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Honouring Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett

By my colleague, guest blogger Mark Heinrich:

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Credit: Jo Randall

The hometown of Syd Barrett has unveiled a suitably psychedelic public artwork and staged a concert of his songs to commemorate the visionary founder of the Pink Floyd rock group, but he would have laughed off the tribute, his sister says.

 
Barrett was the main songwriter and lead guitarist in early Pink Floyd, with explorations of distortion and feedback that influenced many musicians. The band went on to super-stardom but  Barrett flamed out in drug-induced madness in the late 1960s and retreating to life as a recluse.

 
A decade after his death at 60, the university city of Cambridge where Barrett and other Floyd members grew up launched an artwork named “Coda” in his memory at the Corn Exchange music venue where he re-emerged for his last, abortive, gig in 1972.

 
Mounted to a wall, “Coda” is a psychedelically patterned, mirrored aluminum box with a central circle showing a whirring bicycle wheel with moving images of Barrett materialising at irregular intervals. It is a surrealist play on Barrett’s famous silver guitar and his whimsical song “Bike” on Pink Floyd’s first album, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, as well as on the avid cycling culture of present-day Cambridge.

 
There was also a concert to mark the occasion, featuring Men on the Border, a Swedish rock band specialising in Barrett’s quirky post-Floyd solo oeuvre and backed up by the Sandviken Symphony Orchestra. They began with Barrett’s signature sonic Floyd freakout, “Astronomy Domine”. A spacey, dreamlike light show complemented the music courtesy of Peter Wynne Willson, who designed the spectacular stage pyrotechnics pioneered by Pink Floyd in the Barrett era.

 
But Barrett would not have been impressed by the tribute, and probably would not have attended it, said Rosemary Breen, his sister who did much to care for him during his decades of self-imposed isolation.

 

 

“He would have laughed at this, seen it as ridiculous. He never felt he did anything special, he was just having fun. He didn’t understand the idea of celebrity or the commercial side of things, it went totally over his head.”
“With his mental makeup, it stopped being fun, he got so tired and he couldn’t carry on” under the pressure of constant touring and demands for more hits. “I encouraged him to go back to painting and he did (for the rest of his life). That was probably his most natural cultural outlet in the end.”

 

 

Jack Monck, who played bass in Barrett’s last band Stars and witnessed his on-stage meltdown at his final public gig, said the man he knew bore no similarity to his Pink Floyd brilliance.

 
“The guy who had so much creativity and drive in the beginning was gone. It (tribute) was probably overdue, but it’s a bit of a cult, this thing,” Monck said after the concert.
Barrett’s breakdown lurked in some of his songs – one of his two solo albums was titled “The Madcap Laughs “- and it influenced Pink Floyd’s frequent lyrics about alienation and absence as the band evolved into a mega-successful pop phenomena.

A “conversation” with Nobel laureate Bob Dylan

“I called Bobby Z this morning and asked him what his first reaction was when he received the telephone call about winning the Nobel and he said he told the committee member “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend!”.

Then i said ‘”C’mon Bobby, how do you really feel?'” and he said “Like a rolling stone.”

So I said, does this make you feel old? He said “Well, I do feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door.”

Asked where he wanted his prize money sent, he said it wanted it hand delivered in Swiss cash to “Desolation Row”.

How does one get there,  I asked.   He said: “You take Highway 61” then  take a left when “You’re lost in Juarez” or when you feel like you are “One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind,” whichever comes first.

Asked what he would do with the money he said : “While money doesn’t talk, it swears. Obscenity, who really cares. Popaganda, all is phony.”

So i ended the conversation telling Bob: be careful, “All the money you make will never buy back your soul.”

He said : “Hey I seem to have heard that somewhere before, long, long time ago”.

With thanks to my colleague and musical buddy Phil Pullella

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry can’t get enough of train songs

dsc_0044There is very little that gets the folk/country juices going more than a good American train song. Something to do with the workers who built and ran the railroads plus the traveler who  criss-crossed the country trying to make ends meet. Haunting tales of hard times and the glory of America’s vast spaces.

British folk/punk/political activist Billy Bragg and his Grammy-winning alt-Americana colleague Joe Henry have gone a bit further in this splendid album. They took a train from Chicago to Los Angeles recording along the way – in carriages, on station platforms, waiting rooms and so on. The result is an emotional work that has a rawness to it that fits perfectly with the subject.

The two men have voices that might have been made for each other. For example, the most famous song on the album (at least as far as a general listener might be concerned) is “Gentle On My Mind”, one of Glen Campbell’s big hits. Henry takes the lead with his country tenor while Bragg’s gravelly bass carries it to soaring levels. Ditto Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” – the steel rail’s humming.

Bragg, however, takes the lead in grittier song’s like “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, the Jean Ritchie song that Johnny Cash put as intro track on 1979’s “Silver”. Bragg may be from England – the blue-collar east London borough of Barking – but he might as well be from Kentucky when he sings of being born and raised in the mouth of the Hazard Hollow.

Other fine tracks include classics such as “John Henry”, “Railroad Bill” and “The Midnight Special” – many of which are punctuated by the sounds of the railroad such as slaming doors and that peculiar sound of a steam whistle in the distance.

All aboard!

Ryan Bingham “Southside of Heaven”

I just love this. Enjoy.

Pigs can fly! I talk to Pink Floyd

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My job – which is primarily concerned with politics and economics – occasionally allows me to do something musical – in the latest case my inner Pink Floyd just got a real outing.

London’s venerable Victoria and Albert museum has taken to putting on major exhibitions celebrating the broader aspects of the rock industry. Three years ago it was a highly acclaimed David Bowie retrospective. This month (September 2016) the museum opens “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, a deep dive into  the politics and culture of the Woodstock era. (A shard of on of Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitars is said to be among the items).

But what took me there was the press launch for “The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains”, an appropriately huge immersive show to be hosted at the museum next May. I love all kinds of music with a passion. But the Floyd would have to be it if I has to choose just one collection to take to a desert island.

So seeking to stifle some highly unprofessional glee beneath the demeanour of “serious journalism”, I got to interview drummer Nick Mason, the only original Pink Floyd member still with the band. He seemed very nice (which not all “stars” are as some of you reading this will know only too well). I say “seemed” because I was interviewing him for television and that meant I was paying more attention to setting up the next question that on what was going on. But that’s show biz (LOL)

My joy started when I approached the V&A. A pink inflatable pig the size of a bus was floating above it. It stayed there, thankfully,  unlike an infamous outing above Battersea Power Station in 1976 when it broke free and grounded planes at Heathrow and across southern England.

It perhaps slowed traffic a bit, but most certainly caused passers-by to exclaim: “The pig!” No explanation seemed needed, even in 2016.

The exhibition will open next May (tickets now on sale)  to coincide with the (age alert!) 50th anniversary of  “Arnold Layne”, the Floyd’s first single release. It will go way beyond music, celebrating Pink Floyd’s achievements in graphics, design, architecture, staging, lighting, film and photography.

But on to  Mason. I asked him why he thought the band was getting such treatment. “Longevity,” he said.

It’s the fact that we still sort of exist and we still seem to interest people after 50 years in an industry that was seen as entirely ephemeral by all of us when we first started. I’m fond of reminding people that Ringo thought that he’d open a chain of hairdressers when the Beatles came to an end … I don’t think we saw any 50 years ahead of us when we kicked off.

I also asked him what item in the collection he liked the most. He said it was the Azimuth Coordinator that the band used at its first major concert when it broke out from the mainstream with an immersive lights and music show no one had experienced before.

As this was for television, I asked him to give me a layman’s description. He laughed and then launched into a rather technical description that went well above my head, let alone those of the great unwashed who were going to be watching later. So I have simplified:

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Two old men hanging on in quiet desperation

It is a gizmo that spreads music to the four corners of a venue and allows it to be adjusted with kind of joysticks. No big deal at all now, but absolutely revolutionary in 1967 when the band used it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. (The original was stolen at the gig, by the way, so if you have it do let the V&A know.)

Back to Mason. Like a lot of musicians of that era he bewailed the current state of the music business, mainly wondering how the new kids can make it. He said music shared for free and there are so many bands trying to make it big, so how could  people succeed.

So I asked him if he thought Pink Floyd would make it big if they were all starting up now. Another smile, then:

I don’t think we’d even get on The X Factor.

Now I am a journalist, so I had to ask THE question, even though I did not really want to cause everyone does.  Yes, there are only three of them left – Mason, David Gilmour and, on his own, Roger Waters (and the latter two famously do not get on)  – but is there any chance of another album?

The last release was 2014’s “Endless River” which was basically some unpublished music released by Gilmour and Mason in honour of late band member Richard Wright. Nearly 50 years after “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, was that the last album?

The initial answer was: “Probably.” But then came a sentence that allowed a tad of hope to those of us still hanging  on in quiet desperation.

I absolutely have no interest in telling people everything’s all over and good night or anything like that.

 

 

 

The Barnes Blues Band – veterans at work at The Bulls Head

DSC01593 (1)Few people who read this will have heard of The Barnes Blues Band, and fewer still are likely to see them play. But they are worth attention for two reasons.

First, they are really good. If you like your electric blues, this is it. Second, though, is what the represent: longstanding industry professionals who have been there and done that and are now putting it all together at the edge of the business.

Start with front man Papa George (pictured). George is arguably London’s best unheralded blues guitarist and has been plying his trade over five decades, some of it as far afield as Texas. His main group, The Papa George Band, has had such guests sit in as Freddie Mercury, Zoot Money, Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann fame), and Roger Chapman (of Family).

On bass, we had Pete Reese, a long-time musician with the late Irish blues virtuoso Gary Moore. He showed his credentials at an August gig with some superb riffs and a classic bass solo (right down to turning his back on the audience so that we could not see the finger work).

George’s guitar partner was Bobby Tench, formerly of The Jeff Beck Group, The Van Morrison Band and Humble Pie, among others. He has recorded with Freddie King, Ginger Baker and Eric Burdon. It showed.

Rounding up the band was drummer Darby Todd. At 31, he does not have the years to collect credentials like the others, but he plays with people who have played with the greats and his drumming was so tight it looks almost automatic (in a good way).

The music – all superb – ranged from John Hiatt to Tom Waits by way of Howling’ Wolf. The finale was Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, which I confess I had never seen the blues in, but there it was.

Two sets, some great beer (Camden Hell) and a historic London music venue in the Bulls Head in Barnes. What’s not to like?

May be worth a search if your ever in the area.

British folk rock then and now: A chat with Ashley Hutchings and Maddy Prior

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Steeleye Span in 1972. Hutchings second left, Prior centre

For a brief moment in mid-August it may have seemed as if the British folk and folk-rock scene of the late-’60s to mid-’70s had time-warped into the new Millennium. On display were Fairport Convention, the founders of British folk rock, Steeleye Span, their heavier, rockier cousins, and Ralph McTell, the quintessential folk singer of that earlier period.

The venue was Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, the band’s annual festival in the England’s Oxfordshire. The festival – which mixes many genres – always brings in various folkies, but it struck me this time that theses three acts just about summed up an era.

British folk-rock – the melding of old tunes about witches, knights, highwaymen, goblins etc with rock bass riffs, soaring vocals and wild electric fiddle and guitar – is still popular as a genre in some circles and others have picked it up recently. But back around 45-years ago – when Hendrix, Cream and Pink Floyd were also blowing minds – young British adults were gripped by this rock-based nostalgia for a mystical past.

Fairport more or less invented the form and their 1969 album “Liege & Lief” (produced by Joe Boyd) is often in lists of most-influential albums of  all time. Steeleye took it further down the rock route, and while they may not have been as initially influential they have pretty much matched Fairport in popularity. They have recently taken it up a notch. McTell, meanwhile, made folk music politically relevant to that new generation with his “Streets of London”,  a psalm to Britain’s homelessness and decline.

The best way to understand why that period engendered the new genre is to ask. So I did,  spending a bit of time with Maddy Prior, the long-time lead singer of Steeleye, and Ashley Hutchings, the founder of both Fairport and Steeleye (as well as The Albion Bands and its various spinoffs).

Prior says that shifting from folk to rock was not as strange as it might seem to some today. It was a natural progression.

“We went to folk clubs (at the time) because it was cool,” she said.”It was its time. Dylan had done his electric in America.”

Hutchings, too, says the move to British folk-rock was partly inspired by Americans. The earliest  Fairport, for example, was a band playing things along the lines of The Byrds or Dylan. He says they were essentially “aping the Americans”.

But these Americans – he also cited Joan Baez and Julie Felix – meant that the door was open for their great experiment. “The British public did not find folk music alien,” he said. But there was no

The author meets Maddy Prior, 2016

The author meets Maddy Prior, 2016

great plan to create a new genre.

“We did not say initially ‘we want to invent folk-rock. We wanted to make English rock, Therefore we had to go back to our roots. It was so exciting. No one had done this before,” Hutchings told me.

His move from Fairport to Steeleye was about innovation, he said, taking what had been done and changing it again. His motivation appears always to be “coming up with something different”.  He is still at it. A few years ago he published “Words, Words, Words”, a book of writing poetry and song lyrics, and he is currently touring Britain with “From Psychedelia to Sonnets” – an evening of stories and song basically telling the take of his life.

As for the future, both Hutchings and Prior reckon the genre they helped create will thrive. Prior, for example, believes her kind of folk rock is now just part of the mainstream in a world where everyone tries everything.

“It’s had its duration because the people came with us,” she said. “There is so much more music now (that) every bit of music is a genre.”

She noted that the music is also relevant to a new generation in Britain – which is reeling from years of watching the rich get richer and leaving the rest behind creating what she said was a disenfranchised workforce”. For example, one of Steeleye’s best songs – “Long Lankin” from the 1975 album “Commoners Crown” – is about a rich man warning his family to be careful while he is away because (at least in the original folk version) there is an angry worker, a mason, on the rampage. It does not turn out well.

Hutchings, meanwhile, sees the genre melding into just about everyone else.

“Folk will simply be assimilated into rock,” he said, noting that most rock performers now add a bit of acoustic guitar into their repertoire, often folk. Big rockers like Sting, Robert Plant and Bruce Springsteen have already been doing it for some time.