Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Where George Martin Found His Post-Beatle Groove

Montserrat is a tiny mountainous island in the Eastern Caribbean. It was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World but the famous explorer didn’t land on the island because of its lack of a safe harbor. Instead, he simply christened it “Montserrat” because its tall, sharp mountain peaks reminded him of the terrain near a Spanish monastery of the same name. Over time, the island was claimed by the French, the Spanish and the British. It remains a British colony today.
I’ve been involved in music and music-related business most of my life. Way back in 1963, well before The Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show
appearance, my family in London had been sending me newspaper clippings and photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo. (They didn’t realize the band wasn’t known stateside yet.) By the time Beatlemania took over the US in 1964, I was intimately familiar with the Fab Four. In fact, I instantly became the expert of all things Beatles at my elementary school.
In 1977 when I was much older, I left Detroit for Los Angeles — following not only Motown Records but many Motor City musicians who’d made the trek before me. After 15 years in LA and five in Montserrat, I moved to Nashville where I eventually worked for the Gibson Guitar Company. In my role as Global Artist Relations Director based in both Nashville and London, I worked with an extensive list of iconic artists like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Paul McCartney on limited run artist-signature guitars. In 1999, Sir George Martin kindly invited my assistant, Juliette Avery and I to use AIR Studios London and co-hosted an event, both honoring Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore, and launching our new Gibson artist office on Denmark Street. In attendance was a who’s who of iconic UK-based guitarists. Among the many artist guitars that I was privileged to help develop in subsequent years was the 1963 Paul McCartney Epiphone Texan.

While living in the UK, my wife and I attended the final night of the Paul McCartney tour at the Kings Docks Liverpool in June 2003 and got an opportunity to speak with Paul afterwards. I suggested the idea of creating a signature model to generate funds and awareness for Paul’s then-favorite charity “Adopt a Minefield.” As a result, we worked closely together on a limited run of exact copies of the famous acoustic guitar on which he had written “Yesterday” and that he had played on that first Ed Sullivan show. But let’s get back to Montserrat.
In the early 1600s, Montserrat was a refuge for Irish indentured servants earning their freedom from servitude. Unlike most British territories at the time, Montserrat permitted them to practice their Catholic faith freely. Even today most family and place names in Montserrat are distinctly Irish. It is commonly referred to as “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” because of its Irish history and a physical resemblance to Ireland. Most local citizens share both Irish and African heritage and are proud of both. Indeed, St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday celebrated for a full week every March.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Montserrat was re-discovered by some more adventurous expatriate Americans, Brits, and Europeans, including a handful of writers and a few celebrities. They loved it for its unspoiled beauty and friendly people. But things really began to change in 1979 when Sir George Martin opened AIR Studios Montserrat. Which brings me to my own backstory.
I personally have been visiting Montserrat regularly since 1975. My father was a former Royal Air Force pilot who continued to fly all his life. Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis or just his adventurous streak but he began flying his single-engine airplane south to Florida, then Jamaica then down to the Leeward Island chain until he discovered this little gem called Montserrat and was immediately captivated. One day in 1977 while I was living and working in LA, I got a rare phone call from my dad telling me that he had brought the Beatles “manager” to the Island and that he would be staying for a week or so.
Me: “Wait, the Beatles manager was Brian Epstein and he’s dead. What are you talking about?”
Dad: “Well he’s a very nice fellow named George Martin.”
Me: “Are you kidding?”
Dad: “No, he’s very interested in aircraft and was in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. We met in Antigua. He’s thinking of building a studio in the Caribbean and I suggested Montserrat.”
What happened next? Well, to quote from the AIR Studios web site:
“In 1977, Sir George [Martin] fell in love with Montserrat and decided to build the ultimate get-away-from-it-all recording studio. Opened in 1979, AIR Studios Montserrat offered all of the technical facilities of its London predecessor, but with the advantages of an exotic location.”
Fast forward to the studio opening in 1979. The first band to record in the new space? The Climax Blues Band. Next up was James Taylor and Jimmy Buffet. Ultimately, the studio hosted a laundry list of top artists including Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms) and The Police (Synchronicity and Ghost in the Machine, the former ranking as the band’s final and most successful album which won three Grammy Awards). After that there was McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Duran Duran, Ultravox, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones (who came on the recommendation of Keith Richards who’d recorded Talk Is Cheap there with his band The Xpensive Winos). So many musicians recorded multiple albums there that the island and the studio alike eventually gained a reputation as a refuge from the stresses of life in the fast lane. Of course, it was also a world class facility with top engineers on staff who rotated down from AIR London.

Those were truly magical times in Montserrat. These icons could spend days on the beach, hiking, or even windsurfing (as Sting, and Guy Fletcher and Alan Clark of Dire Straits did) then in the evening, they’d go to work. Paul and Stevie used to jam at the local pub The Agouti while recording “Ebony and Ivory.” In 1981, Sir Paul recorded his Tug of War album there which Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden hailed as “the masterpiece everyone has always known Paul McCartney could make.”
One evening, local singer Eloise Lynch, who had several popular songs on ZJB’s Radio Montserrat, was asked to perform at the seaside restaurant somewhat ironically named the Yacht Club. The idea was that the Stones (who had a BBC crew in tow) would arrive and then dance to local music. The filming was to take place between 9:30 and 10PM. Since word had got out among students at the American medical school, the place that night was packed. Ten o’clock came and went but no Stones. By midnight the crowd was getting rowdy and Eloise had waited long enough. She said either we play now or go home. Just as the band got started, the camera lights came on as Ron Woods, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and their small entourage walked in.
Afterwards one of the girls, who had been dancing with the Stones came over and said to Eloise, “Mick wants to meet you.” Her response was “then tell Mick that he shouldn’t have kept me and the band waiting for over two hours.” This was somewhat typical of the down-to-earth attitude of the Montserratian people. Eloise couldn’t have cared less about an inconsiderate English rock star. The Stones album Steel Wheelsturned out to be the last recording done at AIR before the damage from Hurricane Hugo followed by changing conditions in the recording industry had forced the closure of AIR for good.
Even so, Sir George made helping Montserrat recover from the devastation caused by Hugo and a later volcanic eruption a priority for the rest of his life. He organized the Music for Montserrat concert in 1997, and created a very limited-edition reproduction of the string score which he had written for the song “Yesterday.” Both he and Sir Paul hand-signed each framed copy which were titled “Yesterday for Montserrat.” Produced in the UK, these prints were made to museum-quality specification on Somerset Enhanced 100% cotton rag paper with hand-finished edges. The money raised from this and other various fundraising efforts were used to build a community center on the island which broke ground in 2001.
In my capacity as Artist Relations Director for Gibson Guitar Company and Slingerland Drums, I had the pleasure of working with Sir George on the Music for Montserrat charity event held at the Royal Albert Hall on Sep. 15, 1997. The concert featured Jimmy Buffett, Mark Knopfler, Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Midge Ure, Phil Collins, Carl Perkins and many others who had recorded on and inevitably fallen in love with the island.

All photos courtesy of Patrick Foley.

Monday, July 17, 2017

VIDEOS: Pink Floyd Performs on US Television for the First Time: American Bandstand, 1967

by Josh Jones, Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2016/04/pink-floyd-performs-on-us-television-for-the-first-time-american-bandstand-1967.html

Pink Floyd - Apples And Oranges - 1967 American... by pentathlonstart
You may have noticed we’ve been in the midst of a mini-sixties revival for the past decade or so—what with the retro soul of Alabama Shakes or the late Amy Winehouse, the garage rock of Ty Segall, and the California psych of Australia's Tame Impala. That’s to name but just a few students of sixties’ sounds; many hundreds more populate events like the Psych Fests of Austin and Liverpool. And before these bands, late eighties/early nineties brought us a British re-invasion of sixties garage rock and pop like the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Chameleons, the Stone Roses, Oasis, and many other jangly, fuzzy, dreamy bands.
All of that is to say it’s nearly impossible to hear anything sixties rock with fresh ears. Not only has the incessant nostalgia dimmed our senses, but we’ve seen the ideas of the sixties evolve into myriad subcultures variously indebted to the decade, but no longer even in need of direct reference. What would it mean, however, to hear the far-out sounds of a band like Pink Floyd for the first time, a band who may at times sound dated now, but much of whose more obscure catalog remains shocking. And it’s easy to forget that when Pink Floyd—or “The Pink Floyd” as they tended to be called—got their start with original singer and songwriter Syd Barrett, they made a much different sound than those we’re familiar with from The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon.
If you haven’t heard the sound of the band circa 1967, when they recorded their first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn, then you may nod along with Dick Clark’s ambivalent introduction of them to U.S. audiences in the ’67 American Bandstand appearance above---their first visit to the States and first time of TV. They do indeed make “very interesting sounds”: specifically, “Apples and Oranges,” the third single and the final song Barrett wrote for the band before he suffered a psychotic break onstage and was replaced by David Gilmour. There isn’t much in the way of performance. (But stick around for the interviews around 3:25.) As pretty much everyone did at the time, Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright mime to a prerecorded track. And Barrett looks particularly out of it. He was close by this point to the crippling mental health crisis that would eventually end his career.
But Syd Barrett did not disappear from music right away. The unreleased “Scream Thy Last Scream,” slated to be the next single released after Piper at the Gates of Dawn, gave much indication of the musical direction he took in two 1970 solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Like later Barrett, early Pink Floyd is not music for everyone. Instead of the familiar stomping funk of “The Wall” or the soaring blues of “Comfortably Numb,” the songs meander, twist, turn, and wobble, often indicating the state of Barrett’s troubled soul, but just as often showcasing his brilliant compositional mind. Barrett is gone, as is keyboardist Richard Wright, and Pink Floyd is no more. But their legacy is secure. And we still have mad geniuses like Austin psych legend Roky Erickson to kick around, as well as all the many thousands of musicians he and Barrett inspired.

Friday, July 14, 2017

VIDEOS: Frank Zappa Explains the Decline of the Music Business (1987)

by , Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2016/09/frank-zappa-explains-the-decline-of-the-music-business-1987.html

“Remember the 60s?” says Frank Zappa in the interview above, “that era that a lot of people have these glorious memories of?... they really weren’t that great, those years.” Ever the grumpy uncle. But Zappa does get nostalgic for one thing, and it’s an unexpected one: the music business. “One thing that did happen in the 60s,” he says, “was some music of an unusual and experimental nature did get recorded, did get released.” The executives of the day were “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said, 'I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, alright!'”
“We were better off with those guys,” says Zappa, “than we are with the hip, young executives,” making decisions about what people should hear. The hippies are more conservative than the conservative “old guys” ever were. This Zappa of 1987 recommends getting back to the “who knows?” approach, “that entrepreneurial spirit” of the grand old industry barons of the 60s. One can almost imagine Zappa—in the 60s—pining for the days of Edison, who refused to give up on the wax cylinder but would also record virtually anything. If both the time of Edison and the time of Zappa were bonanzas for makers of novelty records, so much the better. Zappa was novel. 
Still it seems like a funny sentiment coming from a guy who built most of his career in opposition to the record industry. But it was in the period of alleged decay that Zappa broke with Warner Bros. and founded his own label in 1977, making a deal with Phonogram to distribute his releases in the U.S. When Phonogram refused to release his 1981 single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” Zappa created another label, Barking Pumpkin Records, making sure he got to make and sell the music he wanted to.
In many ways people like Zappa---or later Kate Bush or Prince---anticipated our current music industry, in which we have artists starting labels left and right, controlling their own production and output. But those artists are mostly a tiny handful of hugely successful stars with mogul-sized ambitions. Does this help or harm the music economy as a whole? Independent musicians very rarely get the smallest window on how things work at the level of Beyonce, Jay-Z, or Taylor Swift (who "is the industry," Bloomberg once breathlessly proclaimed). But as Zappa notes, “the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population.” Even if those executives are themselves artists, we may greatly benefit from a wider range of "unusual and experimental" sounds in popular culture. Zappa suggests the way to do that is to get the "cigar-chomping old guys" (and they were all guys) back in charge. 
The rest of Zappa’s interview concerns the bogeyman of 80s and 90s music, the PMRC, and his very strong feelings about censorship, social control, and sex. It’s classic Zappa and won’t raise any eyebrows now, but it is interesting to hear his take on the decline of the music business since the 60s. We use different criteria to measure the apex of the industry---often depending on whether the labels or the artists made more money. Whichever period we lionize, for whatever reason, within a hundred-year window a tiny handful of musicians and record executives made enormous, dynasty-making fortunes. It just so happens that these days it's an even tinier handful of musicians and executives at the top, making even huger fortunes. And there's a lot more synergy between them. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Crooked Path to Badfinger’s “Straight Up”

Badfinger — the band that first found fame with the Paul McCartney penned “Come and Get It” — was riding high in 1971 following the recent release of its well-received album No Dice on the Beatles’ Apple label and its breakout hit “No Matter What” (written by band front-man Pete Ham). But when the band returned to the studio to record their follow-up, no one could have anticipated the twists and turns it would take to complete this next project. Working at first with Geoff Emerick, the producer-engineer for No Dice, who’d also worked on the Beatles’ Revolver and Abbey Road, the band was under a super-tight deadline, what with a pending US tour.
Yet despite the intended quick turnaround, when the completed tracks from the sessions were presented to Apple execs, they were uniformly rejected. Even a remix of “Name of the Game,” drawing on the talents of Phil Spector (working for the label at the time) and George Harrison, who were looking to repackage it for release as a single, was turned down. Eventually, six of these discarded tracks would be re-worked for Straight Up while a few more would be generated from scratch and added to the track list, but only after the band spent even more time in the studio. For much of the next phase on the album, Harrison worked closely with the band to help them craft their sound, even going so far as to sit in on a couple of tunes — playing guitar on “I’d Die Babe” and participating in a slide guitar duet with Ham on “Day After Day.” That memorable tune, which also featured piano work from Leon Russell, became the band’s biggest US hit.
But just as things were coming together for Badfinger, Harrison got pulled in another direction, preparing the live album and film of his Concert for Bangladesh at which Badfinger had actually performed. Busy with other concerns, Harrison told the members of Badfinger that he wouldn’t be able to finish his work on the album, so Apple then brought in Todd Rundgren. The multi-talented Rundgren fostered the band, as they fine-tuned some songs, including Ham’s Bangladesh tribute “Take It All” while also assisting them as they re-recorded several tunes from the previous sessions. One of the new songs that resulted was “Baby Blue,” written by Ham as a tribute to a girl he’d dated during the band’s US tour. (While a hit for the band at the time, this song is now best known for its use in the series finale of Breaking Bad)
There were some other new songs completed during this period such as guitarist Joey Molland’s rocker “Sometimes” and now-bassist Tom Evans’ elegiac closing track “It’s Over.” What had been a drawn out process was wrapped up in a mere two weeks with Rundgren. The results are remarkable. While the band members sometimes clashed with Rundgren during their sessions, there’s no doubt he was a key factor to the record’s success. His polished production and pop sensibilities combined with the excellent songwriting and instrumentation to create an acknowledged power pop classic.
PS. Badfinger and Straight Up are included in our post about bands following in The Beatles’ footsteps. Read more about the others like them here. Plus, for some more thoughts on George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, check out our posts The “Quiet” Beatle’s Huge Influence and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: And the Nominees Should Be…