Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cafe Boheme 20.10.12

A short film made by Alastair Uhlig at the Cafe Boheme in Soho, 20.10.12.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cross Purpose Blues

I was busking in Portobello Road on October 5th when a fellow with a very professional looking camera asked if he could film me. This was the result.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Can: The Lost Tapes

What should be a major event in the life of a Can fan find turns out to be strangely disappointing. It's pretty common knowledge (certainly amongst fans) that all those classic albums from "Monster Movie" in 1969 through to 1974's "Soon Over Babaluma" (arguably their last really good album) were the result of Holger Czukay's editing skills. Their modus operandi - much like Miles Davis's from the same period - was to record absolutely everything and then leave it to Holger to edit it down and down and down until it sounded like a record. It's a great way to make records (I managed to have a go at being involved in the process myself with the first Lunar Dunes record). 

So anyway, all these years later, here come selected edits of what was left on the cutting room floor. 3 cd's worth - or, if you like, six LP's worth of unheard classic era Can to sift through. With all that music, it's impossible to make any snap decisions but a couple of random observation made whilst listening through might be of interest to fellow Can people.

Holger made the right decisions. Well, duh! But it's worth pointing out. You can hear the germs and embryos of many classic tracks in the brewing ("Spoon", "Mother Sky" to name but two) and in each case it just makes you want to listen to what Holger actually put out. 

Malcolm Mooney had a great voice but it can be really annoying. He was a mental patient, after all. When he gets a phrase between his teeth you surely know it, and know it, and know it.....

Jaki Liebezeit's drumming is a constant delight. It always was and it still is. Without him, so much of this stuff would be quite unlistenable. His crisp professionalism is, in some ways, what prevents Can at their wackiest from entering the realms of mystery that their great rivals Faust routinely occupied during the same period. But they could get right out there and no mistake. Some of this music is very extreme. But I find something lacking in it. It's distanced from the listener somehow. It has that Germanthing of nailing it to the floor and labelling it even when what it is is beyond description. Perhaps that's why I ultimately prefer Faust - they never gave a damn about any of that Stockhausen malarkey.

But Can could be extremely funky (in a way Faust never could) and when they get their hands around a funk groove they make every other European band sound plain silly (well, let's face it, a lot of them sounded pretty silly anyway). Holger Czukay was a marvellous bassist and Can's demise as a vital force can be directly plotted next to his growing disinterest in the instrument - as he became more and more concerned with texture and atmosphere, ironically the texture and atmosphere became one of increasingly subtle blandness.

Essential purchase? A bit like The Beatles "Anthologies", if you're a fan you will have to have it, but you probably won't play it very often.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Soundcloud/ Facebook page

I have put some of my tracks up on Soundcloud. Please do have a listen:

I have also created a Facebook for my work, here:

Thursday, May 10, 2012



Nidge was a fool who talked nonsense nearly all the time
He was maddening, infuriating, sometimes boring but never dull
He was kind, he was generous, he was warm, he was genuine
He was hilariously funny
He was an enthusiast
He was a dreamer and a fantasiser – spinning lines no one could believe but himself
He was a self-deprecating egotist, he laughed at himself and encouraged others to do likewise
He was religious, he was a blasphemer, he was a Christian and a Pagan – a superstitious man who habitually took absurd needless risks
He was an idealist and a sinner who respected purity and who sought it in his own fashion
He was a drunkard, a drug addict and an abstainer
He was a bad poet who read and loved good poetry
He was a bad singer who listened well, an abominable musician who loved music with all his heart
He was a fine solo dancer, ostentatious and un-self-conscious, with graceful arms and hands – even when completely plastered
He was swayed by flattery and longed for praise and was deeply embarrassed by both
He wrote stories for children
He was imaginative
He loved animals and refused to eat them
He was an innocent
He was a natural leader who never sought to lead, whose friends included many followers
He was an instigator and a rebel, an anarchist with no interest in politics, an historian with a selective memory
He was a fighter and a pacifist on the front line, a rioter and a magnet for police and thieves
He was always scrupulously honest in criminal matters
He was supremely gregarious, an excellent host and a fine cook
He was spontaneous and impulsive
He was always broke and always lending money
He was a lover and a husband and a father
He was a carpenter and a provider, a scholar and a bum
He was completely unreliable and utterly dependable and trustworthy
He was tall and thin, ungainly, with a huge shock of flaming red hair
He was completely English and he considered himself a Celt
He was ashamed of his real name – Nigel – and forgave his friends for mocking it
He was ashamed of his respectable background and forgave his friends for mocking it
He was perfectly and absurdly dressed and sometimes he wore women’s makeup and forgot to shave
He used to wear a decrepit top hat with a flower in the band
He wore jewellery and many rings and bangles of primitive or Pagan design
He was always ‘hip’ but never ‘cool’
He had style
He greeted friends with a warm salutation and an embrace and he smelled of leather and tobacco
He ‘bounced’ – like Tigger from Winnie The Pooh
He laughed loud and often, not at but with others
He was educated and cultured and more often than not he spent his time with philistines
He was well spoken and only rarely tried to disguise his accent
He would sign himself as ‘he of the lean and hungry look’ and describe himself as the ‘cream faced loon’ or the ‘shag haired villain’
He would quote endlessly from Shakespeare and Vivian Stanshall – whom he worshipped, along with Iggy Pop
He was an artist with no palette, an orator with no soapbox who invited scorn and derision
He was wise and reckless
He inspired love and friendship and laughter
He was loyal and true and he betrayed no one more completely than himself
He was real and human and enormously alive
He was my friend, he was my brother and my comrade and I loved him
He is dead.

(September 1992)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who was Jimi Hendrix?

Before the days of Wikipedia, one of my young students asked me this question:

Who was Jimi Hendrix?

Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix, Seattle, Washington, USA, November 27th 1942. His father, Al, was African American, his mother, Lucille, Native (Cherokee) American. He was re-named James Marshall Hendrix by his father in 1946. A lonely child, deserted by his mother, he began playing guitar in his early teens, inspired by his father's Muddy Waters records and the music he heard on the radio. He became a professional musician at the age of 18, after being invalided out of the US Paratroops with a broken ankle. If he had not broken his ankle he would almost certainly have been sent to Vietnam where he would almost certainly have been killed in action. He spent five years as an R'n'B sideman on numerous package tours from which he would usually be sacked for lateness or absentee-ism or for displaying too much individuality. He made his recording debut in 1962 and continued to do studio session work whenever he could find it, which was not often. By 1965, he was based in New York City where he experienced homelessness and dire poverty. He was inspired to start writing and singing his own material on hearing and subsequently meeting Bob Dylan.

By the time of his 'discovery' in 1966, Hendrix had fully developed a completely revolutionary electric guitar technique. An entirely self-taught musician of exceptional ability, Hendrix found his style through a combination of methods. Firstly, he thoroughly absorbed the work of contemporary 'Urban' blues guitarists such as Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and his particular favourite, Albert King. He then integrated this with the more commercial soul/R'n'B guitar styles he had been required to provide as backing guitarist for artists such as The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, these having been learned from guitarists such as Steve Cropper and Bobby Womack. In addition to these, he demonstrated an unusual fondness for the 'primitive' blues of such as Elmore James and John Lee Hooker - as well as his beloved Muddy Waters and his great contemporary, Howlin' Wolf. Using this rich blend as bedrock, Hendrix practised ceaselessly, day and night, until he had arrived at an entirely personal musical vision which exploited to the utmost every sonic possibility of the electric guitar. There has been much speculation over the years as to the uniquely individual sounds he brought to bear. One theory has it that he was trying to reproduce the sounds he had heard whilst parachuting. More prosaically, Hendrix played a right handed guitar left handed (as did Otis Rush), and consequently had an entirely different perspective on the controls of the electric guitar; but this in itself does not explain his extraordinary ability to control feedback and other essentially non-musical sonic phenomena.

After taking 'Swinging London' by storm, Hendrix became an international star in 1967. His songwriting and singing, his enormously charismatic stage appearances, his understanding of the possibilities of the recording studio - in all of these areas Hendrix excelled, and his guitar playing was very quickly recognized as being both revolutionary and phenomenally exciting. He was soon being labelled as "the best guitarist in the world" - which annoyed him intensely. Chronically unsatisfied with his own achievements, under constant pressure to deliver, increasingly distrustful of the praise he found lavished upon him, Hendrix grew more dependent on the drink and drugs he had always used with alarming abandon. Frustrated, he broke up his successful group and tried fruitlessly to form another. Then he broke up that one and re-formed the old one (albeit with his old buddy Billy Cox on bass in place of the unfortunate Noel Redding). He dabbled with jazz but felt hamstrung by his inability to read music (he talked of taking a year off to learn orchestration but his management would not hear of it, nor could he find a suitable teacher). He casually re-invented the American National Anthem at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. By this time he was experiencing constant legal and financial problems, compounded and often caused by criminally poor management, which necessitated his being forced to undertake lengthy concert tours he didn't want to do performing material which no longer interested him. He died in London at the age of 27 on September 18th 1970, of asphyxiation due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

In a recording career of just over four years, Jimi Hendrix changed forever the sound of not only the electric guitar, but of amplified music in general. Quite apart from his enormous significance as a symbol of his time (his influence remains highly controversial in this area, but no-one doubts its importance), on a purely musical level Hendrix was one of the very few musicians who can be said to have changed the way in which people hear music. He moved the goalposts.

(He was also, by the way, the coolest, hippest, best dressed, baddest, sad-eyed magic boy to ever play a guitar the wrong way round, to smile slyly and shyly to himself, to murmur "dig", or "aw, shucks" into the microphone while effortlessly launching into a phrase to slice the top of your head off and sail it away like a weightless frisbee. Listen...)

The Problem of Led Zeppelin

As a guitar teacher I have a frequently recurring problem with Led Zeppelin which isn't as simple as you might think. 

On the face of it, it's straight-forward enough: any number of spotty youths want to learn to play "Stairway To Heaven". If they're prepared to put the work in, I can make this happen for them. Like any old whore I think of the money and get stuck in. The funny thing is, "Stairway To Heaven" is not particularly easy to play. In fact, to play it well (ie, all the way through without making any mistakes) is quite demanding. Fortunately, most of my students are content with a serviceable approximation. Mostly they just want to play The Intro and The Big Chords just before The Solo and thenThe Big Lick just before the vocals come back in at the end. Armed with these, it's easy enough to fake the rest of it (after all, I did, when I was 15.) 

No, my problem is the more seasoned Zeppelin fan who wants to learn things like "Heartbreaker" and "Since I've Been Lovin' You", "When The Levee Breaks", "Black Dog", "The Ocean", "Out On The Tiles" etc. etc. As I patiently explicate the monstrousness ofThe Riffs, I find I am enjoying myself. I try to rein it in by lecturing firmly on the theft of sources, the provenance of the blues; I poke fun at the risible Spinal Tap-ishness of it all - but this is like shooting fish in a barrel with Zeppelin and I become aware that my student sees through me, that my discourse reveals far more about me than my subject. I see through myself. I squirm. I want there to be rawwrk, I want to wear my guitar low round my knees, I want a vintage black Les Paul, I want a wall of Marshalls and a drummer who bites chunks out of brick walls for breakfast. 

Is this a form of musical Stockholm Syndrome? I long ago realised that Zeppelin's strength was John Bonham's. Their success the result of Peter Grant's bullyboy gangsterism. That Plant's lyrics were ridiculous, his histrionics absurd, that Jones's bass playing was the epitome of professionally dull, that Page never plays from the heart, always the head, but damn... Sometimes those riffs sneak up on a person. 

If I didn't teach it, this problem would go away. I would listen to more worthy music and put aside this childish foolishness. But I'd miss it. Guilty pleasure? Yearning for lost youth? Anyone recognize the problem?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Cannibals: "Slow Down"

This is the oldest clip of me on YouTube. I was 19. I remember it very well: I had tuning problems, a guitar string had slipped and you can see me crouching down by my amp during the second verse of  the song. I had it tuned when it slipped again just at the start of my solo. I lost my temper! You can see the result...
(Mike Spenser - vocals/ myself and Johnnie Walker on guitars/ Jeff Mead on bass/ Gary Stannard on drums.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Beatles Decca Audition

(written 1st January 2012)

Fifty years ago today, a sgraggy little removal van appeared in the streets of West Hampstead, London. Its driver had been up all night, driving down from Liverpool. In those days there was no proper motorway link between the two cities so the journey took at least eight hours. It was freezing cold and there was no effective heating in the van. The pep pills had worn off just as it began to get light and the sense of fatigue was palpable. In the back of the van were four young men aged between 18 and 21, draped precariously across a selection of battered and primitive amplifiers and instrument cases for guitars and drums, many of which were held together by masking tape. The boys weight, lurching and shifting about with the bends of the road, made it seem almost inevitable that something or someone would be thrown to the floor or the walls of the van and broken or injured. Miraculously, this never seemed to really occur. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of excitement that magnetized solid objects into behaving and occasionally defying the laws of gravity. The boys had not been able to sleep. They were tired, very tired. They had done a long gig the night before in Liverpool and piled straight into the van for the trip to London without time to go home and rest or even change their clothes. They had all (with one exception) taken handfuls of slimming pills to stay awake but even without the amphetamines they would have found it hard to sleep. Discomfort be damned, this was the day The Beatles were going to audition for a recording contract with Decca Records. Their first shot at the big time. Discussions about what to perform had been long and rowdy. Their leader had wanted to stick to the numbers that most pleased their audiences: solid rock'n'roll with a ballad or two from his sidekick. The junior member could do a bit of Buddy Holly and the drummer's opinion didn't count and was not solicited. The drummer was the only one who had managed to get any sleep and the others hated him for not being excited enough to stay awake (the fact that he had refused, as usual, any chemical stimulants only added to his pariah status). But then their manager - urbane, older, well versed in showbusiness - had thrown a spanner in the works. He had pointed out that rock'n'roll was all very well for the ballrooms and the pubs but if they wanted a career in showbusiness, as they undoubtedly did, they should set their sights on Light Entertainment. That way they could get regular work on BBC radio and television. What did they have up their sleeves that other provincial rock'n'roll bands didn't? Original material, yes, but who broke through in Britain with original material, songs that no-one had ever heard? No, it was their eccentric selection of showtunes and obscure standards, jammed roughly into shape to pad out the endless hours of their Hamburg performances that they should concentrate on for their audition. Lennon was aghast. Brian couldn't be serious. But he could tell from Paul's reaction that the decision made sense. So a compromise was struck. Grimly putting his shoulder to the wheel, he helped Paul and George put together a list that would include such non-rock'n'roll fare as "September In The Rain" and "The Sheik Of Araby". They should ham it up, Brian said. They loved The Goons, didn't they? Let it show. Lennon perked up at that. An opportunity for silly voices always put him in a good mood. He could still do "Money", just to show how hard they could be, and Paul could do "Searchin'". Only trouble was, now that they were approaching London, it became clear that both his and Paul's voices were shot. They had colds, they had sung too long the night before (and the night before that), they were coming down off speed. God... What were they going to do? George would have to sing a lot more than just one number if they were going to get through this. Brian wouldn't like that. But there was nothing for it. He broke the news to George who just grinned. Lennon chuckled grimly to himself - they were so fuckin' good it would take more than a couple of colds to ruin their audition...

Mal was asking directions - again. They were running out of time. Where the fuck is West Hampstead anyway? At this rate, they wouldn't even get any breakfast. Never mind, they weren't hungry. They finally found the studio. Disgorging themselves from the van, limbs aching, they then had to hump the amplifiers up a flight of rickety stairs. The weather was foul. Frost and rain, freezing wind. Brian appeared, looking indecently rested, having spent the night in a London hotel. Impeccable as ever, camel hair coat, suit and tie, shaved, drenched in cologne. "Where have you been?" he started fretting and fussing. Lennon glared at him and he shut up like a trap. "Got lost", said Neil. That was all the explanation Brian was going to get and he knew better than to ask for more. The Decca engineers were salty and irritable at having to work on New Year's Day but when they saw the raggedness of The Beatles a degree of compassion crept into their demeanour and they even found themselves helping to lug the gear. Setting up, however, proved a nightmare. The amplifiers had not enjoyed the trip. The extreme changes of temperature drastically increased their usual rattles and crackles. The engineers were ready to pull the session on the grounds of equipment failure but, once again, looking at The Beatles faces, they found they didn't have the heart to do it. The first takes were atrocious. Out of tune, out of time, voices ragged, mic technique non-existent. The engineers declared a break for coffee. Brian and The Beatles huddled together in a corner of the studio - as though for warmth. Brian mothered them, cajoled them, scolded them, encouraged them, believed in them. They drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Brian withdrew to the control room and they resumed. This time things went better. A few usable takes started to appear in the can. They breezed through the tunes they had decided upon. Lennon did his Charles Hawtrey in "The Shiek Of Araby" and Brian laughed out loud. The engineers smiled. The producer looked delighted. It was just beginning to go their way when time ran out. McCartney's pleas for one more take of "September In The Rain" were ignored. Copies of the tape were made. Brian would get an acetate through the post. One of the Londoners, a Decca staffer, said the words: "We'll let you know."