I sit here on bank holiday Monday reflecting on the death of Allan Holdworth yesterday at the age of 70. I first heard of Allan in 1977 when I had just started playing music. He had a very minor feature in Guitar Player Magazine featuring his debut solo album Velvet Darkness (1977).
I immediately went out and purchased the album and from that point on music, nor my place within it, would ever be the same again. Although Holdsworth was widely quoted as hating this record, for me, it displayed his uncompromising approach to music which if anything was to get more uncompromising and brilliant as the years progressed. Having decided to look back into his musical history, my next Holdsworth purchase after this was Bundles by Soft Machine, recorded in 1975. His solo on ‘Hazard Profile’ was to be the subject of repeated listenings, mainly slowing it down so I could try and figure what he was doing. By this point I was transcribing guitar solos fairly regularly, but with Allan, his playing was always far too advanced – almost other worldly. Although he was to mature and take his playing on to much greater heights, this solo is still one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.
I was then to go back further, listening to the first album by Tempest, recorded in 1973, in addition to countless bootlegs of him playing in London with the likes of Ian Carr’s Nucleus and John Stephens. The solo on ‘Gorgon’, displays the beginnings of his instantly recognizable style.
After realising I was ‘on to something special’, I listened to everything he recorded from that point on, and was always struck with the absolute authenticity his playing displayed. Here was a player who was only interested in music. Although with that technique he could have easily ‘sold out’ musically, he never did – he left it to other players who tried to imitate him to do that.
I was lucky enough to see him play several times, the first time with the band UK at Newcastle City Hall. For me, his solo on ‘In The Dead of Night’ is such a beautiful creation, featuring not just spell bounding technique, but fantastic feel and sound.
This was followed by many gigs where I had the opportunity to see him perform his own material, the last two two times at a small theatre in the Welsh Valley town of Abertillery just a few years back. As always, the music was brilliant and featured a fantastic band (Chad Wackerman on drums). What I could not understand however was why Holdsworth was playing there. Why was he not performing at a much larger venue in Cardiff? The answer is unfortunately a sad one: Great musicianship is not always rewarded by the music industry or appreciated by the general public.
Reading reports of Allan’s financial problems makes me really sad, as he has given so many musicians inspiration to reach a standard that will never be touched. Despite its brilliance, was his music too uncompromising for a critical mass to appreciate it? I don’t know the answer, but for me, he genuinely was one of the greatest guitarists who ever picked up the instrument – a totally original player who changed the conception and perception of the guitar. Although I never met him, he also seemed to be the sort of guy I would have enjoyed a pint with. In years to come I am sure historians will be talking about the guitar in terms of BH and AH (Before and after Holdsworth), in the same way they do with players such as Charlie Christian and Hendrix. To close, if anyone has not heard of him, check out the solo at the start of the footage below. We will be assessing his brilliance for many years to come.
I was lucky enough to see Allan Holdsworth several times in the mid-1970s in quite different contexts. He was a member of the Pat Smythe Quintet with Ray Warleigh, Chris Laurence and John Marshall that periodically would play the Jazz Centre Society’s Wednesday night session at The Phoenix in London’s Cavendish Square. This was a fairly straight-ahead post Coltrane jazz group but Holdsworth’s crab-like solos would scuttle across the conventional time and his extraordinary harmonic inventions would take the band into a whole new universe. There are YouTube clips of this band’s recordings for the BBC and they are well worth checking out.
Then I saw Allan with Ian Carr’s Nucleus at a Fishguard Festival gig one August. The line up was ‘well-depped’ and comprised Roy Babbington on Electric Bass, Dave MacRae on Electric piano, Art Themen on sax and Clive Thacker on drums, oh and obviously Ian Carr. MacRae, Holdsworth and Babbington spent the evening outdoing each other in the virtuoso solo stakes. It was an extraordinary gig both for the rather ‘unbalanced band’ and for the exceptional the quality of the music.
Finally I remember seeing Allan as a member of Soft Machine at North London Polytechnic – again with Roy Babbington on Bass, John Marshall on drums and, I think, Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge, though Jenkins may have left by then. That was a powerful band with Holdworth in guitar virtuoso mode.
In the 1980s I organised a three week tour of Gordon Beck’s Sunbird band which featured Allan on acoustic and electric guitar. I always enjoy hearing his playing on Beck’s “The Gathering” which is masterfully restrained.
I’ve since listened to a few of Allan’s albums, but somehow they never matched the experience of seeing him in the flesh. Although hard to categorise stylistically, strangely I think he laid the ground for the harmonically rich and rhythmically tricksy bands like Snarky Puppy. They should have enlisted him.
Allan was without doubt a guitarists’ guitarist and I love what John McLaughlin (no slouch) said about him: “I’d steal everything Allan was doing, if only I could figure out what the heck it was that he was doing.” Allan Holdsworth was a huge talent who never got the credit he deserved. RIP
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Thanks Paul. I wish I could have seen him during the time he was in London. I did see him with UK in Newcastle in 78, but I realise this was a different animal to the gigs you’re talking about. I heard the bootlegs – but that is as far as I got. I will check out the you tube videos you mention. Thanks for posting.
I hope people won’t forget Allan’s work with Jack Bruce in ‘Tony Williams Lifetime’ in the mid seventies. I remember picking my jaw off the floor after hearing a track called “Scirocco” (you can still find it on YouTube).
Let’s meet for coffee again some time soon, Paul. I have a new ebook due out in a few weeks time and would welcome the chance to talk to you about t and maybe send you a copy.
Hope you had a good Easter break
I hope people won’t forget Allan’s work with Jack Bruce in ‘Tony Williams Lifetime’ in the mid seventies. I remember picking my jaw up after hearing a track called “Scirrocco” (you can still find it on YT).
Let’s meet for coffee again sometime soon, Paul. I have an ebook due out in a few weeks and would welcome the chance to talk with you. I have been following your Merthyr project with interest.
Hope you had a good Easter break.
Thanks Phil – sure lets catch up soon. On leave at the mo, then back to back marking, but start to get free around the end of June. Hope you are well, Paul
He was my musical idol. He didn’t so much play the guitar, he flew with it. Taking you on an unforgettable journey. It’s terrible that in his last years he was on his uppers and really struggled. They should put up a statue in Bradford, for Allan created an extraordinary catalogue of work and changed the possibilities on guitar. RIP Maestro.
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As a fellow South Walean jazz rocker ( originally from Tredegar), I was very interested to read this, and especially about the two gigs in Abertillery. How come I missed those? I have to agree about Holdsworth’s mid-seventies work. ‘The Spirit’ by TW’s Lifetime seems to me to be Holdsworth’s finest hour. Thank you for your blog!/
Allan has been the standard with whom I have measured guitar and musicianship for 40 years. NO ONE has come close. Nobody ever will in a generation. RIP Mr Holdsworth, and THANK YOU for, your body of guitar work. It is the musical score of my life.