Talk From The Rock Room

Thursday, October 1, 2020

David Bowie – ChangesNowBowie – ‘Strange, Mad Celebration’

On August 29th, 2020 the first of this year’s Record Store Day drops was made, including a few exciting David Bowie audio releases. The subject of today’s ‘Talk from the Rock Room’ rant is the CD/LP release ChangesNowBowie, which documents an acoustic based nine song performance on BBC 1 radio. This performance was recorded in 1996 during rehearsals for Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration concert. The BBC broadcast the intimate show on the date of Bowie’s birthday the next year on January 8, 1997. A standout in the bootleg collections of many Bowie aficionados for a number of years, it is nice to have a crisp compact recording of this stand out later era Bowie performance.

The aforementioned broadcast featured some wonderful discussion with Bowie, but for this Record Store Day release just the music is included. Joining Bowie for the unique set of songs was Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, Reeves Gabrels (from Bowie’s Tin Machine band) on guitars and Mark Plati on Keyboards and electronics. What transpired on the BBC stage was a personal, sympathetic reading of a diverse set list both accessible for the assembled crowd yet still distinctly ‘Bowie’. The ‘rock room’ is following this stellar performance like reading a novel. I assert that this set list was developed to tell a tale, though different from what was broadcast, a personal touch in the song choices can be felt in addition to a tight focus.

This era of Bowie was another of constant reinvention and experimentation. Only a month after this broadcast, Bowie would release Earthling another chapter is his constantly evolving discography. The subject of today’s talk from the rock room, the ChangesNowBowie broadcast sits in complete contrast to the ‘drums and bass’, ‘electronic’ influence felt on Earthling. The multifarious Bowie per his usual practice had his fingers in numerous sonic pies during this era. Bowie always referred to himself as a ‘synthesist’, allowing his external forces to direct his muse. His recordings and performances in 1996-1997 hold this claim as true as ever. This performance is  hot tea and a plush pillow to rest a weary head.

The BBC concert begins with ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, a stringy sparkling rendition with Bowie’s reassuring vocals typical of this era the focus. He sings as if he is letting us in on an astronomical secret. A fitting opener as the song deals with someone dealing with two sides of their character. Special note to Gail Ann Dorsey’s delicate harmony vocals and Reeves sitar like ascending notes during the central riff.

Another fine arrangement of an 1970's composition follows with ‘Aladdin Sane’ in a spacious just on the edge of acoustic construct. Again, with perfectly placed Gail Ann Dorsey vocals. Churning folk guitars allow for focus on the lyrics through the verses until Mark Plati enters for a discordant piano interlude. Dorsey and Bowie blend vocally like they are related and conclude the song with swirling and overlapping voices.

An edgy and syncopated version of the ‘Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ gets placed on the burner next. An in concert favorite over the years for Bowie, here it is played with the same gusto as previous 1970’s versions. The songs vamp is cut around the hard thump of the bass drum to which Bowie weaves around deftly. Reeves kicks on the distortion pedal following the verses and lets two molten solo spots develop, scorching the empty voids. Gold.

A rare take on ‘Shopping for Girls’, a song from Bowie’s side project ‘Tim Machine’s’ second LP Tin Machine II. Composed by Bowie and Gabrels, the track is an artist’s view about the awfulness of the child sex trade. Bowie struggled with making a ‘rock’ song about such a difficult subject but in his typical fashion he was ahead of the curve, and its addition to this unique show’s emotive set somehow makes complete sense. The song moves on a squiggly acoustic slide lick and Bowie’s matter of fact rhythmically ‘Dylanesque’ tempo. The song straddles the fence between creepy and sad and blunt reality. I suggest to you dear reader to follow along with the lyrics while having your listening session. Typically Bowie, this arrangement takes a difficult subject from a low key album and packages it so the collected BBC listeners become aware of its important existence.

An exquisite and majestic reading of ‘Lady Stardust’ is next in the set. Almost weightless in its construct, the song features the Bowie theme of ‘duality’ where the narrator is both man and woman or possibly both, or just another image distorted of oneself. One of the most beautiful songs from 1973’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, here its delectate structure is wrapped in patient and humble sonics. Bowie's vocals are perfection, with just a touch wavering lending legitimacy of his character study. For the first time in the show Bowie pushes his voice perfectly into the beyond.


The closing track from Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, ‘The Superman’ is given a detailed and rare live reading next. Bowie has stated that the song’s original central guitar lick was given to him by Jimmy Page when playing on one of Bowie’s early sessions. Like previously stated the song is placed perfectly in the construct of the set, with each track somehow contextually related, or this could just be in the mind of the 'rock room'. This version is wonderfully bounding with a slick elastic bass line and strong scrubbing acoustic guitars. After the beginning verses, a smooth organ line lays a thick coat of sound paint across the rhythm. Typically for the evening Bowie sings the shit out of this one.

‘Repetition’, a song tucked away on the flip side of Bowie’s 1979 LP Lodger follows in its new 1997 guise. If anything the song’s content is more powerful under the microscopic view of the acoustic based analysis. The song is clandestine peek through a cracked door at an abusive relationship. Slotting into the track list with a deeper important message to be discerned, the song lost a bit of its claustrophobic vibe from the studio version. But by the end the walls are closing in and the melody eats itself amongst a wash of acoustic guitar, slide work and thick mellotron brush strokes.

‘Andy Warhol’ is another rarely played track, last put on display during the 1995 Outside tour after a prior absence of twenty plus years. In stunning contrast to the bombastic Outside tour arrangement, here, Andy Warhol’ is a perfect choice as a close relative to acoustic based number from 1971's Hunk Dory . The song grooves like a campfire singalong with the thick brushstrokes of acoustic guitars. Again, Bowie's voice the centerpiece in sympatico with every musical movement.

‘Quicksand’, one of Bowie’s most enduring melodies in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion closes the BBC session. Lyrically it is also one of Bowie’s shady and philosophical musings. The song offers no hope to the listener and offers a glimpse inside a mind coming to terms with both reality and knowledge.  Following a prelude made of glistening gritty particles, Bowie’s voice enters, youth in his voice, a resignation slightly below the surface. The song is pulled like warm taffy, stretched between being swallowed into the earth and reaching its arms to the sky. While exploring themes also looked at in ‘The Superman’ this song retains a cloak and dagger hopefulness, though this theme is only felt through it's optimistic chord changes. Bowie's vocals are chilling. The middle eight contrasts the verses with layered harmonies, swelled keyboard strings and fleeting hopefulness. Thus ends this collection.

Bowie's long and extensive catalog continues to be cracked open for inspection following the specific directives left after his death. The 'rock room' knows the surface has only just been scratched as Bowie  left a wealth of music and performance behind.. Sure, this performance has been available through unofficial channels for a number of years; but it's nice to own it officially. The show contains Bowie happy, centered and loose for his big 50th. It should be lauded for its contents, in addition to its availability to a new era of Bowie fans and collectors.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Take One: Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation – ‘Stone Crazy’ - Stewart, Green, Bruce -'Crazy Blue'

In the midst of the swelling white boy British blues boom of the 1960’s there was a plethora of cross pollination between artists, bands and songs. The guitarist’s chairs were almost always spinning as now legendary pickers bounded from group to group in addition to starting their own bands. Starting with  'Alexis Korner's, Blues Incorporated and moving into and through the 'Stones' and 'Yardbirds'’ in the early part of the 60's, a number of collaborative efforts followed suit. In the November of 1967 one of these short lived ‘supergroups’ came together, oh so briefly. Aynsley Dunbar, at this point drummer for 'John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, then the 'Jeff Beck Group' and later of Zappa's 'Mother's of Invention' pulled together his own side project using a few of the musical connections he had made along the way.

In a lineup that is almost too good to be believed, Dunbar enlisted Rod 'the Mod' Stewart who was later his band mate in the Jeff Beck Group to take over vocal duties. He also asked Peter Green recently defected from John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker to play lead guitar, and for Jack Bruce bassist for Graham Bond Organization the Bluesbreakers, and most currently at the time ‘Cream’ to assist. This aforementioned group was the blueprint for the first Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation and for this particular session the band was believed to be named ‘Crazy Blue’. Obviously all of the participants of the band were soo to be in preparation to springboard into bands of their own design.  Stewart eventually to Faces, Green to found Fleetwood Mac, Bruce already in Cream and Dunbar in a band that carried his name and later banging the kit Frank Zappa.

This loose conglomerate of a band joined for one legendary and historic session in November of 1967 which reportedly took place for the Blue Horizon’s label. Two songs and three attempts were taken at recording a single for the band. ‘Stone Crazy’ had two attempts and 'Fly Right Baby' with Jack Bruce playing piano had one and remains as of this writing unreleased. Who knows the actual reasons for the short term aspect of the band but one can assume that contractual obligations had something to do with it ending before it started. The subject of today's 'rock rant' is the only track that exists for our ears from the session, 'Stone Crazy'.

The song is a slow blues taken for leisurely drive on dark rain pocked cobblestone streets. Green’s candied tone is immediately recognizable as the track begins to reveals itself. Bruce grumbles a idiosyncratic bass line with a painter’s attention to detail. Dunbar holds it all together with a patient 12 bar on the hi hat and snare. Stewart soon comes in for the intro verse and the thougth crosses my mind that he could have been the best white blues singer ever, if he chose to follow that path.

Deftly weaving lyrics, with some that would later find a home on the Jeff Beck Group track, ‘Blues Deluxe’ Stewart makes ya feel it, playing with husky dynamics while extracting a deep feeling from the groove like a blood draw.  Peter Green answers Stewart's calls with silvery stringy bends. Green leaves just enough breathing room for each riff to marinate in your ears. It's a fact that these British musicians held the American blues musicians in such high regard that their recreations can be nothing but authentic. While this song's authorship cannot be determined, it is a straight blues with lyrical content hailing from an number of sources which was typical of the time.

First solo break Bruce and Green stream their respective licks from the musical maypole. Bruce thumps with a puffed out chest while descending in time, growling out the changes. In his typical fashion Green conjures a solo that amazes and medicates while emanating a deep understanding of the blues. Patient, sugary, sleek like liquid night. The song rocks gently with a secretive strength, the unique musical ability of each principal eliciting a power that does not require flash or musical posturing.

       Pic : Lars-Ewe Nilsson

Following the solo break Stewart returns with a sensual and gritty whisper. Regardless of your opinion of Stewart, it get's you feeling funny and funky. Stewart follows the aforementioned lyric with an aggressive demanding response, one begging to prove his love. Green tickles the fretboard with a scurrying yet perfectly slotted lick. The final lyric Stewart giggles during the break, a fitting end to what sounds and feels like a enjoyable exploration of the blues and a tentative musical relationship.

One track, five minutes, but a musical eternity contained within. Each member of this short lived conglomerate would go on to their own musical fame. Dunbar would go on to release a series of solo LP's, in addition to each respective member of this particular group. But for a couple of shared moments and one powerful track that has revealed itself to listeners they got it together for a legendary what if?


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tools of the Trade: Ronnie Lane’s Zemaitis Bass Guitar – 'Still Hear the Echo'

When I think of the rock and roll legends, ‘Faces’, I think of a heavy rock and roll swagger and a musical celebration. Substantial images of Rod Stewart's flamboyant stage dress, Ronnie Wood’s poofter hair style, Kenney Jones powerful stick hits, Mac’s tickling of the blacks and whites, and the band’s on stage drunken revelry flash through my minds eye. Most importantly are the on stage mental pictures of the band’s ‘tools of the trade’, Woody’s guilded Zemaitis guitar and the subject of this rant, Ronnie Lane’s sleek black custom Zemaitis bass.

Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, founding member of Small Faces and Faces as well as being one of rocks finest songwriters was one hell of a bass player. Lane was adept at both guitar and bass, but his rumbling bass tone in the mid 1960’s was a defining sound for Mod culture. Lane played with a pick and slapped his hollow bodied Gibson, coaxing rotund notes and smooth weaving bass lines for Small Faces. Lane used a number of guitars and basses throughout his musical career beginning with the aforementioned hollow body Gibson, Harmony, and moving into custom instruments and his eventual solid body Zemaitis bass by the time of Faces in 1969. Lane would also become associated with a Zemaitis resonator acoustic following his departure form Faces.

In the early 1950’s, luthier Tony Zemaitis, who started his career as a cabinetmaker began to repair and build acoustic guitars for his associates and friends. After a stint in the military Zemaitis started to become more ‘professional’ with the development of his instruments. By the 1960’s word was spreading amongst blues players around the UK eventually causing his 12 string acoustic guitars to be placed into the hands of players like Eric Clapton and Spencer Davis.

Continuing to improve his methods, Zemaitis began to develop electric guitars with a number of prototypes entering into the emerging rock and roll scene. Tony’s guitars were soon being given test runs by George Harrison, Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix. Creating what would soon be the defining element of his guitars, Zemaitis started to include the recognizable metal front which he deemed was to reduce the humming of electric guitars which it was successful at. His metal adorned guitars also began to include ornate engraved headstocks and plates which soon became their identifying element. Friend and customer Danny O’Brien was brought on by Zemaitis to decorate the headstocks and the front plates with beautiful custom designs. (to this day these are still being replicated, often by machines).

At some point in 1969 and during the formative stages of ‘Faces’ one of Zemaitis guitars made it to the ‘two Ronnie’s’ of the band, Ronnie Wood and Lane. When the 'Ronnie's first started coming to the Zemaitis show, Tony wasn't aware of who they were. What he did know is that they kept returning for his guitars! Both Ronnie’s have been pictured with and used a few different Zemaitis basses and guitars during their Faces time. Some 1970 footage, and a picture included here shows Lane playing his first Tony Zemaitis creation.

By 1971 Lane would be playing the bass that most defined him and the ‘Faces’ greatest years. Lane’s Les Paul shaped black electric solid body Zemaitis bass was what Tony Zemaitis referred to as a ‘one off’.  He told the current owner of the instrument Bob Daisley that he built the instrument specifically for Lane and that Ronnie brought along his own pickups for the bass. He revealed that Lane had a set of the straight pole vintage early 1050’s Fender bass pickups and installed those in the bass. Zemaitis also stated the Ronnie Lane requested that a plate be installed where the neck joint is located on the bass. When Zemaitis told Lane that the neck was not a ‘bolt on’ and that the instrument would not require the plate Ronnie insisted on installing one as Ronnie Wood had one as well. The ‘rock room’ is under of the assumption that the first Zemaitis bass Lane received is this one here, and then Lane returned to get the subject of this post, the ‘torty’ black Zemaitis made to his specifications. While Lane’s Harmony’s from his Small Faces days were 30” scale, the Zemaitis was 32”. For his custom pieces Tony Zemaitis would measure the musicians hand and then build the instrument accordingly.

The bass guitar's funky aesthetic just bellows 'rock and roll'; a sleek black chrome hot rod look, an ornate patterned aluminum head stock and a horny Les Paul shape, but a bit more menacing. Two steely rails enclose the pick up's. The 'rock room' is unable to confirm the type of wood used for the body of the bass. I will assume that the fret board is rosewood, but don't hold me too it. In addition to the look, the bass contain four tone control knobs, two for each respective pick up, as well as a volume control on the guitar's top horn. There is a silver double bridge and the instrument resided in its own custom made Zemaitis 'coffin shaped' case.

The bass guitar’s rotund tone fit key in lock with Lane’s heavy handed thumping approach to the bass. While Lane could lay down a melody on his four string with the best of them, his fat looping phrases and funky turnarounds were the focus of the sturdy foundation of the band.  Played through a classic Ampeg flip top B-15 cabinet the guitar takes on a thick lead tone when locked in with Kenney Jones big banging sticks. Lane's lead in to 'Three Button Hand Me Down' from the band's debut encapsulates Lane's approach, technique and his instrument. A rich warm buzz emanates from Lane's picked string wounds as his bass playing alternates between lead lines and a foundational rumbling.

As stated Lane, played his 'tort' bass for Faces peak touring years (71-72) before receiving and being pictured with an additional Zemaitis bass for his final year with the group. This instrument can be seen below. It is aesthetically similar to the subject of this rant, but with a more compact body and some snazzy angled pickups. This bass can be seen and heard in action here.

Some of the most exciting existing live 'Faces' footage comes from a BBC broadcast called 'Sounds for Saturday' broadcast in 1972. Plonk's rig is fully on display and cranked to the max. The band has reached a lofty summit of their live concert abilities. Enjoy Lane's thick melodicism on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' and his funky improv's on 'Too Much Woman'. Lane was a rocker's rocker who moved air and kept the rhythm down in the bottom. Such a unique man and player deserved a custom instrument to share his gift. Lane's 'tort' Faces touring bass fit the bill. Following his departure from Faces in mid-1973 to enjoy greater freedom for his songwriting and voice, Lane began to play more often a Zemaitis resonator guitar (built in 1971) which immediately became his main instrument for playing with Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance. Once his songwriting was allowed blossomed fully, Lane decided to strum and sing his creations rather than anchor them to the earth. We are lucky and thankful he had the ability to do both flawlessly.

Faces- First Step (Album)