The other day, thanks to a friend, I took a trip down memory lane listening to some early music that would later come to define a movement now often referred to as “glitch” music. A pioneer of this once obscure and now quite influential music genre, Oval, real name Markus Popp, had just released much of his back catalog as free album streams via bandcamp.com (link).
Characterized by rhythms and melodies that appear on an almost subliminal level, Oval’s music stands as something beyond gimmick. It’s the aural equivalent of art that looks better from the corner of the eye. Forced attention makes the music seem jarring. A casual listen, with the mind preoccupied on something else, like writing, enhances the experience. It is then when the music expands and swells and breaths, shimmering with a life inequitable to traditional music. These are the unseen atoms of life that barely hold matter together made manifest as sound— almost a portal to another dimension sprung to aural life. In turn, put it on some headphones and look out at the world, and you might feel a strange disconnect, as if everything has turned noisily silent. A fellow blogger paying tribute to the music Oval admitted he finally “got” Oval after having his wisdom teeth pulled out and taking painkillers (read the blog post here).
The notion of glitch music comes from its source: samples of damaged sound sources like CDs and records. It’s the skips in the disc or the hiss of surface noise that interest these artists. They then process them into subtle rhythmic and melodic patterns on a computer. The first I ever heard of anything like this was on Tortoise’s 1995 post-rock masterpiece album Millions Now Living Will Never Die (you can read a thorough review of that album here: Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ ).
Popp was the sole figure behind Oval when I first met him on tour with fellow Thrill Jockey Records label mates Tortoise sometime in the late 1990s. I had a chance to watch him work his magic on a MacBook on stage during soundcheck at Club Firestone in Orlando, Florida, and I introduced myself. This may have been one of the first times I had ever seen a musician work solely on a laptop, and I was skeptical but also curious how he employed musicianship via this tool.
Standing over his shoulder he showed me how he moved tiny midi files into an array of folders, in effect turning the craft of mixing into a performance. I recently got back in touch with him via Facebook, and he reminded me, “That was SoundMaker, an OS9-only shareware app made by a dude from Italy. Parts of the workflow still unrivaled today.”
I’m not sure if I reviewed his first album for Thrill Jockey, Dok, before or after this meeting. Regardless, I had been impressed by it. I wrote the review for the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine.” I had been the go-to guy at to write reviews for some of the more difficult to classify music, and Oval’s 1997 album Dok was one of those albums that required my attention.
I have dug up my old draft of that review. Save for a couple of spelling errors this is what I handed in to my editor:
Presented in layers of hushed, yet dense sounds, Oval’s latest release, Dok, feels like the soundtrack to a dream. The surreal music sounds as if it were coming through walls or from down the street. Like clouds drifting high overhead, it’s music appreciated from afar.
“Lens-flared Capital” opens Dok with thick layers of harmonic hiss and fizz, creating a sound one might hear in the deep, suffocating stillness of the ocean, while the hum of a raging tsunami echoes in the distance. The album is filled with lush soundscapes that rumble along quietly with the threatening potential of explosive character. On most of Dok’s tracks, melodies, driven by bells, ring under rumbles of dissonance, while unintelligible voices loop and fade in and out among layers of whispering static.
On earlier recordings, the Berlin-based Oval scratched records and marked CDs with paint to create a pallet of sounds to work from. To create Dok, Oval’s third album, Tokyo-based “installation artist/sound designer” Cristophe Charles, who has two doctorate degrees in music, provided sounds from his travels to foreign towns— particularly the sounds of bells among everyday noise. Markus Popp, Oval’s sole member, took Charles’ clatter and processed it with loops and tones to create musical collages of sound. The sounds are so thoroughly processed that the only true noises one can distinguish are the chattering voices that appear from time to time. The resulting tracks are soft, yet luxuriant, ambient pieces that aren’t as difficult to listen to as the concept seems to suggest.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of this album that makes it worthwhile. Its modest 45-minute length transports you to another dimension of sound, where environmental noise becomes music, but you don’t have to be John Cage to appreciate this record. Rather than wading in self-indulgent noise and sound freak-out, Oval does what so many ambient artists overlook: add a depth to found sounds through conceptual pieces that are pleasant to listen to. Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.
“Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.” Lol. Some nerve, but at that time, Eno’s music was not treading such pioneering ground as Oval. It was an utterly refreshing re-invention of ambient music that I can still appreciate. Popp’s a true music pioneer with a firm sense of the independent ethos. He has agreed to answer some questions regarding his thoughts on his peculiar brand of music. Come back to “Independent Ethos” for that exclusive interview in the next week or so.
More than half-way through the new Daft Punk album, and I feel it’s just Daft Punk lite. The inventive beats have mostly been supplanted by jangling disco guitars. Some of it reminds me of Hall and Oates with robot voices. There are some funky moments in Random Access Memories that recall late-1970s era Prince, but it’s still not as strong as some of the music on that legendary artist’s early work like Dirty Mind.
It’s a weird thing anticipation does. Having followed Daft Punk from the start, this new album seems to seep and swoosh around as easy-listening Saturday morning music, and lacks the sudden impact that earlier albums have had. How appropriate it shows up early in the morning on the weekend as the sun rises. If it’s dull, it’s pleasantly dull.
Decide for yourself, click the image below to visit the iTunes store and open your iTunes player (or download it) to hear it:
Edit: The last five minutes includes a bit of the noisy, driving Daft Punk that I first fell for.
Edit 2: Daft Punk have now released the entire album to stream via YouTube (iTunes stream still sounds better, though):
May 13, 2013
Thanks to NPR Music’s “First Listen” series, Deerhunter’s new album Monomania has had two weeks to seep in. It soon became apparent that this album was a marvelous continuation of the Atlanta-based band’s arty noise-pop sound. Any doubts about this album for this writer lasted only halfway through the band’s premiere of the title track on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show a few weeks ago. Deerhunter would give one of the most brilliantly subversive television performances I had ever seen. Lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox hid most of his face under a disheveled mop of a jet-black wig. He gripped a microphone on a stand with his right hand and snarled through the song. But the scene-stealer was a missing middle finger on his left hand. His face mostly hidden, one could not help but notice the bandaged and bloody nub where one of his fingers should have been. Though later proven a stunt (he had just curled up his finger and wrapped it tight), this “prop” raised the performance to an entrancing level, especially when one has to think what this might do to the guitarist/songwriter’s process considering the wall-of-guitar sound of Deerhunter.
Then, a little more than halfway through the song, as the band dove into a roaring cacophony of dueling guitars, Cox walked off the stage. A cameraman followed him backstage, as his mates bent over their respective instruments to squeeze the life out of their strings, seemingly oblivious to the disappearance of their frontman. Guitars still wailing in the distance, Cox walked past a couple chatting in a backstage hall, snatched a cup from a woman yapping and either chugged the cup of water or threw it in his own face (I can’t recall, the video is no longer on-line). With the band members still pounding on their instruments, he walked over to an elevator and pressed a button, as “Monomania” came to a sputtering end. Fallon walked over to the stage holding a vinyl copy of the album. “Deerhunter, everybody!”
This is the genius that informs this music that I have consistently celebrated since I first heard of Deerhunter via their third album, 2008’s Microcastle. Three albums later and Deerhunter have not lost their touch to these ears. The new album opens with two noisy tracks with vocals so loud they rattle eardrums, distorting beyond perception of lyrics as guitars screech and shimmer, dipping into sporadic bits of feedback. Then comes relief in “The Missing,” a pretty melody crafted by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also has a noteworthy solo project called Lotus Plaza. Pundt’s shy, breathy singing is the perfect complement to the delicate songcraft: pretty guitars and synths sighing an iridescent harmonic whoosh under the bright guitars. None of these songs on their own would feel as potent taken out of the context from one another. It’s a great bit of dichotomy. To reduce Deerhunter as a grungy shoegaze/noise pop outfit interested solely in reverb is to overlook the patchwork brilliance of the entire experience of its albums.
Last week, the vinyl version of Monomania arrived, and it provided yet another layer of revelation. What becomes immediately noticeable, thanks to the clarity of vinyl, is the acoustic guitar strumming within the din of the opening track, “Neon Junkyard.” There are also various whirs and fizzes that comprise the noise from unknown sources. The lyrics are also clearer, and the first line may as well be Deerhunter’s manifesto: “Finding the fluorescence in the junk/By night illuminates the day.”
The great thing about noise pop albums on vinyl is how the format clears up the din like a high-definition video screen. There is finesse in the racket. The clarity of the instruments, from the strum of acoustic guitars to the pluck of bass strings, pops out with not just crispness but dynamism. “Blue Agent” contains a staccato lead guitar line the oozes liquidity. However, its terse delivery features a new dynamic in each pluck on vinyl. The sonic range via vinyl turns what could be regarded as a cute gimmick in playing to elevating the song with a deeper character that sounds far more human and real.
“T.H.M.” opens with a delicate guitar line and soft beat decorated with a shaker. The song picks up on a sprightlier beat with hand claps as another guitar jumps in to add another terse melody before returning to the more spare verse. The kicker comes when Cox supplements his growling lyrics with a chorus of asthmatic coughs.
Side two opens with a billowing whir and then bright guitars drive the song along toward a chorus featuring an echo effect capping off the end of each line Cox sings before more guitar strums pile up to swell and suddenly back off and let the initial hook trot along to the song’s finale. It’s a brilliant tease of noise versus melody. In fact, this side more than side one features the catchier tunes and reveals the early ‘90s/late ‘80s noise pop sonic influence from bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. However, whereas those bands were usually against keeping keyboards and keeping synths out of the mix, Deerhunter has no fear of using them to supplement its sound. Then again, there is that roar of an outboard motor that takes over from the crush of screeching guitars at the end of “Monomania.”
Beyond the gritty sound juxtaposed with brightness are the dark lyrics by Cox. That’s where the true heart of darkness of this album lies. As bright as “T.H.M.” sounds musically, the lyrics reference a violent death (“Took two bullets to the brain”) coupled with “coming out” and insanity. Throughout Monomania, the lyrics seem to wallow in misunderstanding and a frustrated solitude. It comes from a very real place, as Cox rarely sentimentalizes his homosexuality. Even Pundt’s only song, “the Missing,” fits the vibe of the album lyrically.
Deerhunter has always known its way around darker subject matter, and such deep exploration births an honest sound that does not always produce pure melody. The members of Deerhunter consistently prove themselves crafty with guitars and pop songs, but they know how to dig deeper to offer something much more dynamic with not only volume but cacophony. As ever, Deerhunter proves there is a beauty in noise. Monomania may have frayed and weathered edges but it’s representative of a real humanity beyond the songcraft.
The other day we drove up to Orlando from Miami for a live show by Phoenix. Though not as impressed by their latest album Bankrupt!, expectations for a great live show ran high. They had already impressed during their first show in South Florida a few years back (Phoenix pack arena-sized show into Fillmore theater; Oct. 29, 2010). This show, at the House of Blues, just like the Fillmore show, would sell out. This night’s performance, though not as stagey as the Miami Beach show, still impressed. The band breezed through its repertoire with its usual spunk and warmth. It even felt rather brief.
It began with a short set by Chicago ’90s grunge survivors Urge Overkill. There was a time when these guys would headline these venues about 20 years back. It was interesting to watch these guys live. With rather ebullient ease, they played their hits from back in the day, like “Positive Bleeding,” “Sister Havana” and their cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” made famous for its presence in Pulp Fiction. There was also a new tune. But, beyond five or six seemingly impressed attendees, the interest in Urge Overkill seemed polite if any at all. The group’s music is still rather uneventful barroom rock that chugs along on rudimentary hooks. One guy paid more attention to his video game than the performance (see image below).
Phoenix would go on at about 9:45 at night with the first single off the new album kicking off the lively set. The sound immediately revealed that this concert was going to sound amazing, from the quality of the performance to the clarity of the sonics. Even though the set list was weighted by lots of new material, the guys brought so much life to their music with their presence (as last time, dual drummers, too). It was a zippy set. The band mixed together several songs as medleys. At one point singer Thomas Mars shared his joy at being in such an intimate venue after all of the band’s earlier festival dates. Here’s one of the band’s biggest ever hits thanks to a car commercial:
They did something interesting with the epic “Love Like a Sunset,” mixing it with the title track of the new album:
The crowd gave them back lots of energy with lots of raised hands throughout the set, and quite literally supported Mars during the band’s closing number, “Rome” and a reprise of soaring section of “Entertainment.” Between the two songs, he appeared at the back of the pit and crowd-surfed his way to the stage, a classic Mars move he pulls at the end of Phoenix’s shows.
Long Distance Call
The Real Thing
S.O.S. in Bel Air
Sunskrupt! (A combination of “Love Like a Sunset” and “Bankrupt!”)
Too Young / Girlfriend
Trying to Be Cool / Drakkar Noir / Chloroform
Countdown (Stripped-Down Version)
Playground Love (Air cover)
The group has dates scheduled for the US and Europe scheduled through the end of November. See what’s available here (that’s a hotlink).
April 29, 2013
When Peter Murphy talks about his experience with music, a small part of him fears he is over-intellectualizing. Over the course of our 45-minute chat he occasionally seems to have the tiniest inkling he might be stating things that might go over the heads of readers or may be misunderstood. Toward the end of our conversation, after a rare laugh he says, “It might go over people’s heads, but so what? They’ll get it later, like a hundred years later.”
I spoke with Murphy last Sunday afternoon, as he rode on a tour bus toward the first date of his Mr. Moonlight Tour, which features a set list comprised of only Bauhaus music. After talking about the start and end of the pioneering Gothic rock band and lots in between … much of which you will find noted in my in-depth article on his decision to tour with solely Bauhaus music in the “Crossfade” music blog from the “Miami New Times (jump through the logo below):”
Up-date: the interview was so long, it was broken up into two parts. Here’s is part 2 (that’s a hotlink).
Our conversation also included the subjective experience of art, specifically music. It came from a mutual appreciation of Brian Eno’s 1974 solo album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Bauhaus famously recorded a quite literal cover of that album’s “Third Uncle” during a BBC session, which they released as a single and also used as the opener on its 1982 album the Sky’s Gone Out.
“Those lyrics, they take you with them. Don’t they?” Murphy says of the songs on Eno’s second solo album. “They’re not didactic. They’re not literal in that sense. They open up the creative imagination within the listeners. So it isn’t actually selfish. In a way, the audience is the reason. For music there has to be the listener. Otherwise, the singer or the musician doesn’t matter. It’s a shared experience in a very natural way. That’s not an over-arching idea. But that is art.”
He agrees that some of David Bowie’s most interesting songs come from a decoupage technique popularized by William Burroughs but pioneered by the Dadaists from the turn of the 20th century. “They leave the creativity to the listener, as well,” Murphy notes, who transitioned from solitary poetry composition to Bauhaus frontman in late 1978 when guitarist Daniel Ash introduced him to brothers David J (bass) and Kevin Haskins (drums).
The A-side of the “Third Uncle” track was Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” Murphy notes something very interesting happens when he inhabits that song live, which he plans on playing on this tour. “Songs evoke very personal associations,” he says. “So I have my own experience with Bowie. You could have called me a Bowie fan or whatever, but when I met him I realized it was me creating my own inner world with that music. I was Ziggy Stardust. He’s just some bloke creating some theatrical thing, doing his own thing. It’s not him really. It is, but it’s beyond. It’s me really, hence the idea of doing ‘Ziggy Stardust.’ He just wrote it. We did our version, and we did it how it’s supposed to be done in our minds, and it was brilliant.” He pauses for a chuckle. “That was not a statement against him at all. It’s just the ultimate Bowie fan casualty that was sold. So I still become Ziggy Stardust in that three minutes, that seminal character in music culture, and I’m it.”
Watch the official video:
There was so much more we went over. It was a revelatory conversation. Bauhaus worked from a very primal pool of creativity, relying on their chemistry as musicians. He indulged me in an explanation of how they came up with the brilliant collage track that closes the Sky’s Gone Out: “Exquisite Corpse.” He said it comes from a surrealist game for children. Using a folded piece of paper a group sets out to draw a body but only a small bit of the end of the last drawing is visible to the next illustrator. The result is one exquisite corpse.
The band did something similar during the recording of the song that closes the album on a brilliantly abstract note. After programming a rhythm track, Murphy explained, “We each went in, and we gave ourselves a minute each to write whatever we wanted individually without any of the other members, and then the next person would play from the last five seconds, hearing the last five seconds of the previous person and continue, and then we’d all come in and gathered … and that was the result. So the title, ‘Exquisite Corpse,’ is exquisite. It’s the exercise in letting itself create its own venture.” You can hear the result right here:
Considering, backwards effects, the coughing, the snoring section and other bits, it will certainly make for a difficult, odd song to perform live, so I would not expect to hear it on the tour (did Bauhaus even ever perform this genius little oddity live?).
Only one day until the show (I had tons to transcribe and illness to battle) in Miami at Grand Central. Tuesday, April 30. Doors: 8 p.m. Tickets cost $26 / $60 (VIP) – VIP ticket includes a 7 p.m. pre-show, access to soundcheck, meet-and-greet with Murphy, exclusive edition T-shirt and a signed poster. All ages. There will also be a second post on the Crossfade music blog tomorrow morning, so be sure to check back there tomorrow.
Update 2: Show happened! To read my review click on the picture below by “Miami New Times” photographer Ian Witlen:
For those outside Miami, the tour will proceed as follows across the U.S., into Mexico, then Europe and back to North America:
Wed, May 1 – Tampa FL @ Orpheum Theater
Thu, May 2 – Atlanta GA @ Terminal West
Fri, May 3 – Charlotte NC @ Tremont Music Hall
Sat, May 4 – Washington DC @ U-Music Hall
Sun, May 5 – Boston MA @ Paradise Rock Club
Tue, May 7 – New York City NY @ Webster Hall
Thu, May 9 – Philadelphia PA @ Trocadero
Fri, May 10 – Toronto ON @ Lee’s Palace
Sat, May 11 – Buffalo NY @ Town Ballroom
Sun, May 12 – Pittsburgh PA @ Mr Smalls
Mon, May 13 – Detroit MI @ Magic Stick
Wed, May 15 – Indianapolis IN @ Deluxe at Old National Centre
Thu, May 16 – Chicago IL @ House of Blues
Sun, May 19 – Mexico City, MX @ Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli (to include Peter Murphy solo material, as well!)
Wed, May 22 – Bochum, DE @ Christuskirche
Thu, May 23 – Karlsruhe, DE @ Substage
Fri, May 24 – Zurich, CH @ Komplex Klub
Sun, May 26 – Rome, IT @ Orion
Mon, May 27 – Milan, IT @ Magazzini Generali
Wed, May 29 – Madrid, ES @ Sala Arena
Thu, May 30 – Lisbon, PT @ Coliseum
Sat, June 1 – Barcelona, ES @ Bikini Barcelona
Mon, June 3 – Brussels, BE @ AB
Wed, June 5 – Paris, FR @ Trabendo
Thu, June 6 – Eindhoven, NL @ Effenaar
Fri, June 7 – Hamburg, DE @ Knust
Sat, June 8 – Copenhagen, DK @ Loppen
Mon, June 10 – Stockholm, SE @ Debaser Medis
Wed, June 12 – Helsinki, FI @ Tavastia
Fri, June 14 – Nottingham, UK @ Rescue Rooms
Sat, June 15 – Glasgow, UK @ Oran Mor
Mon, June 17 – Birmingham, UK @ Academy 2
Tue, June 18 – Bristol, UK @ Academy
Wed, June 19 – London, UK @ Islington Academy
NORTH AMERICA II
Sat, July 13 – Phoenix AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
Sun, July 14 – El Paso TX @ Tricky Falls
Tue, July 16 – Denver CO @ Summit Music Hall
Wed, July 17 – Salt Lake City UT @ Urban Lounge
Thu, July 18 – Boise ID @ Visual Arts Collective
Fri, July 19 – Seattle WA @ Showbox Theater
Sat, July 20 – Vancouver BC @ TBA
Sun, July 21 – Portland OR @ Hawthorne Theater
Tue, July 23 – San Francisco CA @ Fillmore Theater
Wed, July 24 – Las Vegas @ LVCS
Sat, July 27 – Los Angeles CA @ Henry Fonda Theatre
Fri, July 28 – San Diego CA @ Belly-up
40 years later: Mike Garson recalls what it was like to record ‘Aladdin Sane’ with David Bowie – an Indie Ethos exclusive
April 20, 2013
Earlier this week, EMI Records reissued a new remaster of David Bowie’s darker-side-of-glitter follow-up to last year’s 40th Anniversary reissue of the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Aladdin Sane’s 40th Anniversary reissue arrives in simpler CD form, with no DVD audio or vinyl equivalent. But it remains a very interesting moment in the evolution of Bowie.
Though riding an increasingly popular wave of stardom at the time, Bowie had begun to tire of splitting his persona between Ziggy and Bowie. The follow-up album’s fractured portrait, with the so-called “Ziggy Bolt” painted over Bowie’s rosy, if somber, face and the play on “A Lad Insane” in the title belied the amped up sound of a talent in top form.
Inspired by his first U.S. tour for Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had embraced the glamour of L.A. and the seediness of New York for much of the album’s inspiration. It gave the interstellar glam rock of Ziggy a grittier, down-to-earth sound. Though still working with the luxuriant guitar blasts of Mick Ronson, Bowie threw in some soulful female vocals. He also picked up New York-based jazz pianist, Mike Garson, who brought one of the most distinctive approaches to the piano ever to a rock record. Garson has since become Bowie’s longest-ever go-to for piano (until this year’s the Next Day).
If there was one musician Bowie has had worked with, besides guitarists, that have come to help define Bowie’s sound over the span of his career, Garson’s touch on piano cannot be ignored (for a comprehensive look at their career together see this series of earlier posts). Despite Bowie’s work with Rick Wakeman of Yes on 1971’s Hunky Dory, Garson’s angular approach to his instrument offered a more distinctive touch. On stage, Garson would never play the same solo twice. It’s ever-shifting quality fascinated the singer who knows so much about changes it has become cliché to call him “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll.”
You may just be able to call Garson the chameleon of piano playing, which affords him a kind of distance to his work. When I called him last month to ask him for his thoughts on his first studio album with Bowie, he seemed rather surprised that his solo on the album’s title track has grown into such a big deal. “Now, after fuckin’ 40 years, ‘Aladdin Sane,’” he says of the praise he gets for the minute-and-a-half solo that’s the song’s centerpiece. “People are writing, and I’m seeing these things I’m shocked [about] because I never heard this song for 20, 30 years after I recorded them, people saying things like, ‘It might be one of the best rock solos in history,’ and it’s not even rock playing. But, you know, history sometimes proves things out.”
The title track of the album opens with such a soft touch it feels ethereal. The keys rumble with the reverb of the hollow body of the Bechstein piano at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded in the winter of 1973. Garson’s touch is soft and pillowy, as are the light strums of an acoustic guitar by Bowie and murmuring electric guitar accompaniment by Mick Ronson, the soft, elastic plucks by bassist Trevor Bolder and the drum taps by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. “Watching him dash away … swinging an old bouquet,” Bowie sighs before responding to himself in a higher octave: “dead roses.”
After a false shift where the song may be building to a larger sound, with Bowie turning a sigh to a rat-tat-tat, stuttering pause, the group pulls back for another short verse of easygoing, ghostly quality. Bowie sings the follow-up line similar to the first: “Passionate bright young things … takes him away to war — don’t fake it.” Another stutter, and the song shifts to strident piano and chugging guitar, as Bowie coos, “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane/Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise/Who’ll love Aladdin Sane.”
Again the song falls back to its delicate beginning of delicate touches for one more verse and, at the two-minute mark, makes a leap toward a now irrepressible charge, with a distant saxophone by Ken Fordham howling out a few large, breathy notes. Garson begins to play the hook with more staccato force, trills here and there. The drums and bass pound along below, straight and steady, as Garson grows terse for one moment and squeezes in bits of notes from one range and another while still miraculously keeping the theme intact. He hammers keys here and brushes keys there, teetering on the edge of chaos while always remaining in check. With the echoing howl of the sax returning, Bowie returns with the “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane” chorus, and Garson does not stop his rawboned riffing as Bowie repeats “We’ll love Aladdin Sane” and takes a tangent to growl “Say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway” like some cosmic joke to the tattered jazz that encapsulates this bizarro song. Ronson holds back his guitar so that Garson may tangle with Fordham for a bit, as the song fades.
The fade out of this song should also not be underplayed. Ronson’s guitar becomes apparent here as it sighs a few tiny chords of reverb. Meanwhile, Garson toys around tersely on the higher end, as Fordham seems to sob into his sax for some soft sighing final notes. For a few seconds all that remains is the piano. Garson plays quick, seesaw runs on his right hand, then pumps out a few billowing bass chords with his left. There’s one last all-encompassing chord and a pause for the reverb of the piano, before he ends with one final, sly irrepressible trickle with his right hand. Clearly a mad duel of an orgy of instruments has played out and Garson came out a victor with a little wink at the end.
No one can talk about that song as just a Bowie song, and it has forever been Garson’s shining moment on a Bowie record. As many are quick to praise his frenetic piano on Aladdin Sane’s title track, Garson himself can position himself outside of it and note its magical quality. “The notes found me as much as I found it,” he says of his work on that song. “I wish I could find something comparable … When you have those magic moments, you want to recreate them, but the truth of the matter is you can’t. They have to be what they are, and they have to come in a very organic way, so I can’t force it to happen. I would just like it to happen somehow, naturally, but you can’t force it because they’re bigger than us, when those moments happen. They’re really like spiritual experiences, as far as I’m concerned.”
Garson credits Bowie’s direction during the recording for at least leading him to the result on record. “I considered David the best producer I ever had of anyone that’s ever produced me, and why? On the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo, I played a blues solo first. He said, no. I played a Latin solo. He said, no. Then he said, ‘Play that avant-garde stuff you told me you played in New York,’ and it was he who pulled it out of me because it wasn’t my first choice. Now, once he said that, it was a take one, but it wasn’t my choice to go there, so I give him big kudos for that.”
Garson does not play on every song on the album, but he does appear on some of its most revered deep cuts. Besides the extraordinary moody journey of the title track, whose long-lost original title included the parenthetical: “(1913-1938-197?)” in reference to the start of the World Wars, he also plays on the album’s most sincerely romantic song: “Lady Grinning Soul.” After a dramatic trilling piano opening by Garson, there’s a pause for silence for a few seconds before Bowie croons, “She’ll come…” unaccompanied, and then the band falls in with a soft swing as Garson provides rapidly trickling finger rolls, and Bowie finishes the opposite end of his sentence: “she’ll go.” The song features quiet, soaring sax and guitar, not to mention dreamy piano work by Garson, as Bowie howls words like, “Touch the fullness of her breast/Feel the love of her caress/She will be your living end.”
“To me, that’s one of his most gorgeous songs,” Garson says. “That’s the David Bowie that I love. That’s just pure, romantic gorgeous voice, beautiful, romantic piano playing, and it doesn’t get better than that for me. I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan when it comes to all the screaming and not singing with a real voice. To me, that’s a crooner. That’s David Bowie. That’s the gift of the man, for me.”
Other songs Garson contributed piano to on Aladdin Sane include “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Watch That Man” and “Time.” He says he recorded most of his parts with the band with the exception of the title track, and there were often few takes. “’Aladdin Sane’ was an overdub,” he notes. “I think I played ‘Time’ with the band, and I think I played ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ with the band. I don’t remember for sure, but I think so, but I think I played ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ with the band.”
He notes that— at least for his part— he took a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach to the last song he mentions, a cover of a 1967 Rolling Stones single. “I just went nuts, personally,” he says. “I don’t even know why I played that crazy beginning, but it just worked. Maybe it was in rebellion or protest or opposite-effect of what Mick Jagger did. Maybe it was just such a contrast and so hilarious because you couldn’t top that vibe that they got, just as a rock band, and what can I add that just turns it upside down? It’s almost borderline humorous.”
He remains humble about his contribution to the album. “It wasn’t just Mike Garson because of ‘Aladdin Sane,’” He says. “It was Mike Garson with Ken Scott with Mick Ronson with David Bowie producing it with the magic of Trident Studios with the magic with of the Bechstein piano, with the fact that the Beatles and Queen recorded there, the whole karmic, historic, archetype magic that the notes found me as much as I found the notes. That’s the real truth. It’s not just Mike Garson. It’s that group effort.”
Superficially, most everyone is drawn to Aladdin Sane for its cover art. That flash of blue and red painted over Bowie’s face overshadowed the teardrop in the man’s clavicle, which hinted at Bowie’s pain of leading a life as a split persona. It’s flashy superficiality overshadowed a grim reality, which was also brilliantly reflected in the resonant music, which carries a subversive depth few acknowledge. The album’s cover became the avatar of the rock star. In the years that followed that flash of face paint has been co-opted by younger music stars like Marilyn Manson in the 1990s and more obviously and recently Lady Gaga, who, like Bowie then, flaunts her bi-sexually as part of her shtick. Like the fleeting magic of what happened inside Trident Studios when they recorded Aladdin Sane, Garson notes that no imitation of the album cover will have the same effect now. “You can’t even hardly recreate it now because it was the ‘70s,” he says. “It was the bi-sexuality. It was the glam rock. It was the look. Right behind me, as I’m talking to you, the poster’s on my wall. My grandkids ask me about it, and it’s amazing. So it’s all those factors, so I was blessed to be able to contribute to that movement.”
Eddie Jobson of U.K. on popular music: “Everything’s been superficialized;” my interview in “New Times” and more
March 23, 2013
After the Cruise to the Edge, aka the “Prog Cruise,” according to Yes drummer Alan White, sails around Cuba (Alan White of ‘Yes’ talks ‘Cruise to the Edge’ and early Yes; my profile in “New Times”), another of the nine bands sailing with Yes will perform in Miami: U.K. I spoke to that band’s leader, Eddie Jobson, and that interview is slated to be published by the “Miami New Times.” next week.
Jobson, who worked with Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa and King Crimson before he took part in forming U.K. spoke with me over the phone during rehearsals in Los Angeles with his other band, UKZ. You can read the attempt to scrunch up his history in progressive rock, including the birth of U.K., which was to include (gasp) master guitarist and inventor Robert Fripp, by jumping through the logo of the paper’s music blog “Crossfade,” below (you’ll also find lots of cool retro images and videos):
Jobson recently took the initiative to reform U.K. for a few rare performances with veteran members John Wetton on bass and vocals and Terry Bozzio on drums. Guitarist Alex Machacek, from UKZ, stands in for Allan Holdsworth. They will only play a few scattered dates, including performances at music festivals in Panama and Mexico, besides the cruise. After touring to Jamaica on Yes’ “Cruise to the Edge,” U.K. will host its only U.S. show at Miami’s intimate Grand Central. “This is not only the first gig in Miami of this lineup, it’ll probably be the last,” says Jobson. “This is a one-off tour that we started last year with Bozzio, and this one gig is the only North American show we’re doing now.”
Despite the show being U.K.’s only show in the U.S., Jobson is not wholly surprised the show has yet to sell out and has no pretensions about the state of prog rock in the current popular music scene. “It’s really a nostalgia movement now,” he says. “I think there are two levels of prog rock now. There are the guys like us, who are sort of the originators of the genre, and I think our time is sort of on its last legs, to be honest,” he notes with a laugh before continuing, “The other side of progressive rock is a new wave of younger bands, especially out of England, you know, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson and musicians like that who are kind of tapping into a young, fairly vibrant retro wave … We can’t really tap into that either because they’re younger and retro hip.”
Prog arrived on the music scene in the late ‘60s offering an alternative to pop music, blues, folk and psychedelic hippie rock. But also meddled all those genres and brought in classical music training, elements of jazz and unorthodox song constructs with heavy and obscure lyrical themes that also seemed to demonstrate a literary knack. It was sometimes deridingly called “art rock” (I’ll take it, tough!). It was surprising to think such complex music once led to sold out stadiums. But as the masses’ attention span so easily grows short, popular music has little room for intellectual music, especially now. Jobson touches on one of the distractions: “It strikes me that the focus has really shifted from people appreciating players and people appreciating music to kids just fantasizing about being stars, this whole ‘American Idol,’ ‘Guitar Hero’ game sort of idea.”
One of the ways Jobson currently makes a living, as do many other prog musicians, is by giving lessons. He says these clinics have helped give him a lot of perspective. As a 58-year-old musician with many years of experience in the music industry (he was a regular child prodigy who joined Curved Air at age 16), Jobson has had a lot of time to consider the mind of a popular music consumer. “A lot of our guitar clinics or drum clinics, more people will show up to that than will show up to the concert, even if the concert’s the same day or the next day,” he notes. “People are more interested in trying to learn the tricks of how to become a rock star then to actually get into the music and have the music actually mean something to them because most of the music they’ve been brought up with has been sold to them from the music industry is just so superficial. They never develop that rich context, that richer development of appreciation for more complex rhythms, more complex harmonic structures or anything like that. Everything’s been superficialized, and that’s all they know. That’s why progressive rock can’t really sustain with that audience. That’s why classical music can’t sustain with that audience. It requires too much attention, in a way, too much analysis … That connection only happens if you’ve been sort of brought up with it and you develop that connection between complex harmony and emotional responses. I think it has to be developed in early years, and none of our kids are having it developed unless they’ve been brought up with classical music; very few are these days.”
Let’s hope refined tastes and demands for something more complex never dies out (I must say I found that in bands like Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal, among others). As the Internet grows more niche-oriented and separate, I would hope there are younger people with tastes beyond hipsterdom and superficiality who will seek out blogs such as this. There will always, therefore be some room for more complex music— and film— somewhere in culture, if not at the top of the charts. Anyone reading that agrees, let your voice be heard below.
U.K. performs at Grand Central, 697 North Miami Ave Miami, FL 33136, Saturday, March 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is all ages. For tickets, jump through this link.