Dear Mailing List,
The big events since my last letter have been the tour of America and the Syd Barrett tribute concert in London. Let’s start with the latter. (If you have no interest in Pink Floyd, skip the next thirteen paragraphs.)
Following Syd’s death last summer, Bryn Ormrod from the Barbican Theatre asked me if I would take charge of a concert in Syd’s honour. Concerned that such a task would be beyond my abilities, contacts and awareness of contemporary music, I demurred, but came up with a suggestion.
Nick Laird-Clowes is an old friend of mine; he was lead singer of a group I produced for Hannibal called The Act, but better known for his work with Dream Academy (“Life In A Northern Town”). (Ballooning production costs and miniscule sales for The Act almost brought an early demise to Hannibal Records, but that’s another story…. ) Since the end of Dream Academy he has written a number of Pink Floyd songs with David Gilmour and released his own music under the nom de guerre of “Trash Monk”. More to the point, he is a man of boundless energy and great originality who has always paid attention to what’s going on in the contemporary musical world (unlike myself). So I introduced him to Bryn and suggested that he, rather than I, should produce the Syd evening. I agreed to stay involved as an advisory figure.
In the months leading up to the May 10 date, Nick found lots of film footage and secured the cooperation of the Floyd – but only in terms of access to archive material etc. Many artists stated their undying love for Syd and his music, but getting them to commit to appear on the night proved far more difficult. Chrissie Hynde was the glorious exception, choosing her songs straight away and never wavering in her support, giving Nick famous phone numbers and email addresses and generally picking up our flagging spirits. (Now back from America, I was trying to help secure a good roster for the show.)
We benefitted from the fact that tickets were selling well, even with no performers advertised. We could tell interested singers that they needn’t be billed and could take time to make up their minds and choose a song or two. But two weeks before the concert, things were looking grim: we had only a handful of 100% committed singers and some very important songs weren’t covered. Things began to turn our way when Nick and I attended the launch of Storm Thorgeson’s Hipgnosis book at Abbey Road studios. The 3 Floyds were there and Rick Wright seemed up for the possibility of reprising his performance of Arnold Layne on Gilmour’s tour last summer. But he wouldn’t say for sure.
I had also talked with Roger Waters when I was in New York for my ‘gig’ at Joe’s Pub a few weeks earlier. We had noted the fact that May 10 was an open day on his tour of Europe, nicely positioned between Birmingham and London. Again, he was friendly and interested but not certain of coming along. Nick and I decided that the only way to proceed was to put together the best possible show on the assumption that none of Syd’s former band-mates would participate. (And we didn’t blame them for their reticence; if they had announced an appearance weeks in advance, it would have turned into a Pink Floyd rather than a Syd gig and I think they also quite naturally wanted to see what we would come up with in the way of a show before deciding if it was an event they wanted to be a part of.)
With a week ago to go, we had a pretty decent line-up of Chrissie, Damon Albarn, Nick himself, Kevin Ayers, Mike Heron, Vashti Bunyan, The Bees, Robyn Hitchcock and Captain Sensible plus a choir from Liverpool (which Damon Albarn is using in his opera) and a great backing group led by Adam Peters (Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain and work with PJ Harvey etc) on keyboards with Ted Barnes (Beth Orton) on guitar, Andy Bell (Ride, Oasis) on bass and Simon Finley (Echo and The Bunnymen) on drums. Nick had also brought in the Floyd’s original lighting man Peter Wynne Wilson as well as the Boyle Family, whose late patriarch Mark created much of the lighting at the UFO Club.
Three key songs remained unclaimed: Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Interstellar Overdrive. I asked Richard Thompson if he wanted to fly over from LA to improvise a tribute to Syd’s great guitar playing on the latter number, but he wasn’t free, much as he’d have loved to do it. Robyn Hitchcock told me that Jimmy Page was also a fan of Syd’s, but he wasn’t free either. That was the only real disappointment of the evening for me – we didn’t have a guitar soloist to do justice to Syd’s originality on the instrument. (Although what Nick and the House Band cooked up on Chapter 24 came close to making up for it.)
My hope for See Emily Play was tied to Martha Wainwright’s presence in town to sing Brecht and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. The chance to see their daughter and cousin on that famous stage had drawn Kate McGarrigle and Lilly Lanken here at just the right time. I sent them all copies of Emily as well as Golden Hair and crossed my fingers. There was still no one doing Arnold Layne: David Bowie had done it once, but he wasn’t up for it, and our other choice Jarvis Cocker was on tour in America and up to his neck in organizing Meltdown.
The House Band started work at Nick’s studio on the weekend before and one by one the singers began to arrive. Tuesday and Wednesday there were rehearsals at a bigger studio and things began to take shape. We had an encouraging call from Roger Waters’ manager and some positive signals from Rick Wright, but we still had big gaps. Nick had managed to get keyboardist John Carin along, which was a big plus. He has been a key sideman with Pink Floyd, Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters. If any of them decided to join us, they would find a familiar and reliable ally on stage. And Nick was keeping Gilmour apprised of all developments.
The night before, we had a firm commitment: Roger would come and sing one song, but he had to meet his girlfriend at the airport later that night so would need to be gone by 9pm. Now we had a closer for the first half, and the entire company plus the choir doing Bike to finish the show, but still no Arnold Layne.
Technical hang-ups meant we only received the footage we wanted to use by messenger at around 3pm Thursday afternoon. As we were frantically figuring out which bit went where, we got the news: Rick would do Arnold Layne and Nick Mason (whom we had thought was in Germany) would join Dave Gilmour to make it a Pink Floyd performance. Everyone suddenly got more excited. Martha, Kate and Lilly arrived with arrangements for both songs and the evening was set.
The audience seemed to love the variety of textures and styles – I thought maybe we could have used a few heavier sounds, but there were few complaints. We played a black &white tv clip of Syd being attacked by Hans Keller – “vhy must ze music be zo LOUD?” – which drew a lot of laughter and was also moving in its revelation of the charming and sharp pre-breakdown Syd. My personal highlight was going on stage to make a short speech right after Chrissie Hynde’s wonderful take on Dark Globe and thanking everyone who had helped out. I was then able to tell the unsuspecting audience that Arnold Layne would be performed by “Nick, Rick and David – Pink Floyd!” The roar that greeted this was incredible – and quite a thrill to be in the path of it, even as the messenger rather than the message. You can see what a buzz being a rock star must be!
Many of the audience expressed surprise at how great the show was considering how shambolic the whole thing appeared. I think people have become so accustomed to ‘perfect’ and well-rehearsed shows that it comes as a shock to see performers making things up as they go along. This was particularly gratifying for me, as I have long resisted rehearsals or over-preparedness in recording sessions. Some of my greatest tracks are first or second takes and I once shocked a producer’s panel at SXSW by announcing that I had never done ‘pre-production’ in my life. I think some of the best performances are to be heard when artists are groping for a way to play something. When it gets set in stone, it often becomes less exciting. I was also pleased the Barbican agreed to my stipulation about recordings on the PA: no music before, after or during intermission. When the audience left the hall, their heads were full of what they had heard live on stage, not some tracks the sound man played in order to signal to everyone it was ok to stop clapping.
(I have attached a set list below, along with the concert programme, the Guardian review and a link to some photos of the evening.)
My promotional tour of the US was not as intense as the Syd concert, but quite enjoyable and successful nonetheless. Americans seemed to like the book as much as do the British.
It got off to a flying start at the SXSW event in Austin, TX when Robyn Hitchcock invited me to join him onstage the first afternoon. I read a bit, he sang a song from the text: Newport ‘65/Don’t Think Twice; UFO Club/Arnold Layne; Nick Drake/River Man; Incredible String Band at Woodstock/Chinese White. On Friday, I was interviewed onstage by my old friend Ed Ward. (A clip of same is viewable at http://2007.sxsw.com/video/movie_window.2007.php?dir=2007_trailers&id=1145)
There were a number of other highlights, including getting another look at the wonderful documentary on Nick Drake, A Skin Too Few, and enjoying musical whiplash going straight from a concert by Vashti Bunyan to a bar where Amy Winehouse was performing.
My memories of SXSWs past often include another kind of cultural whiplash as the festival coincides with the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. I remember passing up a ‘must-see’ showcase in 1996 in favour of watching Princeton upset UCLA in a nearby bar – very gratifying for an Ivy Leaguer in the LA-centric music biz. This year I chose wisely, my one full tv game being Virginia Commonwealth’s 79-77 upset of Duke. As you can tell, I generally support underdogs. I named my label after one, didn’t I? Hannibal and his Carthaginians terrified the ‘big club’ Roman Empire for 26 years! In London, I have supported Queens Park Rangers for 40 years….
My readings began in the Bay Area – Time Tested Books in Sacremento, Black Oak in Berkeley and Booksmith in San Francisco – which gave me a chance to visit my old friend Eric Jacobson. Eric and I have had opposite destinies as record producers. I have made many records, few of which have sold in any significant quantity. Eric makes few records but they all sell millions: Daydream, Spirit In The Sky and Wicked Game. Eric spends his time and money wisely. From his home near Mt Tamalpais in Marin County he roams the world pursuing various collecting obsessions: rare kilims from Central Asia, pre-Columbian cloths from the Andes and now Japanese kimono art from the early 20th century. He has self-published a brilliant full-colour coffee-table book called Animal Myth and Magic: images from pre-Columbian textiles. (no website, but available from Ololo Press, Box 457, Larkspur CA 94977) . It’s an amazing book; highly recommended.
Powell’s of Portland and Eliot Bay in Seattle followed. I visited the Experience Music Project in Seattle to record an ‘Oral History’ interview. The Frank Gehry-designed museum is spectacular, but kind of spooky the way it seems to have so few visitors for such a huge outlay of Paul Allen’s fortune. Then it was on to Minneapolis where my fellow ex-Ryko director Rob Simonds is running the Cedar Cultural Centre. I did a ‘discussion’ there with Zen guitarist and raconteur Steve Tibbetts and visited Consortium Books, the distributors handling White Bicycles in the US.
Then came New York and Joe’s Pub. This was a bit scary since unlike the bookstores, people had to actually buy tickets for this one. Fortunately, between the ones given away to press and friends and the actual ticket-buying public, the place was full. It was an expansion on what Robyn and I had done in Austin, with Geoff Muldaur, Jenni Muldaur and Hitchcock all playing songs connected to the bits of the book that I read or talked about. No questions from the audience this time, but it went well and it was fun being on the legendary stage that Bill Bragin has turned into the key showcase in New York.
Geoff and Robyn were both superb, as expected, so I will inject a word here about Jenni. Her performance of Sandy Denny’s The Sea was a clear highpoint of the evening. It is not the kind of song she usually sings, but she is so versatile that once she got the hang of it, she sang it beautifully. ‘Versatility’ has always been Jenni’s problem, in a way. She can mimic any style or singer, but she hasn’t got her own clear identity as a singer. Twenty years ago she was given the poisoned chalice of a major label deal with Warner Brothers. Producer Russ Titelman sacked her musicians – the ones with whom she had worked out all the arrangements – and hired top level session guys. The result was a disappointing debut that the label abandoned before it was even released. Despite the de-railed career, she has made a success of writing and singing jingles and has sung both harmony and solo in remarkably diverse contexts. Let the real Jenni Muldaur step forward!
In New York I finally met Jim Floyd, the man who took the cover photo for White Bicycles. He said he had always liked it but figured it wasn’t worth anything because of the unknown guy in the hat in the middle spoiling the great shot of Eric Von Schmidt, Geoff & Maria Muldaur and Tom Rush.
I returned to old haunts in Cambridge, doing an interview on Harvard’s WHRB and depressing Harvard students with tales of how wide-open the music scene was there in the early ‘60s, in contrast to the present situation. Then I did a reading at Passim, the successor to Club 47, with a great cameo appearance by Dana Kletter singing a couple of Sandy Denny songs. People sometimes ask me if there are any other records from my past that I feel will be ‘discovered’ as Nick Drake’s and Vashti Bunyan’s discs have been. Right at the top of list would be Dear Enemy by Dana and her twin sister Karen, as well as Bareback by Hank Dogs.
The tour finished up in Los Angeles where I did readings at the Skirball Cultural Center and Book Soup. The first one was great – I got more laughs than anywhere. (The audience chortled at the Lonnie Johnson ‘fuzzy monster’ story for what seemed like an age.) There were reunions with faces from my past: Jac Holzman came to the Skirball reading and I had dinner a few nights later with Mo Ostin.
All in all, it was a great trip. I was inspired by all the wonderful bookshops and cultural centres and the people running them. Watching from abroad, it is easy to forget how full America is of idealistic and energetic people who want no part of the Bush Administration’s jihad. But let’s not get started on politics!
Over and out.