Tag Archives: Stevie Ray Vaughan

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

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I heard a rumour from Ground Control, oh no, don’t say it’s true…

The world has lost some of its magic. Absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been almost a week now but I’ve been so upset about Bowie leaving us, that I’ve only just managed to start putting everything into context. Let’s start at the beginning…

When I was 9 my parents took me on a weekend trip down to London. Manchester might only be a train ride away from the capital at the other end of the country, but to me it felt like the other end of the world. London is so different to the rest of the country; it never feels like you’re in England. Down there you’re just as much a foreigner as all the other tourists.

One highlight of the trip was a visit to an attraction called Rock Circus. An extension of Madame Tussauds, this was essentially where they put all the rock n’ roll waxworks. Elvis, next to Michael Jackson, next to Buddy Holly, next to the Rolling Stones. You get the idea. It doesn’t exist anymore. I guess they decided that London had its share of celebrity waxworks at Tussauds.

At the end of the exhibit, we were ushered into a small viewing room. Everybody sat down – maybe twenty of us – and the lights dimmed. The familiar orchestral tune-up of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started, the curtains opened, and there they were, the Beatles themselves. Well, obviously it wasn’t them; it was their waxworks, dressed in the fluorescent military garb from the front of the Peppers album cover. And just like that iconic image, they were flanked by endless rows of cut-outs of the Beatles’ heroes.

They roared through that opening track as much as you can expect a bunch of mannequins to. Their jaws opened and shut in time with the vocals, and to this 9-year old it looked pretty damn good. They probably segued into With A Little Help From My Friends – I can’t remember – but they finished and everybody clapped and cheered.

The curtain closed, and a minute later, a quiet acoustic guitar faded in. I now know it’s a C major going to an E minor, and back; but I wouldn’t have known that then. Then the curtains opened again, the scene has changed to a starfield in outer space and there’s some oddball – a waxwork again obviously – slowly spinning around in a spacesuit, with a bung eye and crazy snaggleteeth.

‘Ground Control to Major Tom…” he sang.

Ladies and gentleman, my introduction to Mr. David Bowie.

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I next ran into Bowie a couple of years later. At secondary school we had to go out into the big, bad world to do some work experience. I landed a job at a small engineering firm called B.J.Engineering. BJ engineering? Isn’t that what pimps do? It was the kind of place where they send the student to the local hardware store for a long stand, or to the sweet shop for a bag of clitoris drops. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any such pranks; but for two weeks I had to answer the phone, saying “Good morning, B.J.Engineering, can I help you?” There’s nothing like starting at the very bottom.

On my first day, the foreman of the place went to the bookies on his lunch-break, and returned excitedly with a music cassette. It was a new album – Changesbowie – that had just come out that day. At home time, he offered me a lift to save me from the bus-ride, and the new cassette went straight onto the car stereo. I recalled the first song on the compilation – Space Oddity – from the London trip and the foreman’s enthusiasm for this weird looking singer planted a seed.

I then caught a great drama on the BBC in 1993 – The Buddha Of Suburbia – and noticed that the music for the series was performed by David Bowie. This guy is fucking everywhere, I thought, and he’s still relevant.

Bowie 4I started off with The Singles Collection when it was released in 1993, and I’ve been working my way through all of the individual studio albums ever since. I first got into the glam-rock Bowie (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane), then I turned backwards to the singer-songwriter Bowie (Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory), then forward in time again to the strung-out on cocaine Bowie (Station To Station), onto the Berlin Bowie (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger), then to his early ‘80s pop reinvention (Let’s Dance).

These days I tend to jump all over the place. A little bit of Stone Love here, a little bit of Speed Of Life there, followed with that hypnotic bass line from Let’s Dance. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s studio sessions from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. For the uninitiated, this is a great collection of Bowie covers by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, played on a Spanish acoustic and sung in Portuguese. They’re wonderful interpretations – abstract yet ambient; even Bowie himself was a fan. “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with,” he is quoted as saying.

As a guitar player it’s the guitarists I tend to categorise Bowie by; and what a choice! Who do I want to listen to today? Mick Ronson? Earl Slick? Carlos Alomar? Robert Fripp? Nile Rodgers? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Absolutely incredible – what a roll-call! Bowie and Rodgers were in the crowd when Stevie Ray Vaughan played at the Montreau Jazz Festival in 1982, and despite seeing Vaughan booed off stage by the festival’s purist attendees, they still went backstage and offered him the gig playing on the Let’s Dance album.

My friend Vini and I would joke endlessly about Bowie’s music video for Be My Wife. His demeanour and actions in that video prompted many a drunken impression back in the day. That’s definitely the strung-out on cocaine Bowie right there. It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself. It would only be a better impression if Phil Cornwell from Stella Street was doing it.

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In January 2011, the 7” of Be My Wife even made an appearance at my wedding. My wife and I also put a nice CD together of all of our favourite songs to give away to people as a memento, and we included Wild Is The Wind on there as it’s a song that we both love so much. It’s nice that Bowie was part of that day.

The first person I thought of when I heard about Bowie’s death was Adam Buxton – from comedy duo Adam & Joe. Their enthusiasm for anything Bowie-related is legendary (they even did a nice little song about Bowie’s appearance in Labyrinth) and Buxton is such a super-fan, even taking Bowie as his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, that my first thoughts were that Adam & Joe would never get to interview him.

(As a sidenote, it’s probably Adam & Joe’s fault that I love Ashes To Ashes so much. I had almost written the song off – I’ve never been fond of nursery rhyme style lyrics – but their love of the song opened up its world of magic to me. There is a lot going on in that song, both musically and lyrically, that it never gets old.)

Bowie 7Mark Twain once said ‘When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I feel the same way about Bowie – it’s just one of my natural instincts. If you love Bowie, then I automatically like you. How can any self-respecting muso not dig what he does? He subverted and crossed so many genres, he is his own genre. When I listened to rock, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to metal, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to punk, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to electronica, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to soul, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to jazz, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to blues, I listened to Bowie. Whenever I take a break from listening to music, I still listen to Bowie! I have a great Bowie t-shirt that says everything you need to know: “There’s old wave. There’s new. And there’s David Bowie…”

The surname has always been a subject of debate. Born David Robert Jones in Brixton in 1947, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones. The surname comes from the Bowie knife – that’s why it’s Bow-ie to rhyme with snowy, not Bow-ie to rhyme with Maui. Let’s try to get it right from now on.

There are so many moments that endlessly go around in my head. Like the story about celebrities being afraid to perform on TV with Bowie after Bing Crosby and Marc Bolan both met their end after duetting with him. Or the time that Bowie introduced the famous famine clip at Live Aid. Or the time Bowie serenaded Ricky Gervais on Extras: “Pathetic little fat man…”

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I once found myself in the Auckland Wintergardens, standing on the very same spot that Bowie had stood, being reprimanded back in 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. We should never forget that he was a great actor – and could have filled the screen with great performances had he not concentrated on music.

Back in my days playing Delta 7, I used to do a cover of Ziggy Stardust during our acoustic set. It was probably my favourite Bowie song back then. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to see Bowie headline on the Sunday night at Glastonbury. His band started playing the opening bars of Wild Is The Wind, and after a few minutes, Bowie sauntered out in a palatial, quilted gold coat that looked like it had been sewn with the pubic hair of angels.

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Surely he wouldn’t play Ziggy Stardust, I thought; he’s just here to play the hits. But my friend Vini was adamant: “He’ll play it!”

Bowie thundered on through the set – all the songs you’d expect – but still no Ziggy Stardust. I had resigned myself that he wasn’t going to play it, but first song into the encore, there it was, that crashing G chord. Usually, I leave the festival in a funk as I don’t want to go back to the real world, but that year I left a very happy man.

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My only photograph of Bowie from that evening.

A couple of years later in another band, we used to rehearse on the top floor of an old mill in Manchester (Sankey’s Soap for those who remember). We used to be able to hear the Bowie tribute band in the room below our doing note-perfect renditions of songs like Five Years. I never actually saw the band, but the music was so spot-on, I’m glad I never did. It would have spoiled the illusion.

One of my favourite punch-the-air Bowie moments in recent years was attending the New Zealand premiere of The Cove in Auckland, with director Louie Psihoyos in attendance. I challenge anybody to find a more apt use of a song than Heroes on the end credits of that film.

Bowie 9In light of Bowie’s death, Psihoyos posted the following message on Facebook: “David Bowie could have charged us tens of thousands of dollars to license “Heroes” for The Cove – we didn’t have that kind of money – but one could dream. Pop songs by superstars like him can license for 6-7 figures. He made his publishers take the absolute minimum they would take and we were charged nearly nothing for that song. Rest in peace Mr Bowie, you are my hero.”

Last week, when the news broke about Bowie on Monday night, comedian Jimmy Carr was playing a stand-up show in Auckland. The news broke during the intermission. Now this is tricky ground – an offensive joke from Jimmy Carr is as sure as death and taxes (pun very much intended), but he treated the situation gracefully: “Looking on the plus side we’re all a little cooler now as the coolest man on Earth just died.”

I’m going to give the last word to a member of a vinyl group I’m a member of on Facebook, Bernado El Masiosare. It’s a popular sentiment we’ve heard before, but in this case it seems very appropriate:

Whenever you’re sad, just remember this world is 4.5 billion years old and you were so lucky to live at the same time as David Bowie.

 

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The last photograph of David Bowie, having fun promoting Blackstar on his 69th birthday.

Rocks In The Attic #380: Gary Clark, Jr. – ‘Blak And Blu’ (2012)

RITA#380I went to see Gary Clark, Jr. and his band last week. I usually try and find something positive to say about a live act when I go and see them, but with I was just bored. It wasn’t anything special. Nothing to write home about. In fact, I enjoyed the support act – Aaron Tokona, from Cairo Knife Fight – much more.

I’m in two minds about Gary Clark, Jr. in general – and from the sounds of it, so is he. This album – Blak And Blu – his Grammy nominated major label debut, sits in about three or four camps. He flits between being a bluesman, a ‘60s soul singer, a rapper and a 21st century R&B singer. Dialled back to just 30 minutes, he could hit one any of those genres on the nose. Instead he spreads himself far too thinly across an hour and seven minutes.

Then there’s the H word – the dreaded ‘new Hendrix’ label; the curse of the gifted guitarist. In the ‘80s, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the ‘90s, it was Lenny Kravitz. In the 2000s, it was probably Ben Harper. In the 2010’s, it’s almost a sure thing that it’s Gary Clark, Jr. Poor guy. Like most people (other than Stevie Ray, who’s probably as freakish as Hendrix, just in a completely different way) Clark comes nowhere near. He’s a good guitarist, don’t get me wrong. He knows his chops, it’s just that he isn’t the saviour of the electric guitar – or the blues – that people are making him out to be.

He isn’t even the best guitarist in his band. Wisely sticking to mainly rhythm guitar and lead vocals (with the odd solo thrown in for good measure), he lets his lead guitarist do most of the heavy lifting. The lead guitarist’s playing on a mid-set cover of Albert King’s Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong was fantastic.

Worryingly, he seems to be taking a long time to deliver major label album number two. The record company put out a live album last year (a stopgap release if ever I’ve seen one), but it’s odd that he’s taken at least three years to deliver his sophomore effort. Momentum is a wonderful thing for an artist, but it doesn’t last forever.

In my record collection, Clark is filed between Clapton and the Clash. Hopefully he won’t waste as much time as they both did in finding out which genre they belonged to (blues revisionist, and pop-tinged new-wave musical magpies, respectively). He needs to forget all that Hollywood, urban youth hip-hop crap and concentrate on his brand of blues – an updated Chicago blues for the 21st century.

Hit: Bright Lights

Hidden Gem: Third Stone From The Sun / If You Love Me Like You Say

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Rocks In The Attic #362: David Bowie – ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983)

RITA#362This was a great return to form for Bowie. After making a run of great albums the general public would have considered to be ‘a bit weird’ (the Berlin trilogy), it might have seemed like he’d disappeared up his own arse. His first album after those records, 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), proved he still had hits in him (in Ashes To Ashes and Fashion), but it wasn’t until Let’s Dance in 1983 that he returned to the mainstream wholesale.

Let’s Dance has always been one of my favourite Bowie songs. It has such a groove to it that you can’t help but swing your hips. That cod-Beatles intro might put the song into dangerous territory, but when the main riff kicks in, there’s just so much space in it. Even if you take away Nile Rodgers’ lovely guitar work, I could just listen to that bassline on a loop over and over. Of course, you also have a nice blues guitar courtesy of Stevie Ray Vaughan – one powerhouse guitarist clearly wasn’t enough for Bowie in 1983.

Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan are both such heroes of mine, that this really is a treat of an album for me. Even on something like Without You, Stevie Ray’s subdued blues licks in the background give the song a texture that would have otherwise been missing had Bowie only used Nile Rodgers on the record. Similarly, you can’t imagine any of the album’s big singles – Modern Love, China Girl and Let’s Dance – without Nile Rodger’s chicken-scratch, machine-like groove.

Hit: Let’s Dance

Hidden Gem: Without You

Rocks In The Attic #346: Talking Heads – ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1987)

RITA#346The first time I was exposed to this album was seeing a clip of Jonathan Demme’s concert film in an Amsterdam bar. The place had a video jukebox, and somebody selected this. I’d never seen David Byrne jigging around in his oversize suit before. I might have been a little drunk / stoned at the time, so it probably made much more sense than it should have done.  I also remember the video we watched after this – Stevie Ray Vaughan playing a live version of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).

The weird thing about this Talking Heads album is that it’s a live album but it sounds like a studio album. You get a bit of obligatory cheering at the end of each song, but each song tends to start without any ambient noise whatsoever. There’s silence and then the band just starts playing. I’m presuming it’s simply presented how it was recorded, without any subsequent tinkering to make it sound more ‘live’ than it actually is. And it sounds all the better for it.

I’ve been to a lot of gigs and have hardly ever heard an almost endless wall of cheering between songs. Maybe I’m going to see the wrong bands! Yet live albums usually present that particular phenomenon as the norm. It’s almost as if every live album is trying to recreate George Martin’s problematic jet engine screaming between songs on The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl.

I once listened to a CD of Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg on shuffle and you could hardly tell it was playing in a different running order. The reason? The wall of crowd noise between each song was essentially the same noise – same pitch, same volume, virtually identical.

Since then, I’ve always eyed live albums with suspicion. They’re usually pretty pointless anyway, aren’t they? Is there a live album out there that actually adds something integral to a band’s oeuvre?

Hit: Once In A Lifetime

Hidden Gem: Burning Down The House

Rocks In The Attic #218: Ozzy Osbourne – ‘Blizzard Of Ozz’ (1980)

RITA#218Aside from a woeful album title – which is only really beaten in sheer awfulness by the likes of REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish – this album is fantastic. It also happens to be a master-class in the guitar.

A lot has been said of Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen. Who was first? Van Halen. Who was better? Rhoads. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, they’re both very different. Randy Rhoads has one foot firmly placed in classical guitar, and for me that’s what makes him more interesting to listen to that the very soul-less Eddie Van Halen.

The loss of Randy Rhoads was just a crucial loss to the guitar, and to the music world in general, as was the similar departure of Stevie Ray Vaughan. My guitar teacher introduced me to this album – Randy Rhoads’ masterpiece – and taught me most of the riffs and licks from it. It suffers from a slightly top-heavy overdriven guitar sound, and if it had been recorded just a few years earlier it might have avoided that and sounded that little bit more timeless.

I’m not that familiar with the later Sabbath albums from Ozzy’s tenure, but this album has so much energy it sounds like a debut album. Breakaway solo albums seldom sound like that – they usually sound like a natural progression from the singer’s last album with their respective band, but here Ozzy, buoyed by the youth of his protégé, records a classic of its genre.

In terms of riffs, this album has them all. Rhoads is a progressive guitar player – just the sheer amount of licks that pepper a song like Crazy Train is testament to that; but quieter moments like Dee and monsters like I Don’t Know and Steal Away (The Night) show his incredible diversity – all with that pulsating, frenetic rhythm that is his trademark.

Hit: Crazy Train

Hidden Gem: Dee