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.