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Posts from the ‘Rock’ Category

Nico in London, 1971

I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin over the past year, and every time I walk past the giant KaDeWe department store on the Ku’damm, I think of Nico. It’s where in 1953 she hung around one of the entrances, a beautiful blonde 15-year-old hoping to be spotted by someone from the fashion department. She got lucky, and from there her career took her to Paris, Rome, London (making a single for Andrew Loog Oldham’s new Immediate label in 1965), and New York, where she joined Andy Warhol’s troupe of “superstars”.

She returned to London in March 1970, her hair now the dark red favoured by her former lover, Jim Morrison. I arranged to meet her for an interview one Monday afternoon at her hotel, the Princess Lodge, off Kensington High Street. We went to a pub on Church Street, opposite Biba. She talked about going off to Ibiza, perhaps permanently (she would die there 18 years later). At some point during our conversation, a middle-aged man in a tweed suit came and sat down quite close to us. She didn’t seem to have met him before but soon she was saying goodbye and the two of them were leaving the pub together and disappearing down the street. I never quite worked that one out.

She was, of course, a marvellous enigma. Or not so marvellous, if you didn’t like the noise she made when she fired up her portable Indian harmonium and emitted that stentorian contralto, a voice like a church organ pipe. I loved it.

She made two appearances at the Roundhouse that month, and then vanished. A year later she was back, and a lot more people wanted to interview her. We were on the brink of the belated embrace of the Velvet Underground and all their works. So on February 2, 1971 she was in a BBC studio to record a session for John Peel.

This month the four songs she taped that day are released on a 12-inch 45rpm EP by Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, under the title Nico 1971: The BBC Session. The songs are “No One Is There” and “Frozen Warnings” (from The Marble Index), “Janitor of Lunacy” (from Desertshore) and “Secret Side”, which would be recorded three years later for The End, her Island album.

What these recordings allow us to appreciate is the strength of her performance. Her voice was always consistent in its accuracy and confidence; what also strikes one here is the strength of her playing of the small pump-organ. She was a very late starter in music: her soul-mate Morrison taught her how to write a lyric, and she bought the harmonium from a hippie in San Francisco in 1967.

According to her biographer Richard Witts (Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, Virgin Books, 1993), Ornette Coleman told her that the normal way to approach a keyboard was to play the chords with the left hand in the lower register and the melody higher up with the right hand. He suggested that she might try reversing the process — which she did, with striking results.

Witts also reports Viva, another Warhol superstar, remembering that Nico practised the instrument incessantly: “She had this fucking harmonium… she would practise it for hours, simple things, chords — really annoying stuff — for hours on end. She was very serious about it, dreadfully serious, like a Nazi organist. She’d pull the curtains across and light candles around her and do this funereal singing all day long. It was like I was living in a funeral parlour.”

Whatever torture her housemates endured, it turned out to be a perfect combination, enabling Nico to perform in more or less any environment, with or without accompanying musicians, for the rest of her career. John Cale did a wonderful job of adding startlingly original arrangements to The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, but it’s interesting to be reminded by these four tracks — broadcast on Peel’s Top Gear on Saturday, February 20, 1971 — of how she could manage perfectly well without that armature.

* The signature is from a letter Nico wrote me in 1974, shortly before the release of The End, asking — too late, alas — for certain minor modifications to the artwork, including a request to make the title look more like that on the sleeve of the Doors’ albums.

Julia Holter in Islington

julia-holter-2015When I told my friend Howard Thompson that I was going to see Julia Holter at the Islington Assembly Hall last night, he said: “You should listen to her cover of ‘Hello Stranger’.” Although Howard and I have been talking to each other about music for 40 years, he was unaware that the original “Hello Stranger”, by Barbara Lewis, has been among my very favourites since it came out in the summer of 1963. It’s a perfect record, and it has a lot of memories for me. So I was not necessarily open to the idea of a cover version by some young West Coast singer-songwriter, even if she did study composition at CalArts.

It’s on Holter’s fourth album, Loud City Song, the one before her new one, Have You in My Wilderness, which is just out. And Howard was right. Her cover of “Hello Stranger” is fascinatingly inventive, removing the metred rhythm and the “shoo-bop shoo-bop” motif, embedding an introspective vocal treatment within surges of sustained strings and effects, turning the song into a memory of itself. Here it is; it’s a strange and lovely thing.

The concert was rather wonderful. From the start it was obvious that Holter is not afraid of silence. She came on with her three excellent musicians (bassist Devin Hoff, drummer Corey Fogel and viola-player Dina Macabee) and when the applause had died down she spent a couple of thoughtful minutes adjusting the settings on her Nord keyboard before embarking on the first song.

What she does is art music with the occasional pop hook, like a gorgeous chord change in the mysterious “Vasquez” — the sort of thing that can suddenly pull you inside the music — and the stutter-skipping verses of “Feel You”. The textures produced by the four musicians ranged all over the place, from baroque viola and harpsichord intros to fragments of deep swing from drums and bass (a bodiless electric upright with a great sound). The contrasts, sharp but never jarring, are controlled by tight editing: an abundance of ideas, but no sprawl. Occasionally a piece will conclude with a perfectly formed coda containing new material; she clearly has no shortage of that. Her voice can change from song to song, the tone and attack manipulated in a variety of ways, the vowels and consonants subjected to different shaping and attack, creating a subtly new character for the piece in question. Not many singers do that.

Holter has a very compelling stage presence. She’s a bit of an actress, but in a good way. Her serious face breaks into sudden knowing smiles at unexpected moments, there’s a bit of business with the hair (although not too much), and she inhabits each song fully. So do we.

* The photograph of Julia Holter is by Tonje Thilesen.

Lambert & Stamp

Lambert & StampIt amazes me that so many documentary makers fail to heed the principal lesson of Asif Kapadia’s Senna, which is that any relevant archive footage, however scrappy, is more interesting than a talking head. It’s a pity that James D. Cooper didn’t learn it before he started putting together Lambert & Stamp, his film about the two men who managed the Who from their first success in 1964 until the relationship broke down in acrimony 10 years later.

A compelling subject is enough to carry the first half of the film. After that the viewer tires of extended close-ups of Pete Townshend, Chris Stamp and Roger Daltrey sitting in hotel rooms or studios, even when they’re saying interesting things. The archive clips are chopped up and edited fast on the eye, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase. Too fast, in fact. The eye wants to rest on them, to be given time to absorb the details. A technique wholly suited to the titles of Ready Steady Go! is not appropriate to this very different project. The exception is a wonderful piece of footage of Stamp and Kit Lambert encountering Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler in a London club, possibly the Ad Lib or the Bag O’Nails; we do get to look at that properly, thank goodness.

It’s a story that certainly deserved to be told. Stamp — born in London’s docklands, the son of a tugboat captain — brother of Terence, the male face of ’60s London — almost as good looking but sharp and tough, with more front than Harrods. Lambert — Lancing, Oxford, the Army — the gay son of a celebrated English composer — explaining mod culture to foreign TV interviewers in fluent French and German — empathising immediately with Townshend’s latent talent and Keith Moon’s very unlatent lunacy.

A pretty bruiser and a bruised prettiness: it was a potent combination. “I fell in love with both of them immediately,” Townshend recalls. It’s easy to see how he and, to varying degrees, the other members of the Who were jolted into self-actualisation by the vision and audacity of a pair of energetic wide boys whose real ambition was to get into the film business and who initially saw the music as a vehicle for their ambition.

The viewer does not come away with the impression that the whole truth about the break-up in 1974 has been told, and a few other salient features of the story have gone missing. One is any acknowledgment of Peter Meaden, their first manager when they were still the High Numbers: an authentic mod who helped establish their direction. Another is Shel Talmy, the producer of their first three (and greatest) singles, given only a passing and mildly derogatory mention, without being named.

Lambert died in 1981, aged 45, worn out by his destructive appetites, although the immediate cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage following a domestic fall. Stamp had conquered his own addictions long before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, having spent many years as a therapist and counsellor. His interviews with the director are used extensively but, lacking the matching testimony of his former partner, his wry eloquence inevitably seems to unbalance the narrative.

At 120 minutes, the film eventually feels bloated. If the first hour passes like a series of three-minute singles, the second is a bit of a rock opera, the occasional interesting fragment separated by long stretches of filler. But, of course, anybody interested in the era should see it.

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.

Chris Spedding at the 100 Club

Chris Spedding“The first time I played here, the stage was over there,” Chris Spedding said, pointing to his right. “Anyone else here old enough to remember that?” None of Saturday night’s audience at the 100 Club put their hands up, but you can bet there were one or two who qualified.

I certainly did. In fact the first time I saw Chris Spedding was at 100 Oxford Street — the address from which the club drew its name — on the evening of my first day working for the Melody Maker in London, in September 1969. He was a new addition to the Mike Westbrook band, a cool guitarist with floppy black hair surrounded by a crew of variously dishevelled free-jazzers. He was 24 then, and looked about 16. Now he’s 70 and looks 50.

Saturday night’s gig was arranged as a launch of Joyland, his thirteenth solo album, in which he appears with a bunch of guests. The cast list gives an idea of the range of Spedding’s activities over the years: the actor Ian McShane (narrating the title track), Arthur Brown, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Marr, Robert Gordon, Andy Fraser, Glen Matlock and others.

I can’t think of another musician whose career could have gone in so many directions. His early bands included Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, Ian Carr’s Nucleus, the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, the Jack Bruce Band and Sharks. Later he produced the Sex Pistols’ first demos, backed John Cale and Johnny Hallyday, and guested with the reformed Roxy Music. He was on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and appeared on Top of the Pops as a Womble, in costume. His playing that night with Mike Westbrook 45 years ago suggested that he might have an important part to play in the evolution of jazz guitar, in parallel with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. But when he had a hit single, it was with “Motorbikin'”, as traditional a slice of rock ‘n’ roll as you could find.

Saturday’s gig contained only one song from Joyland: “Message for Stella”, on which he was joined by the album’s co-producer: Steve Parsons, the elfin character known as Mr Snips in the days when they co-led Sharks. Back in the summer of 1974 Snips and Spedding asked me to produce their third album, but the band was already starting to disintegrate and I didn’t have the skills to hold them together during a series of fretful nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was good to see Steve for the first time since then, his huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm intact: a proper English lead singer, ’70s-style.

For the rest of the set we heard Spedding with Malcolm Bruce — son of the late Jack — on bass guitar and Chris Page on drums, both of whom are members of Sons of Cream. The stripped-down trio lineup allowed plenty of room for the leader to demonstrate his mastery of an interesting custom-built guitar which looked like a Les Paul made out of distressed carbon-fire mesh, put through an old Fender amp, with no effects pedals and no bullshit involved.

Spedding always seemed to me a modest man, devoid of the rampant ego that distinguishes most guitar heroes. He never shows off but there’s always something worth hearing, often half-hidden in the folds and creases of the songs: a little train riff dying away on the fade of “Hey Porter”, or the pretty passing chords he inserted in the chorus of an otherwise straight reading of “Summertime Blues”. The most striking of the cover versions was a radically syncopated version of “Rip It Up”, and elsewhere he put the lightest of spin on classic rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar stylings. His performance of the anthemic “Motorbikin'” sent a couple of leathered-up Ace Café types in the front row into ecstasies.

The new album is a different thing altogether, a potpourri of pop styles and ambiances, from a great spaghetti western instrumental with Johnny Marr (“Heisenberg”) to a subtle Lana Del Rey-style noir ballad called “I’m Your Sin”, performed with a new female singer from Los Angeles called Lane. He gets Ferry to whisper-croon a spooky unreleased Erasers song called “Gun Shaft City”, and there’s a version of Crispian St Peters’ “The Pied Piper”, with Andy Mackay on oboe and saxophones, that brings out the song’s inherent creepiness. “Shock Treatment”, with Andy Fraser on bass, has a great Parsons lyric — “Shame, shame, such adolescent behaviour / Listenin’ to the B-52s sure ain’t gonna save yer” — and the closing “Boom Shakka Boom” is distinguished by a greasy-quiffed guitar-and-bass sound that defines a certain kind of unreconstructed rock ‘n’ roll.

Like Spedding’s entire career, the record slides all over the place without making a permanent landing anywhere, and is the more interesting for that. When the stage moves, he moves with it, while remaining himself. He was always something different, and he still is.

Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.

 

A threnody for Lou Reed

lou and jzIt’s already a year since Lou Reed died. You could mark the anniversary by saving up for the new super-deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album, now expanded to six CDs through the addition of alternative mixes and live stuff, or by reading the updated version of Jeremy Reed’s biography, Waiting for the Man. Or you could make a lateral move and listen to Transmigration of the Magus, written and recorded by John Zorn in memory of his late friend.

Just released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label, the album features the composer’s well established Gnostic Trio — Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and bells) — plus John Medeski (organ), Bridget Kibbey (harp) and Al Upowski (vibes and bells). The instrumentation along gives you an idea of what the music sounds like: a bright celestial noise reflecting Zorn’s interest in the numinous and his desire to write something to help Reed’s spirit through the bardo — the Tibetan word for the transitional state between death and the next incarnation.

Somewhere beneath the profanity of Reed’s music, the sacred was always lurking — whether in the exquisite melody of  “Pale Blue Eyes” or in Songs for Drella, the lovely elegy he and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol. It’s not hard to glimpse him in the shimmering, tinkling haze of Zorn’s heavily arpeggiated compositions, but easier still in the handful of pieces where, without breaking the poise or the delicate weave of the ensemble, Frisell and Medeski get the chance to cut loose.

At the London Jazz Festival last week I listened to Frisell and Greg Leisz playing electric guitars on “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” during the Guitar in the Space Age! show and was struck by how the silvery quality of the combined strings and a general feeling of ascension reminded me of two other partnerships: Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Frisell is equally wonderful here. The title track of Transmigration of the Magus is one of the loveliest and most powerful things I’ve heard all year.

* The photograph of Lou Reed and John Zorn was taken by Heung Heung Chin at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on September 2, 2008, at a concert in celebration of Zorn’s 55th birthday.

…all that might have been…

Peter Hammill CDThe last conversation I had on the subject of Peter Hammill, several years ago, was with the novelist Nick Hornby, who upbraided me for having cost him the price of an album when he decided to act upon my warm recommendation, in the pages of the Melody Maker, for an album by Hammill’s band, Van Der Graaf Generator. This was 1970, and Hornby was 13 years old. When he got the record home and listened to it, he wasn’t happy. The resentment seemed to have lingered, although I wouldn’t suggest that this is necessarily why we haven’t spoken since.

Now, almost four and a half decades since that ill-fated recommendation, I have another one for him, also involving Hammill. The singer has filled the intervening years with activity, most of it as a solo artist and songwriter. I can’t claim to have kept a close watch on his progress, meaning that his new record, …all that might have been…, arrives as all the more of a revelation.

The album came about while Hammill was trying to assemble lyrics to go with music that he’d been putting together himself, using notes that he’d made over a period of years. He realised that he could use these fragments of observed behaviour, sidelong glimpses collected during his time as a travelling musician, to create something he’d long wanted to achieve: a series of songs that could then be fractured and reassembled in an order that would make the narrative more elusive and suggestive — more “filmic”, to use his word.

…all that might have been… comes in three different CD forms. The first, titled the RETRO, contains the original instrumental sound beds: mostly synths, guitars, bass and a bit of percussion. The second, the SONGS, consists of the 10 basic compositions. The third, the CINÉ, is the finished 40-minute tapestry of 21 linked pieces, cut up and rearranged, most of them no more than two minutes long. You can buy the latter separately, or all three together in a box.

There’s a story of sorts to the full CINÉ version, although Hammill intentionally leaves it ambiguous. We know that a man and a woman are involved, and that the viewpoint is mostly male. We can work out that, after a certain amount of ecstasy and rather more anguish, nothing ends happily.

“I’ve never been one to like dogma or absolute linearity to be at the core of songs, and I’ve always been keen on the idea of ‘show not tell’,” he writes in a sleeve essay. He describes the result as “the flickering light of things half-seen and often only half-understood.”

I’ll buy that. It’s how, inside ourselves, some of us perceive our life in the world: as a barely coherent series of events, internal and external, on which we fail to impose order and whose meaning changes according to the light, with an inevitable existential loneliness at its core. Hammill’s voice finds the right tone, or series of tones: he’s often compared to Bowie, but although he can certainly declaim his range also encompasses the sort of sensitivity associated with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan. His overdubbed backing vocals function as a Greek chorus: commenting, interrupting, supporting, contradicting.

The  musical settings — mostly synths, occasional guitar, prowling bass, a sprinkling of percussion — ensure that the work never lapses into melodrama. There’s a lot of rubato but occasionally, as with “Inklings, Darling”, one of the two longer tracks, a light groove is allowed to settle. Hammill has been spending time in Japan recently, and perhaps you can hear the influence of kotos and shamisens from time to time, although never explicitly. The result is very spare, almost ambient, understated but nevertheless full of relevant incident: a partner rather than a soundtrack to the narrative. “He Turns Away”, the penultimate piece in the cycle (appearing in full as “Until” on the SONGS disc), is a thing of haunting beauty.

This feels like one of the big achievements of a long career. His devoted admirers will adore it, but it deserves a much wider audience. And if you don’t like this one, Nick, you can have your money back.

* …all that might have been… is available from Hammill’s website, sofasound.com, as a single disc or a 3CD box. My only reservation is that I wish the singer or his designer had made the lyrics more easily legible, rather than reversing them out of the photographs in the booklets that accompany the box set.

Heavy makes you happy

Hedvig MollestadWhen it comes to heavy rock, I draw the line at Jimi Hendrix and the first Vanilla Fudge album: that’s a frontier beyond which I do not choose to venture. But a late-night gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival last weekend persuaded me that the Hedvig Mollestad Trio have found a way to make head-banging feel good.

Mollestad, a guitarist with a Valkyrie’s blonde tresses and a sparkly red mini-dress, studied musicology at the University of Oslo before spending five years at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Evidently all that academic training didn’t get in the way of a desire to turn her amp up to 11. She and her trio — Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Loe Bjornstad on drums — wail away with such intensity and at such volume that ear-plugs were being offered at the entrance: a first for a jazz gig, in my experience.

I left my hearing unprotected, and I was glad I had. The conditions were ideal: a smallish darkened room with a bar and lots of standing room. It reminded me of the Marquee in the late ’60s, and so did the music — in a good way. The sound of Mollestad’s band might be that of heavy rock, the sort of thing that evolved from the British blues scene of the mid-’60s, but the heart is very different. Yes, there are riffs, but they’re not just riffs. Best of all, nobody tries to sing on top of such a hurricane of sound. And although this is a genre powerfully associated — thanks to a generation of British rockers — with gothic gloom, the trio make it sound like enormous fun (their energy is vivacious rather than bludgeoning), while making it clear that they’re serious about finding a new direction in which to take this music.

Mollestad met Brekken and Bjornstad during her time at the Academy, and all three bring to their work not just a high degree of technical command but a collective sense of imagination and, yes, subtlety. The leader uses her effects pedals to the full, but there’s always something wild and worthwhile happening in her solos, demonstrating a phenomenal deftness and gift for detail. Brakken plays both electric and acoustic basses with an impressive physicality, and it’s amusing that she drives the band just as hard on the latter instrument. Bjornstad can start a solo like a regular rock drummer, but then he flicks a switch and plays something of which Billy Higgins or Frank Butler would be proud. When they play a ballad, they’re so quiet that you strain forward to catch every nuance, as if that were Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian up there on the stage.

I wrote about Tony Williams’ Lifetime in a piece on Jack Bruce a week or so back, and that’s the group of which, in some respects, they remind me — along with the early Experience, just a bit. Not at that level of invention, unsurprisingly, but on the right path. Others have made comparisons with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead and Black Sabbath, but I don’t hear those, except in the very crudest terms. I suppose the Trio of Doom, which briefly united Williams, McLaughlin and Jaco Pastorius in 1979, might be a point of comparison, but Mollestad’s band are much less egocentric and actually more genuinely creative within the form.

What’s particularly interesting is to hear this kind of music, traditionally associated with male guitar-hero posturing, completely stripped of its machismo while retaining every ounce of what I suppose one can only call its heaviness. And, naturally, all the better for it.

They’re supporting McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension at the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 20. I don’t expect the Festival Hall will provide as helpful an environment as a small dark room packed with fans, but they’ll give the great man some competition.

* The photograph of Hedvig Mollestad is © Per Ole Hagen. It is used by permission of the photographer, and all rights are reserved. It’s one of a set that can be seen on his website: http://artistpicturesblog.com.

Pieces of Robert Wyatt

The Amazing BandWhen I read, in the new issue of Uncut magazine, that Robert Wyatt has decided to stop making music, I felt an immediate pang of dismay. So I rang him up to see if he really meant it. His reply was to tell me a little story about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

We could all do a lot worse than work our way through Robert’s albums, starting with 1970’s End of an Ear, which includes his fabulous deconstruction of Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, and concluding with 2010’s magnificent ‘…for the ghosts within’, on which he shares the credit with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist/arranger Ros Stephen. And we could cherish memories of live performances stretching, in my case, from the Soft Machine at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1970 to Robert’s guest appearance — singing and whistling on “Rado de Nube” and playing cornet on “Song for Che” — with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown season at the Festival Hall in 2009.

We can also read Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time, an “authorised biography” of Robert, published today. Diligently researched and sympathetically told, it gives us the best all-round view we’re likely to get of the man who came to attention baring his torso behind a drum kit with Soft Machine everywhere from UFO to the Proms before the accident in 1973, at the age of 28, that cost him the use of his legs and propelled him into a different sort of existence, the one that produced Rock Bottom, “I’m a Believer”, Ruth is Stranger than Richard, “Shipbuilding”, “At Last I Am Free”, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep and Comicopera, as well as collaborations with the likes of Carla Bley, Brian Eno, the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Hot Chip and many others, most of them listed in O’Dair’s discography.

I say “most of them” because I’ve noticed an omission: a 1970 session with the Amazing Band, featuring the great cartoonist/illustrator Mal Dean on trumpet, Rab Spall on violin and accordion, Maia Spall on voice, Mick Brennan and Chris Francis on alto saxophones, Jim Mullen on bass and harmonica and Wyatt on drums and voice. Soon after they recorded it, Robert gave me an acetate of the proposed album, with a sleeve he’d made up himself, featuring the collage you see above. It wasn’t until 1997 that the music — just under 40 minutes of free improvisation — finally saw the light of day, released under the title Roar on the FMR label.

I listened to the acetate again last night and it remains a lovely example of the kind of open-minded, non-idiomatic, anti-materialistic music that was in the air back then. And still is, if you look hard enough. I’m sorry, of course, that seemingly there won’t be any more of it from Robert himself. But what he’s given us is quite enough to be going on with.

* Different Every Time is published by Serpent’s Tail (£20). Robert Wyatt will be talking to Marcus O’Dair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 23, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.