Talk From The Rock Room: October 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tools of the Trade: 'Torn and Frayed' Keith Richards 1953 Blackguard Telecaster 'Micawber'

One of the most recognizable and iconic instruments in rock and roll history is Keith Richards 1953 butterscotch 'Blackguard' Fender Telecaster. Named 'Micawber' after a Charles Dickens character, the worn and battle scarred guitar is the most famous of the reportedly over 3,000 guitars that Richards owns! Richards first received the instrument in 1971 during the Stones recording of Exile On Main Street, the instrument given to Richards by one Eric Clapton for a birthday gift. The guitar has undergone some changes over the intervening years, but has always been played hard and hot propagating some of the most incendiary licks in rock history. Richards is fortunate to still have the guitar because shortly after he received it in October 1971 a host of thieves made off with many of his most cherished instruments from the Stones French exile of Nelcotte. Thankfully most of the guitars were found, 'Micawber' one of them.

Gear freaks have long ruminated and debated about the internal workings and wiring of the guitar. While the innards of the guitar may never be available for inspection, what is known is that there is a 1950's era Gibson Humbucker pickup in the neck position. There is also a 1940's era Champion lap steel pickup in the guitar's bridge position. There is a stock three way switch outfitted on the guitar. The guitar does not have a visible serial number and the hardware has undergone various replacements and refits over the instruments long stage career. One of the guitars most intriguing details is the wear pattern from Richards aggressive playing found above the bridge pickup. His decades of riffing can be traced like an ancient scroll marked across the woody flesh of the guitar. Similarly to Willie Nelson's acoustic guitar 'Trigger', the nicks and dings are part of the guitars mystique and road warrior aesthetic.
While the electronics are vital to the guitars performance and sound, the instruments famous tone is due to its legendary operator. Reference Richards famous quote, Five strings, two notes, two fingers, one asshole'. Richards plays the guitar like a jagged electric banjo, emanating a big brassy drone. Richards outfitted 'Micawber' with a brass bridge, its sixth string saddle removed for his five string open tuning approach. Richards usually plays this guitar through a pair of rare Fender Tweed Twins. You cannot get anymore vintage than these amazing classic amplifiers. All of the aforementioned factors are a defining element in the Richards/Stones sound. Obviously Richards gear is in constant flux, he says himself that its a continuous experimentation in tone. But the fundamental foundation of his sound is to be witnessed in the aforementioned components.
As recognizable as a fingerprint, 'Micawber's' sound combined with Richards' Chuck Berry riffing and clangorous chords are the hallmark to the Stones bluesy strut. 'Micawber' is the guitar most associated with Richards and due to its influence and use, has to be considered his favorite stage guitar. Richards can also be seen playing a banged up 54' Telecaster named 'Malcolm',that looks very similar to 'Micawber' but contains a natural grain and noticeable hardware differences. 66' and 75' Telecasters are also favored by Richards on the stage and in the studio in addition to a plethora of late era models . I have included a video below that shows an intimate glimpse of a few of Richards guitars right off of the rack. But the standard remains, the special honey blond 53..... as dependable as the sun rising and setting everyday.
Tracks like' Brown Sugar', 'Start Me Up', 'Happy' and 'Tumblin Dice' are some of the more recognizable recipients of  'Micawber' internal components and external sonic expressions on the stage. Footage from the famed 1972 tour show 'Micawber' used stunningly on a number of classic tracks. It's thick honey can be felt all over the Exile LP. At this current point in the Stones and Richards career, certain guitars are tuned and prepared for certain tunes at certain points in the performance. 'Micawber' is still a standard and as irreplaceable as its handler but many other soldiers in Richards guitar army of 3,000 have to get their turn in the spotlight. Any number of classic Gibson's also make nightly appearances side by side with his favorite Fender's, its whatever instrumental personality fits the tale of the song. 'Micawber's' personality is etched in stone, an extension of Richards musicality and reflection of his musical aura, as inseparable from Richards as his own being.

Keef's Guitars

Richards On the Telecaster

All Down the Line 1972

Happy 1972

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Byrds - 'Just Before You Get To The Dream' -Younger Than Yesterday LP 1967

Long loved and often revisited, today in the rock room spins a mono version of the diverse ‘Byrds’ 1967 LP, Younger Than Yesterday. The record is a wonderful document of the post-Gene Clark group, showcasing Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman’s blossoming songwriting and composing skills.  The four piece band would soon fracture due to their increasingly divergent styles and personalities but in the case of this featured recording, the tincture of blended talents equate to a multifarious and spectral slice of mid 1960’s psychedelic, jazz and sonic experimentation.
The record opens cinematically with the famous ‘So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star’ the, luscious mono mix popping with Hillman’s plump and excited bass lines. Jazz star Hugh Masekela blows horn over the undulating percussion driven groove. Hillman’s maturation as a songwriter and bass player has now equaled his fellow Byrds by this point in their respective careers, taking into account his output on this record. Groovy horns, artificial screams, and driving instrumentation make up this famed Byrds track and sly dig at the then current state of the music scene.

The chunky and Hillman penned “Have You See Her Face’ follows and spotlights a full Byrds spectral vocal blend.  Special notice to McGuinn’s fearless and distorted guitar quote, a departure from his usual tone and injecting a crunchy melody that makes the song. The tone is mouthwatering.  This song sways with an absolutely stellar groove and offers the finest contributions from the entire band. Michael Clark pounds the skins with a Rand B fervor that tightens down the bolts. The mono mix of the song is of note, as it is full of groovy details and close mic’d vocal nuance.

‘C.T.A.-102’ develops clandestinely and appears as an extra terrestrial number born from Roger McGuinn’s interest in outer space and futuristic technologies. By the end of the tune the aliens have made contact and the song is transmitted to a distant quasar to which alternate life is perplexed by the earthling’s sonic offering. The tune’s most endearing quality is its mixing of traditional verse construction with far-out electronic manipulations. This album was released in Feburary 1967, so its experiments with sound manipulations spearheaded by producer Gary Usher, were contemporary and cutting edge. Hillman plays with authority once again, disseminating experimental lines that defy the gravity being created in the oscillating waves of found sound.

‘Renaissance Fair’ follows and in my humble opinion is the band’s finest moment on this LP.  McGuinn’s circular and ringing picking signals the tune, Crosby then slashes the starry veil with thick strums, while Hillman struts up and down the fret board in a flowery and glorious syncopation. Clarke snaps the snare and the Byrds velvet blend begins its walk into the dreamy summer season of verses. This song streams, a regal flag that illustrates and distills the essence of the 1960’s into a two minute song eliciting hopefulness and a simplistic flamboyance.
Hillman takes lead vocal duties on ‘Time Between’ another one of his numbers that hold up as some of the strongest in the Byrds catalog. Future Byrd guitarist, Hillman friend and guitar master Clarence White takes a stringy series of sweet ‘B-Bending’quotes under and on top of the verses. Country rock? This is it. One of the first examples of the juxtaposition of the genres in Pop, if that is your thing. This song is so god damn catchy it makes you wonder why it wasn’t all over the FM airwaves. Probably because it was located a bit too far down the overgrown back roads for the mainstream public.

Quintessential Crosby, ‘Everybody Has Been Burned’ closes out the first side with bluesy and dramatic psychedelia. Only David Crosby could compose the idiosyncratic changes and content of a song such as this. It drifts like smoke… transparent yet tangible, only coming into focus when passing in front of light. The song rotates with its eyes closed on McGuinn’s spinning top picking. Hillman swells with a simple but effective statement, over it all Crosby pours warm honey with his tranquil vocal delivery. McGuinn later takes a minimalist solo that scratches every itch through singular chorused Rickenbacker plucks.

The flip side of the record becomes more experimental and slowly reveals its sonic secrets like an aural black light poster. The second side begins with the Chris Hillman penned song and total contrast to ‘Time Between’,Thoughts and Words’.  The ethnic purple paisley sounding verses elicit George Harrison through the vocals and by the chorus turns a groovy garage funk. Backwards guitars leave day-glo paint streaks through the tension filled changes.  When the verses again return the vocals are then embraced with alternating and echoed vocal lines. Ace classic rock goods to be enjoyed here.

‘Mind Gardens’ follows and is the exact type of song that got Crosby removed from the Byrds. Too weird for some of the band members, this is the kind of tune that Crosby fans loves him for. It is written that McGuinn DID NOT want this song on the LP. Over shimmering 12 string guitar Crosby creates vocal melody lines that drone, soar and dissipate into themselves above a constantly shifting river of rhythms and reversed studio created sound. Formless but glowing with color, ‘Mind Garden’s isn’t a song to grace a single, it’s a forward thinking musical creation born of following the muse.
The only Dylan song to be featured on the LP, ‘My Back Pages’ allows the perfect and recognizable triad of Byrds vocals to pyramid from the speakers. The title of the record influenced from the lyrics of this song. As was often their wont the Byrds take Dylan’s poignant declaration and form it into an electrified three part harmony attack. The internal conflicts of the band are illustrated here through a track listing. Crosby’s expansive drug fueled flip outs versus the reliance on the Dylan warhorses to please the masses.

Hillman is given another lead vocal on his own ‘The Girl with No Name’, in my opinion slightly inferior to ‘Time Between’, but nonetheless a solid song well deserving of its position of the LP. Chewing on straw the song slyly gets a country kiss on its rock and roll cheek. Hillman shows off his ability to swindle up a memorable melody line with the best of em.

Crosby’s song ‘Why’ closes the album in a move often questioned because of its inclusion as a ‘B’ side on the previously released ‘Eight Mikes High’ single. Regardless of the motivation, the version featured here contains a quivering ‘raga’ solo by McGuinn during the middle of the song and hula hoop bass licks by Hillman throughout. Crosby is draped in his perfect early career voice that soothes even when crooning aggressively.

With that, the LP reaches its conclusion, a solitary thirty minute volume in the turbulent history of the ‘Byrds’. A fine record by any account, it reveals a group with willingness to experiment and ability to cross pollinate genres while exhibiting a tangible growth as musical artists. The album itself plays beautifully and contains instrumental personality as well as sonic clarity. The mono mix is highly recommended. Enjoyed front to back, the ‘Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday can take the willing listener on a trip through the past, into the present and the thoughtful, onward toward the future.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Put the Boot In: Pink Floyd 'Stoned Alone' September 13, 1967 Copenhagen, Denmark

Dug out of the 'rock room' archive today comes a live 'Pink Floyd' recording from 1967 featuring founding member Syd Barrett. One of only a couple of circulating live recordings with Barrett, this purported audience master has its sonic issues but all in all is an enjoyable and sometimes hallucinatory experience. The vocals are unfortunately nonexistent for the most part, but the instruments are clear and well balanced. I believe the field recording must have been recorded 'behind' the PA speakers, hence the lack of vocals. The concert took place at the Star Club in Copenhagen on September 13, 1967 the last night of a three night stand. This is a rough and ready document of the Pink Floyd in their embryonic stages as space splitting psychedelic sonic travelers.

The recording opens with 'Reaction In G' aka 'Stoned Alone' an unreleased Barrett instrumental. The band comes out a shapeless hallucinatory beast. Molten waves of silver guitar fly's inches from the audience heads. Waters bass is lysergic rope lassoing the auditory nerves of anyone within ear shot. The band swells and deflates, a liquid acid trip. Mason and Barrett wind serpentine spectrum of sound around one another. At close to four minutes the music starts to swallow itself whole, Barrett doesn't solo in a contemporary sense, he coaxes electric waves and crawling insect string work.  While the sonic's of the recording muffle at some points, this mammoth jam is well preserved and the anomalies are forgotten

A quick 'thank you' from the stage and the band begins 'Arnold Layne', their first single release. A well played black light psychedelic classic, unfortunately here the vocals are obscured. What the tape does capture though is a fuzzy stomp and a syrupy collaboration that puts to shame the sometimes contrived efforts of contemporaries likes the 'Rolling Stones' and the 'Beatles'. This version of 'Arnold Layne' does stay close to home as far as arrangement, but is a nice sampling of early live Floyd.
A short bit of tuning and a Waters introduction and then the band enters 'One In a Million', another unreleased Barrett song. 'One In a Million' is a shady flat line stomp that leaves a waxy trail in its wake. The vocals are improved on the tape somewhat on this song with Barrett on lead and being supported on the chorus by Waters (I think). A scratchy static washboard rhythm, deep rich bass and roughly textured keyboards are the chemical make up of the song. Mason keeps a bricklayers beat ( I wish he came in a bit clearer) and at four minutes initiates comets starting to streak and the song losing its gravity. Invisible doors open, spectral shadows hide for cover and the sinister vocals again return, edgy, a group of druggy punks.

A restrained round of applause is received before the band begins 'Matilda Mother'. Richard Wright takes on vocal duties for the stratospheric fairy tale. The liquid light song reveals its central change perfectly, Wright moans, puddling organ flourishes while Waters and Barrett envelope themselves in a delirious tumble through spilled paint. The song builds to a raving climax, a wash of sound steered through the multi-colored fogs by Waters deeply rooted bass. The song concludes in a weightless drift with the three drum-less instrumentalists embracing arms around an alien sun. Heavy.
Another unreleased' Floyd track follows with , 'Scream Thy Last Scream' a tribal and erratic track that was slated to be a Floyd single and one of Barrett's final contributions. Here it is given a sludgy but well arranged workout. Barrett's Danelectro guitar drags its silvery nails across the Waters/Mason rhythm section. The song rotates, a crystal hung in direct sunlight, spectral moments captured and dispersed. Everything is breathing with the organic drone that slowly gains purchase. First Wright, then Barrett discover glistening pieces of found sound from the aural rubble. Mason gets excited and begins to pummel his kit, Waters stutters on a scale before strangling his instrument in satisfaction. The band coalesces into a bubbling melt landing in a a trippy restatement of the songs theme.

Soon to become a Pink Floyd classic, the concert closes with the first song off of their debut LP, 'Astronomy Domine'. Another Barrett penned number, the song became a concert favorite when he was in the band and continued to be played into the early 1970's. The version here is a dynamic attack with the entire band showing an attentiveness and high concentration to performing a great version. Barrett plays of series of flashing quotes on the theme with Waters mirroring them in kind. The tension builds as Floyd tug at the edges of the song building the anticipation before relieving themselves in the chromatic howling chorus. The concert ends in a sticky downhill tumble before the band lands perfectly into a lush green pile of ancient sticks and stones.
While this concert takes place toward the end of Syd Barrett's tenure with the Floyd, the concert still finds Syd in fine form and at moments displaying other worldly guitar communications. The rarity of the song choices as well as the performance and recording make this unique concert a must have for any psychedelic music collection. The existing recording also proves the there are always differing views of history as the band sounds strong, as well as breaking new ground throughout the concert. Many reports have Barrett being a deterrent to the group during this era, which he may have been, just not on this particular night. The original four piece Floyd on an ancient tape is the stuff dreams are made of. For those interested, also hunt down the November 13, 1967 recording from Rotterdam which also finds the Barrett led group enjoying an extremely hallucinatory evening. That recording is sonically similar to this reviewed recording and likewise features an incendiary display.

One In A Million-9/13//67

Matilda Mother 9/13/67

Arnold Layne 9/13/67