Back in the sixties, when I was just a lad, every once in a while there would be a musical interlude to liven up the school assembly. One of these stands out like a beacon in the fading fog of my memory. One of the boys in my year was an accomplished pianist – his name was Dave Nelson. On this particular day, Dave walked quietly over to the grand piano, sat down on the piano stool and started to play.

The piece was instantly recognisable. It was Fleetwood Mac‘s number one single, Albatross.

Albatross is a beautiful instrumental exploiting the tonal qualities of the electric guitar to the full. Peter Green, the composer and guitarist, strokes the strings and uses a ‘bottle-neck’ to slide gently from note to note, adding echo for a soothing, ethereal effect. Like an albatross soaring effortlessly on the wind. And underneath Mick Fleetwood’s deep tom-tom drums pulse like the waves of the ocean. This is a piece so obviously conceived for the electric guitar that it couldn’t be played on any other instrument. And yet, here was Dave Nelson playing it on a piano and, somehow, it worked.

I learnt something about music that day. Or, rather, I learnt how narrow my musical horizons were. That I couldn’t imagine a piano version of Albatross didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. And if that can be done all sorts of wild and interesting variations must be possible. So I’d like to thank Peter Green for composing the tune, Dave Nelson for daring to perform it on the ‘wrong’ instrument and the headmaster of my old school for giving them the opportunity to give me a music lesson I would never forget.

John Renbourn

I turned on the radio yesterday at the very end of Lauren Laverne’s morning show on BBC 6 Music. The strains of folk guitar came over the airwaves. “That’s nice”, I thought, “and not Lauren’s usual material”. Crossing the hall on my way to make a cup of tea it struck me that it sounded like John Renbourn. Going back into the living room and checking the display on the DAB tuner I saw that I was right – it was John Renbourn playing I Know My Babe and very good it was, too.

John RenbournJohn Renbourn is best known as one fifth of Pentangle but he also performed as a solo artist and in collaboration with several other musicians. He always reminds me of my days at university where I saw Pentangle at the New Theatre, Oxford just before they split up in 1973. At that time I was a mediocre bass guitar player and got to know some of the other student musicians. A few months after the Pentangle performance one of my contacts invited me to a private concert at his college’s folk club.

The club had made a small profit and were putting on a show solely for club members and their guests. It turned out to be John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee – an acoustic session in a small, intimate setting. This wasn’t part of a tour, it wasn’t promoting new material or recordings. John and Jacqui weren’t trying to impress, they were just playing a few folk songs to an attentive and appreciative audience. Perhaps it was this relaxed atmosphere that made for such an enthralling experience.

I don’t remember what was played or who I was with. I just remember walking back to my room in college feeling it had been one of those special occasions and I had been immensely privileged to have been there.

Coming back to 2015, the song ended and Lauren Laverne had an explanation for her unusual choice of material. John Renbourn had died the previous day and this was her tribute to him. I shared her sadness. The world has lost a great guitarist, singer and music teacher.

Journey of a Sorcerer

The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy - large A few days ago I was listening to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music when over the airwaves came the theme tune from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Stuart Maconie was doing the show solo that day and the track was part of The Chain – “officially the longest running listener-generated thematically-linked sequence of musically-based items on the radio”. Explaining the links, Stuart told his listeners that this particular tune was a track by the Eagles called Journey of the Sorcerer, which surprised me. How could I have not known that?

I quite like the Eagles, especially their Hotel California single, but they stray perilously close to country music at times and that’s where I part company with them. The combination of mandolin and violins on Journey of the Sorcerer has a faint whiff of country but it’s forgivable in this instrumental piece with its infectious motif, an orchestral background and subtle electronic effects. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable choice for a film theme. And in this case even the title fits: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is all about travelling through the universe and the infinite probability drive propulsion system has to be some kind of sorcery.

For 1000 Mothers

It’s Mother’s Day today and the obvious choice for the next track of the week is For a Thousand Mothers from Jethro Tull’s 1969 album, Stand Up. It’s a rip-roaring, defiant song in which flautist and vocalist Ian Anderson calls out to his mother (and father). “You had no faith in me”, he says bitterly, “but I have achieved what I wanted – recognition, fame and fortune – in spite of you”.

Perhaps that’s not the right sentiment for Mother’s Day but the song goes on to acknowledge that it was just that lack of faith in him that gave Ian the determination to succeed:

And unknowing, you made it all happen this way.

Jethro-Tull-Stand-UpThe rest, as they say, is history. Jethro Tull were active from 1968 until the end of the nineties recording and playing live. They have sold over 60 million albums worldwide, including 11 gold and five platinum. Ian Anderson himself is still recording new material (he released his latest album in May 2014). The Tull front man was given the “Prog God” award at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards ceremony and received the MBE in the 2008 New Year’s Honours list. According to Wikipedia, Ian and his wife, Shona, own a group of profitable companies, an estate on the Isle of Skye and a house in Switzerland.

So much for Mother’s predictions!

Feels Good To Me

I was going to have All Heaven Let Loose by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks as my album of the month for March but it’s not available on Spotify and there’s not much point writing about music my readers can’t listen to. So, instead, I’m going back to Bill Bruford’s first release as a solo artist, Feels Good To Me.
Feels Good To Me
Of course, Bill Bruford is a drummer but Feels Good To Me isn’t an album of drum solos; Bill put together a band. It was a jazz/rock band consisting of Alan Holdsworth on guitar, Dave Stewart on keyboards, Jeff Berlin on bass and Bruford himself on several forms of percussion. The four of them create a sound reminiscent of Brand X and, indeed, John Goodsall features as a guest on the album, but the addition of Annette Peacock’s evocative vocals on three tracks gives a whole new dimension to the work.

Listening to this album again has reminded me that Bill Bruford’s compositions are at the very centre of my musical tastes. Bruford has worked with all my favourite prog rock bands: Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. For his own band he chose musicians from jazz/rock outfits Soft Machine and Brand X, both of which feature prominently in my CD collection. And his later Earthworks band helped to introduce me to contemporary jazz musicians such as Django Bates and Iain Ballamy.

As you might expect from a percussionist the tracks are rhythmically complex but there are also some compelling tunes and brilliant performances from every member of the band. If jazz at the edge of rock appeals to you this album is a must.

Books From Boxes

Last week we moved house. This week we’ll be unpacking many of our belongings. With a bit of luck we might even find our books somewhere at the back of bedroom 3. If we do I’ll put on Maximo Park’s Books From Boxes. Books from Boxes

This is the track from the Earthly Pleasures album that first piqued my interest in Maximo Park. On my iMac they’re classified as ‘alternative and punk’, but I prefer to think of them as an Indie band. Books From Boxes is a catchy little tune and it’s my latest track of the week.

There’s no Internet on our new landline yet and writing a blog on my smartphone is tedious, so you’ll have to look up the Spotify link yourself for now. Sorry.

Update, 12th March: You’ll find Books From Boxes on Spotify here: Maximo Park – Books From Boxes.