other tracks, Rick wrote one of his prettiest ballads, “Casual Conversations” sporting the lyrics:

There’s no communication left between us
But is it me or you who’s to blame?

Supertramp_band
The band…

Though the details are debated, it’s clear that Rick and Roger’s union was fracturing before and during this period. Nonetheless, they mounted a huge international tour to support Breakfast in America – breaking attendance records at the time – and they released their first live album Paris (1980) taken from the shows at the Pavilion de Paris, 1979.

Split Screen!
Split Screen!

Thirty four years after the show, a film of the third night in Paris has been released on video – a digitally restored, brightly lit, 16mm 4 camera shot film with crisp audio that captures nearly the complete set. Here it’s possible to see split screen shots of Rick at the piano with Roger at guitar or keys along with close up shots of all the band members in their prime. The DVD should be a revelation for any fan that missed these tours, and a fond reminder for anyone lucky enough to have attended. Highlights include the opener “School” as the audience cheer to the first sound of Rick’s harmonica. The companion piece “Bloody Well Right” establishes their rocking credentials, while “Even in the Quietest Moments” calms the spirit. The centerpiece for this viewer is the one-two punch of Rick’s brilliant vocal and piano work on “Another Man’s Woman” which then leads into Roger’s “Child of Vision.” In the latter, the two play their dual keyboards in harmonic perfection.

Together
Together

After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. Since that time, Rick has written and recorded a handful of albums with the band, but it’s impossible not to despair at Roger’s absence. Roger has done a bit of solo work, and recently at long last began playing songs he wrote for the group in concert. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but the newly minted concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.

Queen Over the Rainbow

queen_1977I first saw Queen perform live on the 1977 News of the World tour stop in Los Angeles, California. It was absolutely magnificent. Long before the band even took the stage, the crowd was madly clapping and stomping out the opening beat to their mega hit “We Will Rock You.”  And once the lights went out, what an entrance – as close to rock royalty as any band I’d seen – all pomp and pageantry mixed with true grit!  After all, Queen were playing arena sized shows in the states, having conquered the airways completely with A Night at the Opera (1975), A Day At The Races (1976) and News of the World (1977) between them sporting the operatic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” the gospel “Somebody to Love” and the double-single “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.”  The show was spectacular both in staging and sound. A moment I will never forget was Freddie Mercury’s echo enhanced vocal solo during a break in the cannon segment of “Prophet’s Song” – I’ve seldom seen another singer accomplish the highs and lows of that moment, with such a large audience held in awe.

queen1Because of this tremendous experience, I’ve always held that we saw the perfect Queen tour at just the right time, before they became a bit more commercial, and arena’s led to stadiums, and Freddie cut his hair. I gravitated to the less metal, more pop-rock oriented records from their mid period, after the first three albums got the band started. Unfortunately, though there have been bootleg films, I’ve never been able to find restored and official footage of these mid-70’s appearances nor any of the tours before then. There are scores of concert films from Queen that are fantastic – but those were from the 1980’s and later, once my interest had waned a bit.

queen6Now 40 years on, this crisp, clear film emerges: Queen Live at the Rainbow ’74. It includes footage from two 1974 tour stops at London’s Rainbow Theater – a few tracks from the March 1974 Queen II concert along with a complete performance later that year after Sheer Heart Attack was released.  These nights were captured for posterity and the footage is finally seeing an official release with restored and sparkling hi definition visuals and near perfect audio quality.  The effort has returned hue and deep blacks to the picture, and there is clever use of cross fades, and dual angles that enhance rather than detract from the proceedings.

queen3bqueen4queen5The band members including Freddie Mercury (keys, vocals), Brian May (guitars), Roger Taylor (drums) and John Deacon (bass) are at the peak of their powers – already developed as the skilled players we came to know – and also rocking with a bit of a harder, more glam-infused edge than in their later years. Freddie and the group confidently strut and pose on stage as though already playing to the arenas they would soon inhabit. The November appearance begins with “Procession” and a dramatic version of “Now I’m Here” – used effectively as the opener again this year when Queen plus Adam Lambert toured the states.  Freddie greets the audience with “The nasty queenies are back!” and the band tear into the progressive rocker “Ogre Battle.” The set list includes many tracks from these first three albums, highlighted by the openers plus the majestic “White Queen,” a bit of “Killer Queen,” and a metal tinged “Keep Yourself Alive.”

queen_coverThe video is a remarkable document of the band right at the point when they emerged from smaller venues, prepared to take the super star mantle both on record and in concert.  The tighter, edgier material brings a more focused lens to each band member’s technicality and skill. Now I find this a close tie with the arena sized concert I first witnessed and highly recommend the DVD as being the best way to approximate the experience so many years later.