There Are Great Guitarists – Then There Was Allan Holdsworth

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.

 

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Memories of Merthyr Popular Music: Dai Shell

I am currently working toward putting on an exhibition in Merthyr Town Hall on the history of popular music in the town between 1955-1975. As a taster, here are a few short digital stories from ex Sassafras member Dai Shell. Dai talks about his memories of the town, his influences, moving to Cardiff, local heros and beyond.

If you have any memories to leave, please get in touch

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The State of Grassroot Music Venues: One Hand Giveth, while the other Taketh it Away

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When the 2012 Live Music Act became law, I was encouraged that grassroots music could now be showcased in a venue with a capacity of no more than 200 (recently amended to 500), without the proprietor applying for a license. Although I have seen no concrete data, I am sure this development, instigated by UK Music, has had a big impact on venue owners, now not burdened by bureaucracy, giving grassroots live music a chance. However, in the case of small venue live music, this appears to be an instance of ‘one hand giveth, while the other taketh it away’. The recent spate of closures of music venues in Cardiff’s Womandy Street is an example of how common sense and most importantly the law has not caught up on the cultural significance of this important stream of the live music industry.

In 2011, I wrote a report for the Welsh Music Foundation that outlined the various ways through which  the live music industry in Wales could be developed. This ranged from suggesting ways in which stakeholders could work together, strategies for inward investment, to the Welsh language sector, to training provision needs. The results of this report were outlined at a number of places across Wales, including a session for the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff. Reflecting on this report six years later, it is really troubling to see that small venues still have significant issues with noise abatement notices. When I wrote the report, probably the most well known venue closure was The Point in Cardiff – an excellent venue that had the misfortune of being positioned too close to a block of flats, which although built after the venue’s establishment, ultimately forced its demise – as the venue owners simply could not afford the required sound proofing. As the time, we discussed that this responsibility should not fall on the venue (who in this case was in residence first) but the INCOMING PARTY – i.e. the block of flats.

The so-called agent of change principle means the person or business responsible for the  change is responsible for managing the impact of the change. This seems common sense to me. So, in the cases of flats being built near established live music venue, it would be the new developer who has to, in law, deal with any resulting issues, not the existing tenants. Although this principle is adopted in Australia and to a certain limited extent in England, it has not been adopted in Wales. Additionally, in London, the Mayor is actively proposing to recognise ‘areas of cultural significance’ for some parts of the capital, but in Wales this term does not appear to be recognised in the current Planning Policy Framework. It seems obvious to me that ‘agent of change’ needs to be adopted in Wales, not just at the level of the developer, but at the level of planning – this is where local councils come in.

My 2011 report stated the importance of Welsh Government, local councils and most importantly stakeholders from the music industry working together to find ways to encourage night time economies. One way to do this would be to work together on a Live Music Strategy for Cardiff. This has already been instigated in cities such as Sunderland in the UK and Ballarat in Austrailia, This would help the city address questions such as how to facilitate grassroots venues to work together both horizontally (with similar venues) but also vertically – with larger venues. It would also enable the city to consider not just the economic (how does Wales keep profits within Wales?), but the cultural significance of grassroots live music, in addition to how this culture relates to the identity of the places it takes place in. I could go on about this, but I think in the first instance, I would encourage anyone with an interest in live music in Wales to sign the petition for an ‘agent of change’ to take place.

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Man: Welsh Progressive Rock in Merthyr

When I was growing up in Newcastle during the 1970s, one of may favorite bands was Man. In fact, like many people, when CDs emerged in the late 1980s I disposed of much of my vinyl records (stupidly), but my Man records were some of the select few I kept. Little did I know that I would move to the town most of them  heralded from – Merthyr Tydfil. Here are some pictures of them playing at the now defunct Tiffanys in the 70s – once a well known rock venue in the town where the likes of Thin Lizzy played. I am curious if anyone seen them at this gig, or at any other gigs during that time. IMG_0009.JPG

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Pink Floyd in Merthyr Tydfil: The Evidence!

Well, after hearing about the infamous Pink Floyd gig that took place in Merthyr Tydfil towards the end of 1968, I have eventually found some evidence. In some of my previous posts on this, some people were unsure if Syd Barrett or Dave Gilmore done the gig – well I can now (sort of) confirm that it was the latter – although there is still come uncertainty (see below). Pink Floyd were actually supporting Peter Frampton’s The Herd, with Ebbw Vale base The Firm representing the local band. The gig took place on December 9th 1968.

Young Fans Watching The Herd, The Castle Cinema Merthyr Tydfil, December 9th 1968

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When one thinks about it retrospectively, the paring of Pink Floyd with The Herd is an unusual choice by the promoters, with it in some ways resembling the early gigs that Hendrix done with the Monkees. What is verifiable is that the iconic version of Floyd did play the town, so   I am after  memories. This is the line up that played in Merthyr – note there are only four musicians – and no Syd Barrett!

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Here they are meeting some local fans

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Newspaper reports at the time outline how fans who occupied the 5 shilling seats in the balcony were allowed to come downstairs for the second part of the show to watch The Herd. Not long before appearing, The Herd had release ‘From The Underworld’, so by this time were fully fledged pop stars.

 

Other songs played by The Herd included Dylan’s ‘I Want You’, and also The Righteous Bros ‘I Lost That Loving Feeling’. They also played their biggest hit ‘I Don’t Want Our Loving To Die’

 

Pink Floyd closed the first half of the show and apparently used “a variety of electronic gadgetry” that produced “weird and unusual sounds” – although the light show they normally used was not part of the Merthyr gig. Interestingly, the newspaper report said many of these sounds came from “Syd Barrett’s electric guitar“, although the picture above proves this not to be true. With Barrett leaving the group several months before, the author was obviously confused. The music they played on the night included ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ and “Astronomie Domine’ from Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ is known of course as the only song to feature both Sid Barrett and Dave Gilmore.

So – I am after more memories of this iconic gig. Please get in touch.

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The Nostalgia Popular Music Market: Why do we prefer live over recorded?

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As we move toward the third decade since the millennium celebrations, the interrelationship of music and nostalgia continues to be profound. Perhaps the best example of this includes the clear visibility of ‘vintage’ artists in worldwide ticket sales, with Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones occupying first and fifth spot respectively in 2016. Analysis of pollstar statistics reveal the popularity of AC/DC, U2 and Fleetwood Mac in 2015, Paul McCartney, The Eagles and Billy Joel in 2014 and Bon Jovi in 2013, proving that, despite the emergence of younger artists such as One Direction and Adele, the nostalgia market makes a significant contribution toward the economic prosperity of live popular music industry worldwide. However, it appears that this is not the case when we consider record sales – in its broadest sense. Examining the official UK charts in 2016 reveal Coldplay to be the only artist who can remotely be considered ‘vintage’. Examining chart data in America reveals a similar trend, with David Bowie representing the only artist in the top ten album sales, although a considerable way behind the likes of Drake and Adele. Although there are no vintage artists in the top 10 album or single streams, vinyl sales are different, with Miles Davis, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Prince and David Bowie all occupying the top ten. This appears to  reveal a link between vintage music and the means of consumption. So my question is this, why is it that the nostalgia market is more related to live performance consumption as opposed to recording?

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Sting’s 57th & 9th: Still Singing About the North

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Despite being originally disappointed, I have really enjoyed listening to Sting’s new album over the last few days. Although understandably lauded as his first venture into out and out rock music in over a decade, it was gratifying to see that he had not lost touch of his relationship with the North on the album – the main focus of much of my forthcoming book! A few of the reviews in the major papers regard the track ‘Heading South on the Great North Road’ as an unused offcut from The Last Ship, but for me, it is proof that his excursion into the persona of his ‘former self’ is in fact not a fad, but part of a genuine, gradual movement that has been taking place since at least The Soul Cages. Like tracks such as ‘Why Should I Cry for You’ – this track echo’s the real life experience of many Geordies.

This ‘movement south’ is something so many of us musical Geordies have experienced over the decades, with some finding ways to stay in London (and music) and others either moving home or deciding to go elsewhere. So I applaud Sting for including it – although I accept it won’t be a popular choice with everyone.

I suppose when listening to some of the more rock based songs such as the ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, it can’t fail but remind us of the heyday of The Police, but there is one thing missing – his music no longer captures the universal zeitgeist – and I would imagine he doesn’t care? If he was to do this today, the music would not sound like the Synchronicity of the early 80s, but the music of a far more manufactured industry.

In addition to the Geordie theme, the album also has elements one has come to expect in Sting’s music, including narratives about creativity/writers block (I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, the refugee crisis and mortality (’50,000 Voices’). Additionally, the album also features the often subliminal complexity Sting has become known for – listen to the additive rhythm in the verse of ‘Down Down Down’ or the 7/8 lilt of ‘If You Can’t Love Me’ and you will see what I mean.

So, it was great to see Sting return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, but I expect future releases will continue to reflect the north – at least I hope so. For me, the highlight track is the mournful ‘The Empty Chair’ – simply beautiful!

Note: Photo courtesy of Tony Bianchi – donated to my book in its full version!

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