…passed away. I wasn’t Steely Dan’s biggest fan, but Becker and his long-time partner, Donald Fagen, were very popular and influential innovators who definitely expanded the boundaries of rock and FM radio. AJA was a hit and hip album with “the kids” when I was in high school, believe it or not. Over the years they had a bunch of stuff that featured Becker on bass or guitar. Here is one of his best known guitar jams.
The Beatles, Stephane Wrembel and Ali Akbar Khan
During the past few weeks I have listened to three albums constantly: Revolver by The Beatles, Barbes by Stephane Wrembel, and Journey by Ali Akbar Khan. There is a common thread running through all three discs and that is Indian/Eastern music. I’m a fan of different types of music from the Middle and Far East though I really can’t say my knowledge of the subject is very extensive. There are many different instruments and types of music involved and I favor the more traditional/instrumental. I have heard a lot of Asian pop music and some of it is pretty good, but I find that the instrumentation and the arrangements better and more sophisticated in traditional/classical music.
Like many people, I came to “know” (I use the term “know” very loosely and in it’s most superficial sense), Indian music through bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Beatle George Harrison studied sitar with the late Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar and became one of Indian music’s most vocal proponents. Norwegian Wood, which was written by John Lennon, was the first Beatle song to use the sitar and was basically a western song that employed the sitar for musical effect (the same can be said for The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black). There is some great background at The Beatles Bible (A great site!) on the London scene at the time of recording Rubber Soul and Norwegian Wood. (As I have written on the blog before) Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds were also early pioneers of Eastern-inspired pop music. The original take of Heart Full of Soul actually had a sitar on it! The Davies brothers from The Kinks were also recording music with Eastern sensibilities (See My Friends) at the time. In the States, The Byrds 1965 hit Eight Miles High had a sitar-flavored Rickenbacker guitar sound playing John Coltrane-esque lines, which was pretty far out and groovy for pop music. As the 60s progressed “that Eastern sound” would become synonymous with being stoned and/or altered states of consciousness, much to the displeasure of Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar. Unfortunately, the sound and influence of the music became so popular that it would invade even the most trivial and superficial places by the end of the decade.
When the Beatles’ follow-up album to Rubber Soul, Revolver, was released, it contained the Harrison composition Love You To, which was the first attempt to go “further into the style”. This tune would be a template for later Harrison songs like Within You, Without You and The Inner Light: they are all attempts to play bona-fide Indian music, albeit in a western pop music format. Musically though, I think Love You To is one of George’s best songs ever. Great arrangement and performance and he stays within the confines of the pop style. Other songs from Revolver that are very Eastern, but don’t contain any Eastern instruments, are the fantastic John Lennon compositions Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said, She Said. The former, a drone chant from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a cool, repetitive Ringo beat with loads of sounds and tape effects, broke a whole lot of rules for pop music and the guitar lines from the latter echo the Eastern-influenced mixolydian lines and quarter to half step bent-notes that one could also hear from Jeff Beck (Shapes of Things, Heart Full of Soul) and Jimi Hendrix (Love or Confusion, Purple Haze) during this time. As the 60s transitioned into the 70s, these Indo/Eastern influences became less of a thing in pop music, but started appearing in the jazz, fusion and progressive rock music of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Shatki and many more.
In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes. Recorded when his group was a trio (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion) the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. I have always dug this disc! Brilliant playing and my favorite of everything he has done. (To see his band live during this time was also a great experience as the clip above proves). Not only are the originals on Barbes fresh and inspiring, the band also covers Django Reinhardt‘s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie‘s Night in Tunisia and John Coltrane‘s Afro Blue. The group takes some of these tunes at breakneck tempos and the performances are a dizzying array of chops and melodic invention. Also, the ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions) are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; world music ragas perhaps?
A Raga is: in the classical music of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, a melodic framework for improvisation and composition. A raga is based on a scale with a given set of notes, a typical order in which they appear in melodies, and characteristic musical motifs.
Manouche music or Gypsy Jazz has strong Indian roots because it is generally agreed that the group of people known as “Gypsies” originated on the Indian subcontinent and first migrated into Europe in the 12th century. There are various sub-categories of these Romani people: Manouche in France, and the Sinti of Central Europe. Sinti/Manouche guitar playing sounds very similar to not only Indian classical music, but some of the progressive rock and jazz of the 1970s. One huge connection is that IMPROVISATION is everything in Indian music, likewise for Manouche music or a lot of 70s rock/jazz as well. A Manouche player must have a very disciplined mind and an aural technique that includes whole tone scales, diminished and augmented arpeggios, altered scales and arpeggios and an emphasis on the “Django-favored” sixths and ninths of the harmony chords. Modern players like Stephane Wrembel have added depth to the sonic palette of the music by combining it with other influences and adding their own touches of musical imagination. There are rhythmic devices and picking patterns found in Indian music that one does not normally hear in a lot of western jazz or classical music and Stephane explores the picking and rhythmic subdivision topics in his book, Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar, which I review here. He advises picking quarter notes up through nontuplets (subdividing by 9 to the beat) with the metronome as warm-up exercises. He explains that, “musicians in India have their own efficient approach to time consisting of singing rhythms using certain syllables. A similar approach may be applied to right-hand technique which will allow for warm-up…” This is a very good way to improve your picking technique and I can say I did it religiously for about six months. In addition to giving my a bunch of listening pleasure, Getting Into… and Barbes are windows into another world and their influence definitely helped make me a better guitar player. Here are some further insights into the nature of Indian rhythm, courtesy of Ravi Shankar.
“…Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. “There are thousands of ragas,” Shankar explains, “and they are all connected with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean.”
Ali Akbar Khan “was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod.” Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. Over the years Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar would perform many times together, including at The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and were easily two of the most prominent Indian musicians in the western world. After moving to the USA in the late 50s Khan would found a couple of schools, one in California and one in Switzerland and would spend the next 40 years touring and performing until his health failed in the late 2000s.
I’ve been listening to Journey for the past 10 years and find it very enjoyable. As I related earlier, I’ve always liked the sound of Indian music, especially if it’s instrumental. Eastern philosophy doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize like Western thinking and Eastern music doesn’t separate Eastern Mystical concepts (that were the lyrics of western songs like The Inner Light or Within You, Without You) from the music. Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. I don’t meditate (perhaps I should?), but the sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like mid-60s George Harrison song and the other ballad-type tracks have the pacing and deliberate delivery that one can hear on some of the tracks of Barbes. There is a whole lot of crossover between these three discs is what I’m trying to say! Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by Guitars(!), Tabla, Shakers, Tanpura, Keyboards, Duggi and Dholak. All of the music was composed by Ali Akbar Khan and was recorded in 1990, giving the disc a classic, but very modern sound.
I also own this disc, Traditional Music of India, which is four really long ragas. Very cool, long jams that have none of the more modern arrangements or instrumentation found on Journey, but still a very enjoyable listen. This is the kind of traditional music that one must be a master to play and would probably be impossible for most western musicians or anyone else not raised in the school. It’s amazing that no matter the musical style, or background of the artist, the performance of classic music such as this is basically approached the same way and requires the same skills. The pace and flow of these very traditional ragas remind me of some of the guitar pieces on the Bream and Williams disc I review in the right column, or a Django Reinhardt solo improvisation or Jimmy Page playing White Summer. (Incidentally…sometimes it helps to approximate an “Indian” sound/tuning by using alternate tunings, which I explore here.) Music from the Asian continent has given western listeners and players a very expanded sense of what music (and life) is and I believe any musician can only gain from listening to and experiencing music such as this. There is a nice quote on the cover of Journey that I relate to and maybe other musicians will find it interesting as well:
Music is something I learned all my life and am still learning. Earlier in my boyhood days, I learned naturally—as children learn a language, without deeper understanding of what it can really offer. I kept on learning and playing with rapt attention — with a sense of dedication — but not the deep inner feeling which finally came at the ripe age of fifty! Now when I play, my heart is filled with blissful joy that I can hardly express! I feel a sense of ultimate fulfillment that nothing else in the world can offer me anymore. Indeed, music is a very spiritual experience for me — only through music, I feel I can reach closer to God…”
— Ali Akbar Khan
It occurred to me the other night that Led Zeppelin was, at the height of their career, the world’s best JAZZ band! Of course the concept began began with, and revolved around, Jimmy Page. Onstage he was the lead soloist of a combo that would sometimes do 30-minute versions of Zeppelin studio material/cover songs. In the studio, whether as a guitarist or producer, he constructed Zep’s body of work with the precision and care of Mozart or Wagner, layering instruments and tracks into sonic artworks of beauty, power, mystique and awesomeness. Everybody knows all that already, but approaching it from the angle that they weren’t really a rock band means you might hear something different the next time you encounter a Zeppelin tune. I’ve been listening to them since the 1970s and believe it or not, this happened to me recently. So let’s have a go! (as they say in the (UK)
As the Yardbirds were dissolving in 1968, Jimmy Page and Peter Grant came up with a strategy for the group that would become Led Zeppelin based on what they had seen in the USA on the Yardbirds’ final tour – music that was outside the milieu of the radio-friendly singles market. Both Grant and Page thought that the group that would be Zeppelin could take on American heavies like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly and do way better with the same formula. Interestingly enough, as related in Hammer of the Gods, Page had been considering a group in the Pentangle mode, because of his love and respect for artists like Bert Jansch, in particular, and acoustic music in general. Page is quoted as saying, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP, I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that.” However, once Page heard and saw John Bonham play he quickly scotched the acoustic idea (at least full-time) and heard everything Zeppelin would become. From the beginning, Zeppelin focused on albums in the studio and explored a wide range of improvisations live. Many of these improvs were blues-based but because of Page’s wide range of influences and the outstanding abilities of Jones and Bonham, the music careened into many different directions with dynamics, including acoustic-based music, that would eventually be known as Zeppelin’s Light and Shade. Robert Plant would also help take the band into interesting directions as he became a more confident frontman and writer. As the group was in the process of launching their career, the world’s first supergroup, Cream, was calling it quits. Not only was Cream lauded by fans in the same way that Zeppelin would be soon (for their ability to just play), they were also taken to task by critics for their “excesses”, which would become a major point of attack by critics against Page and Zeppelin as the 60s gave way to the 70s.
Led Zeppelin has never said their approach had more to do with jazz than pop music, which was still the only alternative at the time. CLASSIC ROCK didn’t exist and even though The Beatles had been successful releasing a 7 minute single (Hey Jude), they were The Beatles and had earned the right to do that. Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that music be produced in the conventional format and many bands like The Yardbirds and Cream, were constantly pressured by management that valued hit singles over a sound or a good album that would’ve sold in the newly emerging markets. Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about this because their manager, Peter Grant, never pressured the band for music and took anyone who did to task. He was savvy enough to see where the money was in the coming decade and left Jimmy and company alone to do what they wanted. While there are some to this day who view Grant as a gangster and bully because of his tactics, he was the first manager who ensured that the artists he represented got a huge percentage of the credit and compensation for their music and performances. Page insisted on complete creative control as a bargaining chip for Zeppelin’s record deal and Grant made sure he got it. He was the fifth member of Led Zeppelin and was a major factor in their success and has been recognized as a major game-changer in the history of popular music. With his help the band racked up album and concert sales that blew away everyone’s expectations. Not only was the writing and playing good enough to swing multiple generations of fans into Led Zeppelin’s corner, the band took their improvisation ethic to new heights and their live shows became an ever-changing exercise in a variation on a theme. This isn’t what most people think of when JAZZ is discussed, and heavy rockers and serious jazz artists would be equally offended by the term, but the basic drive and aspirations of Miles Davis and Jimmy Page or any of a number of ALT artists, which Zeppelin definitely were at the time, are primarily the same. It matters little what ends up on the disc. So much of that genre classification is all about selling units to consumers. A Led Zeppelin concert from the early days always had “songs”, but the highlights of the show were long improvised workouts on certain studio recordings — How Many More Times, Dazed and Confused, Trampled Underfoot, No Quarter, Whole Lotta Love,Moby Dick and whatever Jimmy picked as his “solo” spot (White Summer/Black Mountainside). As time went on the band was able to create long pieces that didn’t contain the same amount of improvisation but were arranged and conceptualized extended pieces of art: Stairway to Heaven, The Song Remains the Same/The Rain Song, Kashmir, Ten Years Gone, In My Time of Dying, Achilles Last Stand. None of this stuff is really ROCK music even if it sounds like ROCK music. It’s played with rock instruments and played at high volumes but the combination of instrumental prowess and artistic vision in the writing and live interplay produced something more than what most bands, even of that era, were capable of. It really does compare favorably to the best jazz and how the best jazz bands functioned without sacrificing any of the heaviness or youth signals (lyrics, stage theater, drama) that fans responded to.
Before I started playing jazz music I always thought the version of Dazed and Confused (from The Song Remains the Same movie) was a bit too long and went through one too many “movements”. If it had been up to me, I thought there were two that could have been cut without losing anything from the performance (and this still might be true…improvisers are always in the process of editing and perfection is completely relative). Watching it recently, I thought the band’s performance was and is completely phenomenal. I’ve never liked the “fantasy” sequences in this movie because the band’s ability to take an audience through a half hour of music, power, drama and performance is totally cool and would certainly have been enough even in 1976. Is some of the drama silly? Of course, but the band didn’t take themselves as seriously as everyone else did and the limits of what could be done in a live performance were still expanding. Throughout the song Jimmy Page employs power chord thud, blues and country fills, dramatic wah-wah arpeggios and harmonics, slashing funk chords, avant-garde bowing and noise ripples and plenty of ripping riffs and zipping lines. When he was at his best Jimmy, like all of the great guitar improvisers, was a great synthesizer of all his influences and whatever was floating in his imagination at the time. By 1973 not only was the band firing on all cylinders live, their confidence level was completely off the charts. There is also maturity seen (and heard) in these shows that doesn’t exist in the early days and there is none of the dissipation and exhaustion that creeps into the band by later in the decade.
In 1973 Dazed and Confused was still a major centerpiece of Zeppelin shows. Typically, it occupied the 10th slot of the set, preceding Stairway to Heaven. In 1997 artist and Led Zeppelin bootleg expert extraordinaire Luis Rey analyzed Dazed and Confused in his book Led Zeppelin Live: An Illustrated Exploration of Underground Tapes. He split the song (1975 live version, which ran even longer than 1973) into 12 basic sections as a means of identifying the changing parts and progression of the piece. You can check the Wiki link for the actual sections and I think they’re pretty close in general to this version, at least the overall substance. Obviously some of this was rehearsed prior to the tour and Zeppelin played the set they rehearsed pretty much at all shows on a tour with only the encores varying from show to show. BUT…as was said at the time and what is obvious if you listen to enough copies of shows from their tour, within the general framework, there was plenty of room for improvisation and spontaneity, especially as far as Page is concerned and he certainly took advantage of that freedom.
Dazed and Confused was originally “picked up” by The Yardbirds after seeing Jake Holmes perform it in New York City when he opened for the band in summer of 1967. The title, bassline and general vibe of the song were lifted intact, but the lyrics were rewritten and even before Led Zeppelin came into fruition it served as an instrumental vehicle for all of Page’s guitar wizardry. (In 2010 Holmes filed a copyright infringement suit and is credited with inspiration and no doubt got a bunch of cash as the writing credit remains with Page). Zeppelin started playing Dazed at its first rehearsal and did a brisk 6+ minute version on their first album. But the song was in a constant state of evolution and serves as a very good barometer of how the bad grew over five years. As the song begins the confidence level I was talking about is evident in the dramatic intro and sung verses. Nothing is rushed and Bonham’s drum punctuations keep the song from being a dirge. Notice how Page varies the main riff every time he plays it, either with different phrasing, bends or playing the harmony notes of Jones’ bass riff at one point. At about the 4 minute mark the band is off!! and the camera starts to focus on Bonham and then Jones and Bonham as they follow and react to what Jimmy is doing. Along with all of his many other talents, John Bonham was easily one of the most reactive drummers that ever rock and rolled and Jones is also amazing. The fact that all of his brilliant lines are finger-picked also adds a layer of fluidity and depth to the song. Notice how Jimmy breaks his first set of riffing with some funky slash chords, setting up his next high-register solo. That’s improvised composition in action. As the song comes to it’s first breakdown the camera catches Bonham and Jones trying to puzzle out where Jimmy is going (5:38). Even though the band has been playing this song for 5 years at this point, but there is obviously no formula employed here. It’s called spontaneity and there was never a band as heavy as Zeppelin who pulled off this type of spontaneity so well. I love the interaction between Jones and Bonham at the 6 minute mark — it shows the essence of what I’m talking about so well. As guitar players we are usually told to “sing” our lines to make better improvisation. Notice how Bonham seems to sometimes “sing” his hits (6:19-6:25). You can hear snatches of the 3-years in the future riff for Achilles Last Stand in the arpeggios that set up the “San Francisco” bit. Excellent casual flamenco-esque strumming by Page on the “San Francisco” bits before bringing the wah-wah to lead to another heavy crescendo. Up and down the band goes, bringing everyone in Madison Square Garden with them. Isn’t this exciting? Robert Plant’s various vocalizations (scatting) have the same dynamic spontaneity throughout the song. He knows when to sing and then drop out and let the band play again. The “I Knows” that he brings in to accentuate the heavy part that comes in around 7:50 don’t mean anything and he isn’t really singing. His voice is just another instrument in the mix that adds another layer of excitement as the final bit of CRUSH and the segue before the song devolves into complete and total weirdness (and I mean that in a good way). Same with the “Aahs” and “Oohs” as the bass and drums are dropping out. The band leaves as Jimmy takes over on bow at about 9:00. So far the song has been paced beautifully highlighting the band’s talents for improvisation and live drama. Ethereal swoops and echo feedback replace the power of the band and it becomes a completely sonic “event”. The “song” has been left far behind. At 10:20 the Tolkien theater or Mars the Bringer of War (whichever you prefer) is in full effect with bow smacks on an echo-driven guitar with accompany send-outs to the audience. While I’m sure this was the inspiration behind Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel” violin solo“, it doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as it was made out to be. Sure, it’s not a 4 minute rock song, but John Cage and others outside the mainstream were doing stuff like this for years and Led Zeppelin’s fans, while maybe not classical music aficionados, ate it up. You don’t hear anyone screaming or heckling or any audience noise at all until Page does the dramatic slaps… and there is much rejoicing!! As Page continues bowing [the fantasy takes over and] Plant joins him with vocal accents as they fill the Garden with horror movie sounds that I’m sure were pretty awesome to an audience looking for a trip to another world (and under the influence of whatever they could get their hands on before the concert). See the internet and smart phones didn’t exist then kids. The rest of the band joins in with ambient noise effects before they return with the crunch and the blast at around the 16 minute mark. Once again the segue, helped by those little touches of Jones’ and Bonhams’ ambiance and impeccable timing, is perfect. There is another shot of John Bonham as the song kicks into the familiar riff that leads into the guitar/vocal interplay between Plant and Page. Bonham looks like such a serious (and sober) drummer on this performance doesn’t he? Very attentive to what Page and Jones are doing. A whole bunch of awesome, rapid-fire Page soloing follows on the same rhythm gallop. Back in the 70s this is what earned Page universal acclaim as the best guitarist of the era and it’s pretty impressive even today. The song breaks down into a funky rhythm that employs a prominent Hendrix-y 9th chord as it’s anchor. Jimmy has been playing guitar for almost twenty continuous minutes and has yet to repeat himself. Another dramatic major, happy sounding break leads into a different interaction with Plant (along with a bit more theater that totally pleases the audience). And once again Page is off with an Over, Under, Sideways Down-style riff and Jones and Bonham follow him until the song breaks again for another interaction with Plant in a higher register. The scene with the longhair is puzzling and says to me “we don’t have the film of that part of the performance.” Why that bit is chosen or what it’s supposed to represent I’ve never been able to puzzle out. At about 23 minutes the song breaks down again and goes into something that sounds vaguely like Black Sabbath before climaxing into chaotic noise and spiraling to earth and the final familiar strains of Dazed and Confused as you know it from the record are heard again. On the familiar outro figure Page once again takes off with screaming obbligatos and fleet-fingered wah chording and Jones and Bonham turn the rhythmic vibe into something that gets them smiling at each other (26:35-26:50) before a final burst of feedback and Plant’s echoes signal the ending chord slam and Bonham drum thrashing that finishes the song. While there was probably some post-production employed to really tighten the song up, other versions from the tour are extremely close and sound almost as good. Silly or dated as this might seem to some there is literally no one else in the history of rock who pulled this off as well, then or now.
Given the nature of the above song and performance, Led Zeppelin has a lot in common with other “jamming” bands like The Grateful Dead, Cream and The Allman Brothers, much more than most “headbangers” would give them credit for. It’s interesting that many of the heavy bands that Zeppelin influenced picked up on the heaviness and the occasional acoustic ballad, but were not adept at either live improvisation or long orchestral-like pieces of music. All of that more or less faded out with the 70s. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and everyone who followed into the 80s did not play 30 minute songs and did very little improvisation, except for their feature solos. That whole approach to writing and performance became strictly the domain of “jam bands” most of whom descend from the California sound of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, there is a lot of that to Zeppelin as well — Robert Plant in particular was a huge fan of San Francisco bands and it definitely shows in his Zeppelin lyrics and his solo material. This is probably why Page and the rest of the band take umbrage of the title Heavy Metal to describe their music, because they weren’t, especially when compared with what came along in the 80s and beyond. (Notice that most of the time Page isn’t using that much distortion live compared to heavy guitarists of later years). The heaviness that Zeppelin brought was always balanced with nuance and other elements, which is very clear by analyzing Dazed and Confused, always one of their heaviest songs. Guitarists of the next generation would by and large take the obvious and simplest elements of Zep’s heavy music and make it louder, heavier, faster and, in some cases, more intricate and in the process lose the elements that gave Zeppelin’s music it’s timeless depth, dynamics and (live) spontaneity.
Of course, I was and am a big fan of the later heavy music and have seen many of those bands and played more than a few of those longs in my own bands. However, there is something slightly intense and magical about the ability of a group of musicians being able to improvise or approach music with the type of dynamics and movement inherent in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Call it rock, call it jazz, call it what you like, there comes a point when the quality of the music or performance renders all description and classification useless because there ain’t enough adjectives to really convey what goes on!
It’s 2012 and the world is going to end!!!!!!!!!!! Who has time for blogging? Actually I’ve been busy with other things…like playing and learning a bunch of animation stuff for graphic design. I learned a lot last year and hopefully this year I’ll have a chance to put some of it to work. Really dig the dudes I’m playing with now. So far it’s been pretty casual, but they are good players and I gotta bust a move to keep up. So posting is probably going to be spotty. That’s how it goes, especially when the bills have to be paid too.
It’s great that this blog still gets 20 people or so a day looking at it. I knew when I set it up it was never going to be The Huffington Post or whatever. Hopefully the year’s worth of stuff I’ve done has provided entertainment or info to 1 or 2 people. I’ll keep posting stuff when I get a chance. In the meantime, here are some great guitar videos including one of the best
live performances rehearsals by The Rolling Stones ever, Adrien Moignard and Gonzalo Bergara taking Django Reinhard’s Belleville for a spin and a couple from Heart with Nancy Wilson doing some awesome acoustic picking and strumming.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the premier bands of the glorious guitar decade of the 1970s. Their high-powered, 3-guitar sound, great live shows and string of FM radio hits made them a rock arena favorite until the tragic plane crash of 1977 that took the lives of band singer/leader Ronnie VanZant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines and their long-time friend and tour manager, Dean Kirkpatrick. The other band members were scarred both physically and mentally for a long time afterwards and it effectively ended one of the most interesting 70s rock groups at a time when they looked to be on the brink of a promising new direction. Though they “reformed” in 1987 and continue to perform and record today, Gary Rossington is the only surviving member still playing with the band. Loud rock/Classic Rock doesn’t get much airplay in The Cave anymore, but Skynyrd was a formative influence and very important in my guitar development and I still break ’em out when I’m in the mood. Because I was never able to see the original band I’ve totally dug all of the media — books, movies, YouTube performances that have come out in the last 10-15 years. All of these materials cast a new light on the Skynyrd story and have allowed people like me to see actual performances from the glory days and get more of a total picture of the musicians as people and see them outside of the hell-raising image that dominated for so many years.
Back in the 1970s, I was in high school and Skynyrd was a very popular band — with songs on the radio and stuff. While it was said later, especially in reference to the long delay in getting the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s popularity was a “regional” thing, I can assure you that at the time, it was not. Not only did they have the reputation of being one of the hottest live acts of the day, they also had many songs on what was then the new “FM” radio format. Further down in this post there is a video of them playing at a Bill Graham-produced Day on the Green festival with Peter Frampton, who was about the hottest thing going in 1976-77. His Frampton Comes Alive album was voted the Number #1 record of 1976, yet this “regional” band was opening for him the following year. (On their first major tour they opened dates for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour. Pete Townsend thought they were “quite good”). Bill Graham, who was certainly a major figure in 60s and 70s concert promotion thought Lynyrd Skynyrd was “one of the great ones”. Wolfgang’s Vault, which I have already profiled, has really nice versions of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama from that show and not only are the videos instructive for how great the band was, but they show a whole lot pretty young ladies in the front who are completely rocking out and are well acquainted with both songs. There were certainly more than a few lovely young ladies in my high school class who also enjoyed rocking out! and back in the 70s that didn’t carry with it all (or some) of the negative connotations that it does today. It was the thing to do — go to concerts and ROCK OUT! YEA!
Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, by Lee Ballinger, is a very splendid read not only because it captures that time when the band was in their prime and very popular with The Kids but also because it contains many stories, quotes, and anecdotes directly from the band, family members, or people who were involved with the band. Some of the most interesting quotes come from Al Kooper, legendary player, producer, and ROCK guy (he plays the organ on Like A Rolling Stone for starters) and the man who got Lynyrd Skynyrd signed, and was their producer and session player for their first three albums. He is the Yankee Slicker from Skynyrd’s Working for MCA song, which they performed at their initial showcase in front of MCA execs and basically sealed the deal, according to Kooper. This book is great because it provides a bunch of these little factual nuggets. Kooper’s “taking it back to basic rock and roll” quote is enlightening because that is what everyone said about punk rock which began roughly about the same time (The New York Dolls) Skynyrd released their first album. Also, Ronnie VanZant himself said that the lyrics to songs like Sweet Home Alabama were deliberately written to provoke a (controversial) reaction, which was another element that would become a staple in punk rock lyrics and stage performances. So what did Al have to say?
At the time that they came around in the early seventies, there was a plethora of really advanced white progressive music that had taken over the charts and the American mind. Like Genesis, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and bands like that. I was sitting and watching this and going, “You know, if some band came along that just played basic rock and roll, they would clean up now”… Then I heard Skynyrd in Atlanta and I said, “Well they’re doing exactly what I hear in my head. This is like the basic band that could win it all back.” (pp.32-33)
…By the third time I heard it, I said, “This is so good. Every kid in America wants to hear this. This is why I want to sign this band. Some little kid in the middle of the country wants to put this on in his bedroom and run head first into the wall. I understand the meaning of head-banging music now.” (p. 35)
…Of all the bands I ever worked with they were the best arranged band. Most bands don’t have it together with arrangements. Their arrangements were terrific. I even learned from them as an arranger…What they did with the guitar parts was truly amazing. They had the pulse of the street. They absolutely had it.” (p.44)
— Al Kooper Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History By Lee Ballinger
While the whole Skynyrd catalog is a treasure trove of guitar mania, Freebird is certainly the song probably they are associated with and in it’s own right is a top guitar-solo classic. Right up there with Stairway to Heaven, Crossroads, Eruption, Crazy Train, and All Along the Watchtower. I have a framed page of Freebird as the Number 3 guitar solo of all time as voted by readers/contributors to Guitar World Magazine on my wall…well just because. My 2nd year of high school, the first guy I saw picking an acoustic guitar well played most of the first Skynyrd Pronounced album! I still remember the day; a beautiful spring afternoon, the two of us sitting on a bench with his girlfriend while he played Tuesday’s Gone, Poison Whiskey, Mississippi Kid and the first part of Freebird. I had been fooling around with the guitar for a few years but I was amazed that anyone I knew could play stuff like that so well. He showed me a few things and then another friend a year or two later showed me parts to Rush’s Working Man and Fly By Night and I got some stuff by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC down by myself and I was well on my way to rock glory!
If it sounds like I’m making a big deal out of this remember that in 1976-77 there was no internet, no tabs, no You tube, no instruction videos or tapes, 1 guitar magazine, and until you were 16 and had a driver’s license it was very hard to go see bands, unless you lived in the city, which I didn’t. There were music books but they were mostly written for piano and very rarely translated well to guitar. So watching somebody play up close like that was a revelation, and as I’ve said in other posts with regard to Gypsy Jazz culture, all of those masterful players STILL learn that way — by Watching and Doing. It’s the best form of instruction and years later any player will look back on those early experiences with the same misty affection as first love. Because Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the first bands whose songs I could play and the first one I began to see the connections involved in playing chords, leads and riffs all together, they will always be important to me.
Skynyrd was the epitome of a GUITAR band — they had three lead guitarists — and watching Freebird: The Movie and other stuff that has come out since then totally proves the band’s ability to pull off the 3-guitar attack and how well-integrated and balanced they worked live; three different guys, three different sounds, three different styles never getting in the way of the others while playing complimentary parts, or rhythms. Everything I’ve seen definitely underscores Al Kooper’s quote above about how intelligent they were about composing and performing their parts. While they had the reputation, one that Ronnie even admitted in the press, of sometimes being really, really drunk for live performances, I’ve yet to see one where they were as sloppy as some other bands from that period (Rolling Stones, Led Zep). Maybe they managed to always keep it together when the cameras were rolling or they were really good at covering up. It’s obvious and well-documented that these guys practiced their butts off and were all kept in line by Ronnie, who was James Brown on steroids when it came to enforcing band discipline; he didn’t fine players if they messed up, he got physical. He was able to do this because he, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, and original drummer Bob Burns all grew up on the rough side of Jacksonville Florida and began playing together when they were in their early teens. RVZ, who was older, was an big brother/father figure to a few of the others who didn’t have fathers in their lives and was the man with the plan with regards to rock and roll stardom. Everyone in the band gave him credit for making them famous and having the vision to turn what was once a “Louie Louie” high school dance band into an internationally-known rock ensemble. Plus he was a rock and roll badass and a complicated guy; a “redneck” who wrote anti-hard drug and anti-handgun songs, a man who always walked that very fine line between the idealistic good vibes of the 1960s and the aggressive harder edge style of the meanest blues and honky-tonk music, and a guy who aspired to everyone having a good time but was jailed many times for drinking, fighting and other acts of mayhem. Listening to interviews from 1976, it’s obvious that this Double Trouble side of Ronnie and the reputation he’d earned because of it was something he had tired of and he was looking to move into a more mature direction.
Gary Rossington’s guitar sound is probably the one people most associate with the band; the Les Paul sustained vibrato voice that he got from influences like Paul Kossoff of Free (one of their favorite bands) decorate many of the songs and he used his hands to get all kinds of little feel things going. If you watch the above That Smell video, there is a sustained note he gets in his second solo that draws a smile of appreciation from RVZ. Allen Collins was very fleet-fingered and energetic (Freebird, I Ain’t the One) and held Eric Clapton as his number 1 influence. He usually played a Gibson Firebird, and later, a Gibson Explorer, but also played a Strat occasionally. Not only was his lead playing always tasteful, he had a really great rhythmic feel, especially with that chunky-funky Strat sound. The third guitar player was, up until mid-1975, Ed King, and from mid-76 until late-77, Steve Gaines. Both of these fellows were tremendous, tasteful players who were usually the “Stratocaster guys”. Steve Gaines might’ve become one of the biggest players ever had he survived the plane crash in 1977 because he could play anything and was just super good and a really great writer and singer. Ed King, though not recognized in the Freebird Movie, (and I don’t know why he wasn’t) was a very important contributor and to watch him play is to watch someone who doesn’t use “box” positions when soloing and his leads don’t sound like anything else. He did get a lot of solos on many songs and some of them almost sound like horn parts more than guitar solos, but that might just be me thinking that. All of these guys were capable of partnering up with Ronnie to write killer songs and sometimes, like on their big hit Sweet Home Alabama, or later, That Smell, it was combination of people creating the song almost spontaneously. Leon Wilkeson was also always a very underrated, one-of-a-kind bass player, and any of the videos in this post or anything off the original band discs demonstrate his very fluid and imaginative style.
My friend Jimmy gave me this mirror…he said someone gave it to him, but I think he was secretly trolling head shops back in the day. A few years ago I was digginh in a local Music and Sounds shop and I found a used video that turned out to be a bootleg performance of Skynyrd from 1975. It’s great — filmed at Winterland during what would become known as The Torture Tour — Ed King is still in the band and Billy Powell missed the performance because he had put his fist through a window or door. At the time I was a regular at the now defunct Ed King web forums and I asked if he or anyone else knew about the show and all I found out was what I’ve already related about Billy and the fact that it was just a month or so before Ed King left. [This whole concert is now lovingly restored and at Wolfgang’s Vault!] But two people on the forum offered to trade me for copies of the bootleg and I got the complete Van Halen show at the US Festival in 1983 from one guy, and that was cool. The other person who offered a trade was Sharon Lawrence. She knew Lynyrd Skynyrd, photographed them and has written about them and others from the rock era, most notably, a book on Jimi Hendrix, who she also knew. I sent her a copy of the tape in exchange for a picture of Ronnie Van Zant cutting his birthday cake the year he turned 27. She also sent me a nice concert shot of Allen Collins. I promised they would never turn up on the internet, so I can’t show them to you. The birthday pic is from this same “session” but is a lot better quality and is one of my prized possessions. I don’t think anyone but Sharon has a copy of that photo and it is really awesome that I do. I also think it’s great Skynyrd used the Theme from The Magnificent Seven as intro music for the tour seen in the following video.
I found an interview with Sharon that I think is interesting. I don’t know where it originated but since she knew the band personally she provides a perspective similar to Al Kooper. The questions are in black, her answers in orange. (Go the link for the whole interview)
The Skynyrd members all knew each other for years, grew up together. How would you describe the relationships within the band? We’ve all heard about the inner fighting that went on from time to time, but I’ve always looked at it like the kind of fighting that brothers do. Would that describe their relationship, in your opinion?
I would describe the relationship this way: Ronnie was the leader, in capital letters. They all looked up to him, and his opinion meant a great deal. They were like their own little family in the early years, giving up relaxing, seeing, being with their own families to try and gain respect and success…
Knowing Jimi Hendrix as well as you did, what do you think he would have thought of Skynyrd’s music?
A fresh sound. An integrity all their own. Strong playing and writing.
There is a great story I read somewhere that you told, probably in an interview, about Allen Collins and some guitar strings of Jimi’s that you had kept and had given to Allen. Would you mind telling the story again?
The band was at my house in the Hollywood hills in the fall of 1973. They had no money yet. They were ready to leave the house to go to the Whisky-A-Go-Go where they were playing for several nights. Allen broke a string and it subtly became clear to me that they were afraid they didn’t have any string money and weren’t sure where to go. I remembered that I had some of Jimi’s, so I found them, asked Allen if one of those would work. Nothing more was said. They did the gig….seven years later I was at Allen and Kathy’s home and he showed me one of his Skynyrd scrapbooks. On a special page he had placed Jimi’s guitar string in its faded English package. A very touching moment…and one that Hendrix would have appreciated.
This is a pretty broad question as people have many sides to them, but what kind of man was Ronnie Van Zant? How would you describe your relationship with him?
We were great friends who had mutual respect for each other. One of the finest people I’ve ever met.
We’ve all read a little bit about the song writing process within the band. How would you describe it and is it true that Ronnie never wrote anything down? I personally find that “rumor” a little hard to believe, even with the gift that he had.
Of course, he wrote things down but he also said, “unless I can remember the words as I’m thinking them they may not be worth writing down.” Ronnie’s writing was deeply important to him. He had nice handwriting and printing and he was meticulous in correcting grammar and punctuation.
How did you feel about LS finally making it to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame? Did you attend the ceremony?
They should have been inducted earlier*…I was invited but preferred to watch on television, not in a huge ballroom….greatly disappointed that one of Skynyrd’s heroes — like Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard etc — were not asked to “induct” the band. “Kid Rock” would never have been Ronnie’s cup of tea.
It’s pretty amazing to find out all of these years later that Ronnie VanZant cared about penmanship and punctuation. That really doesn’t jibe with his “image” but that is the thing with image isn’t it? Usually the image has very little to do with the person behind the image. By the end of his career even Ronnie admitted that the band had let their image and behavior get away from them a bit, but that was the 70s and they certainly were not the only band who over-indulged. But Ronnie was smart enough to see that the image lifestyle was a dead-end and was in the process of making serious changes when he was killed. (Same was true of Stevie Ray Vaughan). While I agree with Sharon’s last sentiment on Kid Rock – I think the band deserved someone of higher stature as an inductor (inductor?) – it’s also important to remember how much has changed since 1977. It’s possible that Ronnie would’ve come round to being ok with Kid Rock. I think some of the other people in the band think he’s ok. In my post on Jim Croce I said that some of what he did could’ve happened only in the 1970s and the same is true of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd — every decade has it’s particulars that come together to make a certain sound and way of doing things possible and musicians are obviously very influenced by, and products of their times. So are their audiences. Lynryd Skynyrd helped influence musicians in later decades — Hank Williams III, Raging Slab, Nashville Pussy, Honky and many others including Kid Rock. But THE ROCK ain’t like it used to be and that is to be expected 30+ years later; the times have changed, the music has changed, the business has changed, and the environment the artists and audiences reside is also different. While it may be fun topic for speculation, it’s impossible to say how RVZ and the rest of band would’ve fared had the plane crash not happened. Because of that “tragedy” and Classic Rock Radio, the band took on a different life post-1977 and like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan their presence was defined more by radio playlists and legend. Ronnie and the original band achieved a kind of rock and roll sainthood — they were killed in the prime of their career. They didn’t hang around so long that people got tired of them and they didn’t become a pale imitation of what they once were. Even though Skynyrd reformed in 1987 and continues to this day, it’s more of a tribute band/different band. I don’t mean to sell the current Skynyrd short because some great players have been in the line-up over the years, including Ed King, Leon Wilkeson, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle, Rick Medlocke (who played with the band in the very early days and then went on to front Blackfoot, a band I liked a lot), and the late Hughie Thomasson, who was founder, guitar great with the Outlaws back in the day. There is a lot to like about all of these musicians and all of the great music they have brought to the people over the last almost fifty years. But Lynyrd Skynyrd has not existed since 1977 just like Led Zeppelin was over when John Bonham died. Some people just can’t be replaced without the whole thing being completely different.
There is an overwhelming amount of great material in the original band’s catalog that you have never heard unless you are a total fan, and there is certainly many a tasty lick and trick that a guitar player can pick out from listening to, or watching the videos. I still enjoy picking on Skynyrd songs from time to time and some it is quite challenging as anyone who has really tried to cop the licks knows. It can also be a whole lot of fun. I think it is quite fitting that the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Sex Pistols. Two very popular and influential outlaw bands finally getting some respect. I wish, as do many other people, that Ronnie, Steve, Allen, Leon and Cassie had lived to see the fruits of their labors, and to Skynyrd it was all about working to get the rewards and recognition. It’s possible, given their backgrounds (they actually had a lot in common), that Ronnie VanZant and Johnny Rotten could’ve shared a drink, some stories and few laughs at the ceremony… And that’s the kind of world we should live in.
Note: Al Kooper’s recollections and Dave Marsh’s quote are from Lee Ballinger’s excellent Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History. Lee is also the editor of Rockrap, a really cool online newsletter that you can sign up for free HERE.
The mellow, acoustic singer-songwriter genre was very big in the 1970s. A list of people/groups from that period would include James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Loggins and Messina, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Townes van Zandt, Nick Drake, Seals and Crofts, Harry Chapin, and many more. Many of these people, especially the duos seemed to descend directly from Simon and Garfunkel, who certainly had a ton of success in the 1960s. I’m sure Simon and Garfunkel would say they were channeling the Everly Brothers, but that’s another story. This is a sometimes very-reviled genre, especially among people who LIKE TO ROCK OUT! mainly because none of this stuff rocks very much. However, the heavy dudes who were Led Zeppelin were completely captivated by Joni Mitchel, Townes Van Zandt and Nick Drake were extremely influential songwriters, and some of the instrumentation on records from this genre was incredibly complex.
When I was a kid I was a fan of Jim Croce and maybe it’s a regional thing because he was born and grew up in Philadelphia and I grew up not far from there. Jim wasn’t your typical sensitive singer with a guitar dude, even for the 70s. His persona screamed 70s blue-collar with a great sense of humor. More often than not he was always wearing that faded denim jacket with the “CAT” bulldozer patch on it and he had tattoos when they were a completely un-hip thing to have. Can you picture Seals and Crofts or James Taylor with a tattoo? Then there was the sausage and peppers-mustache and 50¢ cigar in his hand on a regular basis. The guy exuded character even before he started singing and to this day there haven’t really been many like him; only Leon Redbone gets close I guess. A pretty boy he was not, but he was a guy who wrote and sang very beautiful ballads and storyteller songs.
Jim tried and failed at showbiz until he met and teamed up with one Maury Muehleisen, a guy many people, even fans of Jim Croce, know little about. Maury has been called by people who were associated with him as a “certified genius” and he was a classically trained musical powerhouse who gave Jim what a lot of those other singer-songwriters didn’t have — guitar and vocal chops galore, a classical-sense of composition, and beautiful live accompaniment. The three albums they released as a duo were very successful, and it looked as if they were both headed for bona-fide superstardom when they died tragically in a plane crash, immediately after a gig in 1973. I still remember when that happened, believe it or not (same with Lynyrd Skynryd’s crash in 1977). Considering how so many of the songs these guys did together can still move people, it was pretty tragic they met their end this way and at such a young age, Maury especially, since he was only 24.
The guitar interplay on songs like Operator, Time in a Bottle or I’ll Have to Say I Love You… sounds very orchestral, not just quick picking and fun strumming — there was some very smart arranging and genius playing at work. Not that the picking is anything to sneeze at. Both Jim and Maury had their finger-picking down cold to the point they could play complex counterpoint lines to each other while harmonizing vocals simultaneously. On other songs like Working at Car Wash Blues and One Less Set of Footsteps Maury has a very Nashville-inspired sound and approach. Producer Tommy West, who can be seen singing along and playing piano on some YouTube videos that show them in their prime, said this about Maury;
When I went to Nashville in 1977, the musicians all wanted to know who that “picker” was. Maury composed and played some of the most recognizable signature “licks” in pop music.
Then there were the funky street sounds of You Don’t Mess Around with Jim and Bad Bad Leroy Brown, which got very close to rock and roll. They covered a fair amount of ground with their little 2- or sometimes 3-man band and even just a casual glance at their most popular songs illustrates that they were comfortable doing a wide range of material. Jim and Maury favored Martin guitars during their brief career; the D-18 and D-35 especially, and they were one of the first teams to use ubiquitous 1970s staple, the Ovation. In 2010 Martin Guitars released the D-35 Maury Muehleisen Commemorative Custom Edition. Now that’s staying power!
The instrumentation was there to compliment the vocals, which were very also very well-arranged and performed when they were in front of an audience. Those closest to the duo believe that Maury brought out the real songwriter in Jim and his lyrics and persona blossomed into the person and legend that he became. They complimented each other in many ways and this type of chemistry is SO IMPORTANT in any musical venture. Jim had given up on the music business before he met Maury and might have never been a household name had the two of them not started working together. Even though, in some ways they and the rest of the people in this genre were very much of their time (the groovy 70s), their music, the playing and singing and sentiments expressed in the lyrics continue to move people and serves as a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when a couple of unassuming, modest people performing without image, pomp and spectacle were capable of thoroughly entertaining an audience. A song like I Got a Name could have only come from the 1970s and anyone who was there then, knows what I’m talking about, but there was something special about these guys, those times and those sounds. People, even some young people today love and appreciate the music as music as people did in the early 70s because quality never goes out of style.