R.I.P. John Wetton

The deaths of rock and roll icons continues in 2017, with the passing of Prog Rock legend, John Wetton. Even if you don’t know who he is (and if you are over the age of 40 you should know), you know many of the bands he once played with.

King Crimson. Asia. Roxy Music. UK. Uriah Heep. Wishbone Ash. Just to name a few. Also, an extensive solo album career.

For most of these bands Wetton played the bass, and also sang vocals. Usually lead. His voice was unique and recognizable, deep and smooth, with a slight bit of rasp, but there was always something comforting in his voice. He sounded like someone’s dad fronting a bar band. He didn’t have a lot of range, he couldn’t hit the high notes, but he had the essential ingredient — feeling. I think it was what led to Asia, his most commercially successful band, to such great heights in the early 80s.

I’ve written about Asia a bit more extensively here, so I won’t go into detail, but for fans of the members of Asia — Wetton, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, Geoffrey Downes — Asia was a bit of a disappointment. The mind-blowing solos had disappeared and been replaced by hooks and sing-along choruses. But, listening to the first two Asia albums again today, although the production on them sounds quite dated, there are some masterful instrumental breaks that showed these prog-rock dinosaurs still could show off, just for ten seconds at a time instead of ten minutes.

My favorite John Wetton recorded performances were probably with King Crimson, where he played on arguably the bands most musically adventurous albums: Larks Tongues’ in Aspic, Red, Starless and Bible Black, and USA.

It’s not easy to play the intricate type of music that Robert Fripp writes, let alone sing at the same time. I’ve spent many hours in my late teens and early 20s focusing on the individual parts of the King Crimson canon. Usually I concentrated on the drums, but Wetton’s bass lines were deceptively crazy. But at the same time, Wetton played the role of “glue”: keeping the songs together when all the instruments seemed to be heading in all different directions. There’s a reason King Crimson, once Wetton left the band in 1975, never had a bassist/vocalist again.

John Wetton was irreplaceable and there will never be another musician like him ever again.

I leave this post with one of my favorite songs Wetton ever played on, recorded with the band UK…though this is during a reunion, just 6 years ago, back in 2011, with Eddie Jobson and some other fine musicians.

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Firefall – You Are the Woman

firefallThis is the sort of song that pops up in my head unbidden. Without having heard it in a supermarket or a shopping mall. But it was ubiquitous in my parents’ cars growing up. It was songs like this that permeated and saturated my pre-teen ears whenever slumped into the backseat of Dad’s Datsun 280zx or Mom’s yellow station wagon. I could feel the bile climbing up my esophagus as an endless stream of soft rock, by bands like Firefall, America, Seals & Crofts, Captain & Tenille, Ambrosia, Bread and countless other syrupy sensitive artists sung sweetly about the biggest part of me and horses with no names — sending my impressionable self into the open arms of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin. And not a minute too soon.

Now, a million years later, I can appreciate bands like Firefall. There’s a distant comfort that warms my blood when a song like “You Are the Woman” courses through my veins. I find myself singing along — loudly if in the car — because I know all the words. Even if I’d always thought the lyrics were “You are the one that I always dreamed of,” not “woman I always dreamed of.” But it works either way. Like singing “kiss this guy” instead of “kiss the sky” in the Jimi Hendrix classic “Purple Haze.”

While searching for the above YouTube video, I entertained myself by playing the entire Firefall Greatest Hits album (you know, to get in the mood) and  FRIGGIN’ RECOGNIZED EVERY ONE OF THESE SONGS! Jesus – this was no one-hit-wonder band! I was even bopping my head along to their 1978 hit song “Strange Way” which, I dunno if it’s the chords or what, but the way the flute and bass and keyboards blend together, it’s like a musical massage to my deepest plexus (plexii?). It’s soft-rock magic. I even, for a moment, paying attention to the lyrics, found them dare I say, profound. I mean, am I wrong?

Didn’t I hear your voice this morning, didn’t you call my name?
I heard you whisper softly, but the words were never plain.
And in your dream of darkness, I came shinin’ like the sun.
Waiting for the laughter, but the laughter never comes.

That’s a Strange Way to Tell Me You Love Me indeed. Maybe this is what happens to people when they turn 50, they start to reconnect with the bad music their parents made them listen to as kids. Today I find myself listening to Firefall; last week it was Little River Band, and yesterday, Genesis. I try to resist this bizarre nostalgia trip by playing something that came out in 2016 and this new song (I can’t even remember the name or the artist) floats right past me like yesterday’s underwear.

I just made up that metaphor, but it feels right somehow. Floating underwear is today’s white bread. Maybe tomorrow’s underwear is more apt. No, that’s exactly backward. Firefall is like yesterday’s underwear. Though clearly very white when you brought the undies home from the store, they’ve undoubtedly been through a lot — the wringer you might say. The stains are never coming out no matter how much bleach you use, and the whole thing is a thread’s breath from falling apart. Yet, despite the aging and the fraying, it’s the most comfortable piece of clothing in all your closets and drawers.

In this YouTube clip above, it’s the version of “Strange Way” that, if you know the song, is the one you will recognize. And it’s great as it is, to be sure, but during my spelunking deep into the Firefall wormhole (a situation that occurs quite often when putting together these posts) I discovered a nine-minute live version of “Strange Way” from their 2009 reunion album, creatively titled “Firefall Reunion Live.”  It’s a very clean and crisp recording, and the band sounds especially tight. There’s even a Latin-break about 4 minutes in, replete with alternating percussion, drum and flute solos! The perfect journey into yacht-rock heaven!

 

 

 

Genesis – Abacab

As I scan the shelves at my local Pet Food Express for Bernie’s canned food, I find myself lost in thought, planning out the rest of my day. Would I have time to complete the myriad of tasks on my to-do list before 3pm? I have finally developed a routine of keeping track of my tasks using the “notes” app on my phone and as soon as I think of something I need to do, buy or remember, I jot it down in a note. Because my brain is like a sieve, I check this list multiple times a day, to make sure I haven’t skipped an essential item. Oh shit! I forgot to get a birthday card for Mom! Well, that doesn’t happen now, because, like Santa Claus, I check my list, way more than twice and really can’t tell the difference between naughty and nice.

But I digress. I am scanning the cans, searching for wild boar and rice (Bernie’s favorite) when all of a sudden I find myself bopping to and fro, caught in a pleasant reverie spiral. I realize it’s due to the music coming from the store’s speakers. The recognizable keyboard chords of Tony Banks, the thumping bass-lines of Mike Rutherford, and, of course, the solid drumming and vocals of Phil Collins, playing the fantastic title song from their 1981 album, Abacab.

Genesis.

I will admit, right here and now, that it wasn’t until Peter Gabriel left Genesis that I became a fan of the band. I just couldn’t connect to the epic 20 minute prog-rock jams of the early to mid 1970s Genesis. I liked some of the prog bands of the day — like Rush and Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer — but it wasn’t until the 80s, when Genesis dwindled down to a trio, and specifically on the song “Turn it On Again” from the Duke album, that I became a real Genesis fan. It was this song that received a lot of radio airplay on KLOS and KMET, the stations I listened to for my rock and roll down in southern California.

I got some shit from my fellow 13-year-old friends for not digging The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but even as a young teenager I could recognize the greatness of Peter Gabriel, but more from his just released third solo album (we just called it Melty Face) than from his time as vocalist and band-leader of Genesis. It was the best of both worlds: two bands for the price of one. It’s 1980, Peter Gabriel releases his arguably best album, and Genesis, finally finds its new voice as a more pop-oriented, yet still experimental band, with Phil Collins more than handling the reins as vocalist.

But as much as I liked Duke, it was a year later, in 1981, with the release of Abacab, when Genesis really took hold, not just of me, but of the world as a whole. It helped immensely that the album coincided with the birth of MTV, a brand new, 24-hour cable channel featuring non-stop music videos. It wasn’t the six-and-a-half minute title song that MTV added to its rotation though. It was the more upbeat, horn-laden 4-minute track, “No Reply at All.” The video for which, shows the three band members goofing around and having a lovely time. Pretending to play the horns and smiling and, well, let’s just say that a person didn’t need to see that video too many times to instinctively lurch to change the channel when it came on. Don’t get me wrong, “NRAA” is a great song. Deserving of all the attention it received and perhaps still receives today. But that video has left a little bit of scarring, so I tend to have more pleasant connotations with their song “Abacab.” Which I thought was an actual word for many years (OK, 35 – I just learned today that it represents a series of notes somewhere in this –or maybe another–song, but reversed — BACABA.)

To this day, Abacab is the album I put on to play from Genesis whenever I’m in an 80’s Genesis sort of mood. It isn’t necessarily their best album; there are certainly some throwaway songs (“Who Dunnit?” is particularly bad), but, for me, 1981 was such a defining year. It was my first year of high school, MTV debuted, I had a solid base of friends and was feeling hopefully for the first time in a long time. Yeah, Reagan just took office, but to a 13 year old boy, that didn’t have much of an impact. What had a much bigger impact on this teenage boy would come a year and a half later, when the family would decide to move to the San Fernando Valley, the summer after 10th grade. To be continued….

Shovels & Rope – Botched Execution

shovels-rope-2-by-leslie-ryan-mckellar-web-top

Going back to the roots for today’s Warble. I have to thank my friend Alisa for turning me on to Shovels & Rope. This is the Americana album of 2016 for me, Shovels & Rope’s 4th album, Little Seeds. I like that the band is not called “Shovel and Rope.” It’s not a singular shovel, but plural shovels. Cause sometimes you need more than one. Adds another layer of macabre to the proceedings.

This song captures the dark humor that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst (yes, they are married) have been known for since the start. If I had to describe their sound, I would say Handsome Family meets The White Stripes. Maybe a little bit of John Doe and Exene. There’s a lived-in quality to Trent and Hearst’s vocals; a raspy comfortability that brings an honesty to even the most ridiculous of songs. Like this one. And the video is darling, isn’t it? I just saw it for the first time, looking it up on YT.

I did put this on my best of 2016 album list, so if you like this tune, go find the whole album because it’s great all the way through. Like a 12 layer chocolate cake. Yummy.

Little River Band – Cool Change

OK, it’s time to go back to a true EARWORM song. This one lives in the annals of most silly songs of all time. It has all the markings of classic cheese: piano, strings, sax solo, overly sensitive lyrics. And when the whole band comes in at the end to sing, “Time For A Cool Change,” and the horns and the guitars and the strings and the drums all grow louder and more urgent, well, it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush of swiss and cheddar and especially gouda, and believe that it IS TIME for a cool change. It is time to get away from society and sail on the cool and bright clear water. Time to stare at the full moon like a lover. And time for this song to get stuck in your head all day long.

If there’s one thing in my life that’s missing
It’s the time that I spend alone
Sailing on the cool and bright clear water
It’s kind of a special feeling

When you’re out on the sea alone
Staring at the full moon, like a lover
Time for a cool change
I know that it’s time for a cool change

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Well I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best

The albatross and the whales they are my brothers
There’s lots of those friendly people
And they’re showing me ways to go
And I never want to lose their inspiration

Time for a cool change
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change

I’ve never been romantic
And sometimes I don’t care
I know it may sound selfish
But let me breathe the air

Let me breathe the air…
Well I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best
The albatross and the whales they are my brothers

It’s kind of a special feeling
When you’re out on the sea alone
Staring at the full moon, like a lover
Time for a cool change

Read more: Little River Band – Cool Change Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Childish Gambino – Riot

childishgambinoI like to connect the posts: from Twilight Zone the song to Twilight Zone the TV show to Sly and the Family Stone….from Run the Jewels “Thieves” including a MLK Jr. quote about rioting, to the Sly album (There’s a Riot Goin’ On), now to maybe the funkiest album I’ve heard in quite some time, Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and the song I chose for today, “Riot.” That’s the thing about music, it connects everything and everyone. Yeah man, that’s like so wild how, like, how without even thinking about it, all those songs lead from one to another, like it was meant to be….(to be read in the voice of Chong from Cheech & Chong.)

Awaken, My Love is clearly an homage or at the bare minimum heavily influenced by mid-70s era Funkadelic. Lots of layers of sound, lots of funk and lots of psychedelic. Most of the songs on the album would fit right in to One Nation Under a Groove or Hardcore Jollies. And the parts that don’t sound like Funkadelic lean heavily toward mid-80s era Prince. The song “Redbone” might best exhibit the blend between the two, with the slow-jammy bass-heavy groove of George Clinton and the falsetto vocal stylings of Prince. I listen to this and can’t believe it was made in 2016.

Childish Gambino, if you don’t know is the musical stage-name for the actor Donald Glover, best known for his roles in Community, Atlanta, Girls and other TV shows and movies. His previous albums have been hit and miss, and have hewn close to the hip hop genre for the most part. So, I was pleasantly surprised that he has taken a step back into the past to bring it into the present. I can’t help but be awed and jealous of Mr. Glover. Acting, Writing, Directing, Rapping, Singing, stand-up comedian. He’s got to have something he can’t do, right? Maybe he is a terrible cook.

Soundbreaking – A Must See

There’s an 8 part TV series exploring the art of music recording that was released near the end of 2016 on PBS that is a must see. And I’m enthusiastically recommending it after watching only two of the episodes so far. That’s how good it is. Each segment covers a different aspect of the record making process. The first one was all about the great producers, more of an overview, then the others get into more specifics. It’s on Hulu and probably on the PBS site or PBS Roku channel.

The first episode features Sly Stone a bit — talking about his innovative and groundbreaking approach to funk and soul music and the recording studio. I hope he and the band reappear in later episodes.

One of my favorite songs of Sly and the Family Stone has always been “If You Want Me to Stay,” from the 1973 Fresh album. It’s got one of the most gut-rumbling bass lines in all of musical history, and the groove is thick and so deep in the pocket that you can lose an arm in it. The below video of the band performing the song live on Soul Train is so good…it’s rare to see actual live performing back in the mid-70s, lip synching was so prevalent at the time. The band changes up the song quite a bit, but keeps the essence of the song intact. The way the greats are able to do. Reinterpreting on the fly. On the Sly.

I watch a video like this and I think, I’m watching, I’m listening to history. This is the music that will change lives. This is music that has changed lives. I got to see The Family Stone perform back in the mid 90s at the old Yoshi’s location when it was in the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland. I think most of the original band was there (minus Sly of course). Watching Larry Graham play those iconic bass lines from 10 feet away was something I’ll never forget.