Thursday, 28 February 2008


Dear folks who read these blurblings from time to time, (or stumble across them by accident, and stare at the fish-bass-wielding author's picture with a mixture of bewilderment and disappointment, thinking "huh? This isn't 'the difference between bflat and double bflat tuba'. Man, [insert your most detested search engine here] sucks!" - a genuine search query, by the way, that saw some poor Parisian thrown in the direction of my nonsense), I'm afraid that if you were expecting this to be the usual, insomnia-conquering mountain of prose, then I'm going to disappoint you. (cue sound f.x. of crowd cheering wildly, 21-gun salute, fireworks, etc.)

Owing to 'mini-primate no.2' failing to sleep for more than 3 hours at a time (that being an absolute maximum) for the last couple of weeks, I'm currently experiencing a complete absence of energy, creativity, and motivation - especially when both the kids are finally in bed, and I've got time to sit down and inflict this nonsense on the world. I had a relatively interesting (I thought) topic all researched and raring to go, along with a couple of other bits and pieces that might have been mildly amusing, but every time I've sat down...ahhhh..what was the point? Why bother? Have some mental vegetating time instead...which is desperately self-indulgent, self-pitying, and highly indisciplined (apparently there are 'specialist practitioners' who can provide 'stern correction' for the latter problem, but I'm not a great fan of pain, and they can be, so I am told, quite expensive...personal trainers, I mean. Who else could you possibly have been thinking of?).

While we're on the subject of mini-primates, I got a bit of a shock a couple of days see, I assumed (never a good start) that, after all the nappy-changing experience I've had, nothing that burst forth from a baby's bum could mount a serious assault on my olfactory senses. "Surely", I (foolishly) thought, "Surely I must be innured to the smell of poo by now, yea even that which is most noisomely pungent, and in its noxiousness can be likened only to a rotting marmoset, or some other such creature of low habits and base uncleanliness". (Apologies for possibly besmirching the reputation of all marmosets, who may well be most fastidious in their habits regarding hygiene - it just sounded like a good 'comedy animal' name...). Well, tiny man proved me oh-so-very-very-wrong - several times over the course of the day, in fact - with offerings that smelled so acrid I almost lost all of my appetite for chocolate (!)...along with the remnants of my last couple of meals. Quite incredible what chemicals these kids can synthesise in their guts...and a little worrying, considering he eats exactly what I do - so I haven't exactly got anyone else (or their food) to blame.

Now, before anyone accuses me of exaggeration (perish the thought), I've dealt with some very pungent odours in my time - clearing-out a blocked drain at the back of a tenement block in Edinburgh, elbow-deep in a mixture of other people's chip-pan grease and hair, springs to mind (partly because I did it more than once - well, it was either that, or pay inordinate sums of cash to a plumber), as does having to replace a toilet outflow pipe that had slowly become fully 'backed-up' over the course of several days. A period, alas, when no-one in the house was suffering from constipation... Yet even that was no match for a toddler's nappy...!

Right, going to end this small slice of irrelevance with a literal 'pop' quiz:

What do Aretha Franklin, Sly & The Family Stone, Edwin Starr, The Temptations, Al Green, Sam & Dave, Gladys Knight (with all, any, or even none of her 'Pips'), Wilson Pickett, The Isley Brothers, Otis Redding, Martha & The Vandellas, and James Brown all have in common ? (apart from the bleedin' obvious, naturally)

All shall be revealed (although most of you probably know the answer already, in which case it'll be a huge anticlimax - mind you, that might be compensated-for by your feelings of vast smugness at being a know-it-all smarty-pants - who can say?) in my next post, which should appear (everything standing as it does, currently)...ohh..I don't know?..sometime before christmas?

Friday, 15 February 2008

All Lovers Are Deranged

"Roses are red, violets are blue,
I'm 'romantically-challenged', how about you?"

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Yes, the horrendous trial-by-greetings card that is the 14th of February has reared its ugly little head, and half the world seems swathed in pink and red. Sales of helium-filled balloon hearts, nauseatingly-cutesy teddy bears, anatomically-suggestive chocolates and (environmentally damaging? a couple of reports on supplies from Colombia and India) roses have had their annual peak, and, thanks also to that amazing invention, 'booze', some people (who on any other day stood no chance whatsoever) will tonight actually achieve their lifelong (so far) ambition of a "pity shag" from the otherwise entirely unobtainable object of their affections.

I always hated St. Valentine's Day when I was a teenager - when everyone around me would enquire "how many did you get?", while clutching an improbably large stack of envelopes, to which I'd (truthfully, but with sinking self-esteem) answer "Well, I got one"...but all the time I'd know, secretly, that it had been posted by my mum...and I've never really changed my mind about the whole concept. (For anyone wishing to recreate this 'hormones-and-acne' feeling for themselves by way of an experiment, I recommend listening to the "Dark Side of the Moon", for a general air of melancholy, while reading something like "A History of the Indians of the United States", by Angie Debo, for intermittent troughs of deeper gloom. But always keep a Billy Connolly cd at the ready, in case you take it just a little too far...).

So, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I thought I'd compile yet another song list, this time of tunes which are steadfastly opposed to the plastic schmaltz we're being bombarded with. What follows are ten of my (entirely personal) favourite "Dear retail outlet marketing department, yes, I'm a bit of a sad loser, kindly stop rubbing my face in it" tracks, ranging from 'mild yearning' through to 'downright scary', hopefully with a small stop-off at 'slightly wistful' along the way.

[Disclaimer: The author does not, at any time, claim that this is a 'definitive' list, or that these songs are, in any way,shape or form, somehow 'better' than alternative songs the reader may prefer (however lacking in musical taste the reader thusly may appear to be). He also denies any responsibility for the faint odour of 'cheese' that might surround one (or more) of his selections. He has a blocked-up nose, and anyway, was on holiday at the time when it didn't happen, so it must be all your fault instead. Glad we could clear that up so easily..]

1. WHY - Annie Lennox
Beautiful voice, beautiful song (co-written by ex-Jethro Tull keyboard player, Peter-John Vitesse in case anyone cared), wonderful words, and all very sad. A perfect start!

2. FOOL FOR YOUR LOVING - Whitesnake
Complete shuddering change of genre for this 1980 hit (it got to no.13) for David Coverdale's half-ex-Deep Purple, heavy-blues-rockers. Twin guitars, and Jon Lord's organ to boot - a rifftastic declaration of personal growth!

3. GUTE NACHT (video) - from 'Winterreise' (translation) by Franz Schubert
Ah, the cold!, the snow! - our poor hero has been cast out of his girlfriend's house, and is left to wander the icy paths in the darkness, wondering what the feck went wrong. Or something like that, anyway - maybe a trifle more nuanced, perhaps? This was my party piece (in days of yore), and I always loved that it had an opera's worth of emotion packed into less than 6 minutes. I still annoy the kids with a (now very poor) rendition from time to time...

4. I WANT YOU - Elvis Costello
This song seems quite pleasant at first, but slowly drags you into a deranged world of obsession and violent desire. The appropriately off-kilter (and out-of-tune) guitar solo perfectly fits the mood. Visceral and more than a little disturbing.

5. ANGELINE - John Martyn
A gentler tone here, the singer pleading with (mysterious? manipulative? plain annoying?) Angeline, imploring that whatever she chooses to do in the immediate future, "it really won't matter" as long as he can spend some precious time with her now. No matter the outcome, you just know it's going to end messily...

Forget the body-hugging spandex catsuits, make the effort to look beyond the double-entendres and jokiness of many of his songs, and you'll find that Justin Hawkins has a very fine (if quirky - and what's wrong with that?) way with lyrics. Here, he combines depressingly honest domestic detail with old-school rock- a damn hard trick to pull off, but one he manages with aplomb.

The title pretty much says it all for this one! Not a great deal going-on lyrically, but Ginger Baker's slightly ominous, muted tom rolls build the musical tension expertly. Brilliantly claustrophobic.

8. HALLELUJAH JORDAN - Hothouse Flowers
A bouncy, rollicking, dance-yer-arse-off Irish-soul-band rendition of that age-old story: boy meets girl, girl decides to go off with flash git, boy drinks himself to death.

9. ONE OF MY TURNS - Pink Floyd
Now this was a tough choice. Soooo many Pink Floyd songs to choose from that could have made it into the list...but this (well, the first half, anyway, before it gets loud & psychotic) is probably Roger Waters at his bleakest. "Day after day, love turns grey, Like the skin of a dying man". Yep...if it's miserable you're after, that'll pretty much do it every time.

There are very few songs which have ever moved me to tears. This continues to be one of them. (YouTube video here)

Well. That's probably enough jollity and romantification to be getting-on with until next February 14th. Not that I've got anything against all the folk who are happily paired (or tripled? quadrupled? I'm not judging) off, and adore the whole "hearts 'n' flowers" thing. Oh no. It's a wonderful country to be in...I just seem to have left my passport in the pocket of my other jacket...

p.s. 10 'muso' points to anyone who recognises the source for this post's title without using Google!

p.p.s. In the spirit of 'always wanting to go back and tinker some more with the effects settings' that I'm hopelessly prone to, I've been picking-over this list for the last couple of days. Trouble is, there are so many great 'love going wrong', 'love gone wrong', and 'love gone wrong, come back again and man, was that a mistake!' songs that I couldn't help wondering whether these were properly representative, I suppose. Here, then, are a few alternative takes, any one of which might have made its way onto the album:

11. PIBROCH (CAP IN HAND) - Jethro Tull
One of Ian Anderson's many fine stories where, to quote the man himself, "he never quite gets the girl". In this instance, our simple hero, having finally summoned-up the courage to declare his hand, tragically discovers that he's too late...

Again, a very hard choice to make. It could have been the cool cynicism of "M-O-N-E-Y", or something sad, yet hard, like "Black and Blue"...but in the end, it just had to be this one. This guy (who is, to my over-tired and malfunctioning mind, anyway, the country equivalent of Elvis Costello) always writes cleverly, elegantly, and honestly.

13. WATER OF LOVE - Dire Straits
Forget the world-straddling stadium tours, the hordes of 'Princess Di'-lookalike fans, the mounds of discarded sweatbands - when they first emerged, blinking, into the cold light of the UK music scene, Dire Straits played stripped-down, 'who cares if it's cool?' guitar music with what might be termed 'mild case of urban depression' lyrics. Although quite what the lines "Took a stone from my soul, when I was lame, Just so you could make me tame" (in 'Six-Blade Knife') mean, I haven't a bleedin' clue. If anyone out there can shed some light on this...please?? anyone??

We all have different ways of responding when a relationship falls apart....

15. CHICKS DIG JERKS - Marblehead Johnson (aka the late, great, Bill Hicks)
Just thought I'd finish off with something to make us blokes feel better...sort of. (You can listen to this track here.) For anyone unfortunate enough not to be aware of the brilliance of Bill Hicks, this is a good place to start. Enjoy!

Friday, 8 February 2008

Sound Advice

I don't know about you, (dims lights), but tonight, (pauses to light candles, turn on Marvin Gaye cd), I'm (cue sound f.x. of 'seductive' growling noises, interrupted a hacking coughing fit which spoils the mood somewhat). And here's why:

"A truly great name in British amplification makes its return to the UK. Sound City Mark 6 Series are valve amps - glowing, glowering and growling. These amps are not "sound-a-like" or "Valve-o-tronic" (or whatever). These are the real deal."

Sound good? Like what you've read so far? I'll bet you do, you naughty, naughty people. But wait, there's more:

"All feature 12AX7 preamp valves for that fantastic "hooligan" British tone...with EL84 power-amp section valves"

Phwoarrr!! "hooligan" tone, eh? Has that got your nipples a bit perky, hmm? Does 'guitar porn' get much better than this? And it can be yours for a mere £249.99 (possibility of a cash discount - nudge, nudge, wink ,wink, need I say more?) They go on to say:

The 1x10 SC20C is perfect for practice or recording - or crank it up and listen to that warm, edgy "broken-up" distortion that only valves can deliver." (cue s.f.x. of needle scraping across a record, cars screeching to a halt, emergency sirens get the idea). No, I'm afraid it really, really, isn't. Perfect, I mean. Not for anything, in any musical shape or form. Not even half-decent, I'm afraid. This, you see, is a prime example of shop website advertising exploiting a long-standing guitarists' prejudice filter. As George Orwell might have put it, (if he'd had long hair, a dyed goatee and a 'Woodstock' stare), "Valve amps good, Valve stacks better". This mantra, in varying forms, has been repeated so many times over the years in highly reputable guitar magazines (oh, ok, and in shoddily-produced, cruddy ones too), that it has become something of a golden rule, a mighty Law of Amplification, whose greatness and obvious truth shall not be questioned.

Indeed, when it comes to the absolute top-end of the market, I'd have to concede that yes, massive valve stacks sound fabulous. Only a tiny fraction of the planet's guitarists will ever play in a space large enough to warrant them, (not that that stops some folk - I recall being in a medium-sized pub in Edinburgh's Cowgate one night, when the band [of deafness-fanatics, apparently] pitched up with a matched pair of 100w Marshall full stacks - turned up to 11, of course. The bass player [poor sod] had a 400w Trace set-up, and might as well not have been plugged-in, for not a low-end note could be heard. In fact, nothing was audible, except over-loud, under-talented banal rock riffage - even shouting drinks orders at the bar staff at a range of less than 2 feet wasn't working, so we left. You could still make out the band over half a mile away...), and possess sufficient roadies so as to avoid the otherwise inevitable long-term back problems. But still, the sound they make is tremendous, agreed. Extrapolating down, however, as many are wont to do, and regarding anything valve-based as being instantly and inevitably superior to the transistor alternative, that ain't so clever. Come with me, dear reader, to an extremely wet day (yeah, so many to choose from around here! ) about a month ago, where I am in the Edinburgh branch of the UK's largest instrument retailer, about to encounter the aforementioned Sound City 20-watt valve beast for the first time...

Now, I was genuinely interested in this amp. It appeared to be small enough to be portable (and not take up too much space in an already-cluttered flat ), yet loud enough for rehearsal/small gigs, the price was decent (I actually had some money ), and, of course, it was all valve - the 'holy grail' was potentially purchasable!

(Before we go any further, I'd like to assert that I am in no way, nor ever have been, an 'amp snob'. If it sounds good, then it is good, as far as I'm concerned, irrespective of circuitry, speaker or manufacturer's logo. Hey, I'll even stand up in court and swear that I've heard players making pleasing noises with Peavey Bandits, ok? But still...this little baby was all valve...!! )

As per usual, I chose a medium-cheap guitar to test it with, (c.f. the Marshall Artist & Hamer guitar I found in York - "Southbound Again", January 10th), and my eyes lit upon a Spector Arc6 Pro hanging near the checkout. I'd had a bash on a couple of their basses, which were entirely-moderate-but-looked-nice, and the guitar was reduced from £399 to £199 (same as the Hamer), so it seemed ideally suited for the job.

This, as it turned out, was my first mistake. Down in York, the Hamer had proved to be an excellent piece of kit, and the marriage of it and the Artist was nothing less than a spectacular experience. Unfortunately, the Spector was, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Well, to be fair, the first one I used was technically broken, (no sound from the bridge pickup), not plain crap. The neck felt fine, and the neck pickup worked ok. The second one, alas, had two working pickups, but an unpleasant problem around the nut area on the lowest two strings, and tedious intonation/holding tuning issues. This didn't reflect well either on Spector's (Chinese) factory quality control (some guy out the back chain-smoking, pausing only to nod vigorously whenever someone came out and stuck a guitar under his nose?), or on the shop's basic stock maintenance. Probably a bit of both.

Still, the guitar difficulties could be worked-around. Shame the same couldn't be said for the amplifier. It was....well...terrible. To use an appallingly obvious gag, it was the biggest let-down since Tony Blair...oh dear. That was cheap, wasn't it? About the same quality as the amp, all things considered.

I'm not even sure where to start when it comes to listing its myriad faults and deficiencies. The tone was so treble-heavy, the only way to get any kind of full-bodied sound out of it was to crank the bass knob up to about 9 o'clock (having no numerical indicators on the top panel may be a 'cool' bit of design, but is howlingly impractical when trying to fine-tune amp settings...grrrr), while shoving the treble and middle under half-way. (I've no idea what frequency the mid-range is centred on, except that it's not the right one). This applied equally whether playing clean, or engaging the angry-bee-in-a-biscuit-tin-of-fizz overdrive, whose control leapt from 'none' to 'great steaming buckets' in the space of roughly a millimetre. (Incidentally, nothing I tried with the guitar - pickup selection, winding the tone back, etc - made the slightest bit of improvement.) "Warm, edgy, 'broken up' distortion" my hairy backside!

Did someone simply fit the wrong potentiometer? I mean, how badly do you have to design and build your circuit board to rob an all-valve amp of, well, its inherent 'valve-ishness'? (Or should that be 'valve-osity'? ) This dreadfulness was carried-through to the reverb, which again, went from zero to 'drops of water landing in a pool at the back of a very, very large cave' with the tiniest of movements.

After 20 minutes of increasing frustration with the beast, one of the staff came over (a trying-ever-so-hard-to-be 'cool' Liverpudlian - I think ? - with a pop-kid 'McFly' hairdo that he was at least ten years too old for), and asked me what I thought of the Mark 6. Choking back the desire to be ruthlessly honest, I said it was 'disappointing' and 'not very versatile'. With a facial expression that conveyed his utter horror and contempt (simultaneously, which is pretty tricky), he countered with "Yeah, well, it has a very particular sound, you know? It's great for Britpop and that...". Well, that sealed it for me. Britpop. A dead-end musical sub-genre that was, I thought, well and truly deceased a few years ago...and a damn good thing too, frankly. Nice use of the word 'particular', too...not a definition I'd ever come across before, obviously, but then we should always be open to new ideas...

So, that was a complete bust then. Ah, well. I'm not complaining - I'm ever-so-slightly-tearing Sound City a new one, maybe, but not complaining as such - as of two days ago, I became the delighted owner of a Session Duette, 60-watt (LOUD! ), 1x12" totally solid-state amp from the late 1980s. Sure, it's currently in the hands of the local repair guru, having a well-deserved overhaul (scratchy pots, one of the ridiculously tiny wires inside the accutronics reverb unit has 'eroded', etc,etc), but what an incredible device! In one 10-minute session, without touching the tone (only treble & bass, but that's all this baby needs ) controls, I was able to take it from a 'Rolling Stones' bluesy crunch, through early Clapton into Cream, then on to AC/DC, Motorhead, and up into 80's hair metal, merely by increasing the overdrive level. Now that is versatility. And it sounded bloody amazing through the entire range - with nary a valve in sight. It wouldn't quite stray into Nightwish/Amberian Dawn territory, sure, but give it a break - it's twenty years old, and anyway, that's what pedals are for!

The clean channel is almost scarily clean - I prefer a slightly 'warmer', Marshall-ish 'clean' myself, but it's ideal for plugging effects boards into, so who's moaning? Plus it has an effects loop, and two guitarists can plug in at the same time - the amp channels are completely discrete. Oh, and did I mention the price? Less than half the cost of the Sound City (say that using a generic 'Sean Connery' impression and you'll have summed-it up pretty accurately ), including postage. Good old Ebay. Examples pop up quite regularly, as does its slightly smaller predecessor, the Rockette 30 - as used by Eric Clapton, on the 'August' album, apparently - and the 'daddy' of the Session range, the wonderful "Sessionette 75".

Award-Session stopped making amps for a while, but they're back in business now, and all their products are definitely worth a listen. Head honcho, Stewart Ward, has very interesting views (some may say 'controversial' - I couldn't possibly comment ) about amplification, and if you, like me, aren't an electronics genius (complete ignoramus in my case), simply want to know more, or are curious about an alternative take to 'valves rule' hegemony, then you could do a lot worse than click here, and see what the man has to say.

He does, after all, build a mean little amp - what better reason could you need?