Ireland lost one of its greatest ever musicians on Friday 3rd August 2018, Tommy Peoples. Though I didn't know Tommy well, the news of his passing gradually engulfed me in a kind of numb grief I hadn't experienced since James Byrne died a decade ago. Grief not just for the gentle soul I'd briefly had the honour of knowing, but grief for the end of an incredible musical legacy.
When James Byrne left this earth a huge store of music and folklore left with him. His death created a void that will never be replaced.
The same is true for Tommy Peoples. If anything the void is greater because Tommy was not just a remarkable fiddle player and encyclopedia of tunes like his friend James Byrne was, Tommy Peoples was one of Ireland's most original composers of 'traditional' music. Scratch that limitation, he was simply one of Ireland's greatest ever composers.
The only musician to win a TG4 Gradam Ceoil as a performer and composer, he was also the only traditional fiddle player/composer to be admitted into Aosdána, the so-called 'elite' body of Irish artists. Though the merits of Aosdána are much debated, the admittance of Tommy Peoples into Aosdána in 2012 was hugely significant to many in the traditional music world. Peoples himself reacted with typical modesty when speaking with the Journal of Music.
‘It’s not something I’m very familiar with,’ Peoples declared. ‘I’ve no familiarity with procedures or for that matter behaviour. I’m hoping it’s kind of low key.’
Peoples' significance as a musician has been much spoken about since he passed away. He's undoubtedly one of the most influential fiddle players in the history of Irish music. From his fiery, edgy style with The Bothy Band in the 1970's to the delicate, achingly poignant style of his later years, few others have reached the depths of expression Tommy Peoples reached in over 50 years of music making.
I could go into an academic treatise about his compositions but, if you know and love traditional music, they speak for themselves. If you don't know and love traditional music you likely won't understand why I speak of Tommy Peoples as one of Ireland's greatest composers in any genre. That's your loss.
Instead I'd like to share a bit about my experience of accompanying him on stage and learning one of his tunes directly from him.
In 2012 I put together a tour called 'The Tune Makers' with the help of Arts Council funding. Tommy agreed to join Liz Carroll, Máirtín O'Connor and I for two dates on the tour, in glór, Ennis and Ionad Cois Locha, Donegal.
As part of the show Tommy had a solo slot of about 25 minutes. When we got together on the day of the first show I was both over-joyed and a little apprehensive when he asked me to accompany him on guitar. I'd heard from other guitarists (and seen evidence in concerts) that Tommy didn't rehearse much with his accompanists, he often decided what to play on the spot.
For a seasoned accompanist in Irish music this wouldn't usually be too difficult a task as, the more you play Irish music, the more you learn how to anticipate the harmonic changes inherent in traditional melodies. Accompanying on the fly is a common skill we develop in sessions.
The difference with Tommy was his extraordinary imagination and flair for very unusual melodic directions. When you accompany a musician like Tommy you have to REALLY listen and expect the unexpected.
I did this with him for a total of about 50 minutes over two concerts. It was a hair-raising yet magically transcendent experience. In those brief moments I felt an incredible connection to a kind of spontaneous, soulful creative genius that I've never encountered before or since.
I was particularly moved by his own compositions, some of which he didn't give a name to at the time. Often in unusual keys and modes for Irish music like F or Bb, with very unusual twists, turns and leaps and occasionally daring to go where most Irish fiddle players don't go - higher than first position. Tommy's tunes are a beautiful harmonic minefield to negotiate as an accompanist.
I didn't speak much with Tommy at the time, he was a man of few words, but the words he used were kind and knowledgable yet peppered with wry humour. There was certainly sadness in his eyes and music, but I detected an equal amount of joyousness too. A feeling reflected in these wonderful words about Irish music from Peoples the Philosopher.
“The music expresses joy, terrible loss, hope, love and defiance. It has stayed with us when we had our own people crushed by oppression, our language killed by force and intimidation… Irish music was a joy to me… it spoke to me of the people who bore all this hardship and came through singing.”
A few years before the Tune Makers tour I met Tommy for the first time at a masterclass in the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey, where he was musician in residence. As luck would have it there were only two other people there, so we were treated to a very intimate audience with him.
Though my own fiddle playing ability was very limited then (and the others weren't much better!) he patiently thought us a beautifully melancholy jig he composed called 'The Kinnycally'. A common trademark of an artistic genius is they are often highly self-critical and modest about their creations. Tommy came across that way as he taught us his new jig with almost painful reluctance. “You probably won't like it” he said. Little did he realise how awe-struck we were by his music and presence. After he played it with tentative humility, I sat there scratching through it with nervous embarrassment.
Shortly afterwards I asked Tommy for his permission to record it for my Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar album. Thankfully he agreed. It's the only recording of the tune I know of, it surely won't be the last. Many of Tommy's wonderful tunes are collected in his book Ó Am go hAm - From Time to Time. Essential learning for anyone interested in the art of tune composition.
I'm so grateful to have briefly known, played with and learnt from Tommy Peoples. I'll forever cherish those intimate moments I shared with a true genius of Irish music.
Your soul lives on in your music and family
The Kinnycally Jig - Tommy Peoples
A news story today about the great actor Anthony Hopkins has triggered an interesting memory from my musical past that I'd like to share.
The story leads with this provocative headline -
Anthony Hopkins doesn’t know and doesn’t care if he’s a grandfather
The journalist goes on to detail how Anthony Hopkins is estranged from his daughter Abigail, a musician and actress.
I was interested to read that they are estranged because many moons ago, when I lived in London, I found myself 'auditioning' to be Abigail Hopkins' guitarist!
If memory serves correctly I responded to an online ad from a songwriter looking for a guitarist. The songwriter was called Abigail Hopkins. Given her surname I naturally wondered whether she might be related to Anthony Hopkins. The chance of meeting Mr. Hopkins through her wasn't my motivation for replying to the ad though. I was just looking for work as a guitarist. So I contacted her and she responded and asked to meet me. The name 'Anthony' didn't enter our emails.
A day or two later she visited my Finsbury Park apartment to audition me. As she entered the apartment I was taken aback at her resemblance to Anthony Hopkins. She looked like a young Anthony Hopkins playing a red-haired, goth drag queen. Yet still I had no confirmation she was his daughter, or perhaps niece. I kept quiet on the matter and decided it best not to mention him. After all, I was only really interested in getting work as a guitarist.
So Abigail sat down and chatted with me for a while. Very soon into the conversation, without any prompting, she confirmed her father's identity.
'In case you didn't know I should tell you Anthony Hopkins is my father' she said, 'I'm trying to make my way without using his name though.'
'Oh really that's very interesting, I didn't know!' said I in the higher than necessary pitch of a pubescent teenager.
It was clear that she didn't really want to talk about him, so I left it at that and suggested we try jamming on one of her songs.
Even though I was technically the one auditioning I sensed she was a bit nervous as she took out her pristine nylon string guitar. She made a modest comment about her limited guitar skills and then launched into a strange, atonal song.
It'd be fair to say Abigail's singing talents don't match her father's acting talents. She sang with a tormented wail, the kind that quite a lot of people seem to like for reasons I'll never understand. I remember thinking early on that her style really wasn't something I was into. The feeling was probably mutual.
We jammed away to a few songs and had a pleasant conversation but within an hour or two Abigail Hopkins was gone. I never saw her again or heard about her music again.
The Silence of the Jams.....
Afterwards I must admit my only regret was that I never got to meet Anthony Hopkins.
News reports would suggest however that even if I had ended up being Abigail Hopkins' guitarist, I still wouldn't have met Sir Anthony Hopkins!
The end of streaming is nigh
Recently I instigated a process that will remove all my albums from streaming services. This includes Spotify, iTunes, youtube, Amazon etc. Within the next month or so my music will disappear from these platforms (with the exception of some youtube videos).
My reason for doing this is simple, all these companies are ripping artists off. Music streaming, though good for record company pockets and major label artists, is not good for independent artists. The CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek is worth nearly $3 billion, yet he claims that Spotify couldn't operate if they paid more to artists.
What's really happening here is the huge income being generated through streaming is going into the pockets of executives, not artists. Record companies have cut deals with Spotify and other services that only benefit them and their major acts.
The record profits in the music industry aren't going back to artists, especially not independent artists. So if you'd like independent artists to be able to continue making records then please support us directly.
If you've enjoyed streaming my music on Spotify, iTunes etc. and would like to keep listening to it please buy it directly from me at a show or through my website
It's only the price of a couple of coffees or beers!
I'm still using CDBaby and Bandcamp to sell mp3's directly because they are independent, their sales seem to be transparent and go straight to artists.
CDs are only available directly from me at a show or my website. If you order directly from me I'll send you a signed copy too!
Without this kind of direct support from you I can't continue to make records. It's not about making profit, it's about being able to continue to make art in an aggressively anti-art digital age.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and for supporting the work of independent artists.
p.s. This isn't a publicity stunt a la Taylor Swift, the Spotify devil ain't gonna negotiate a better deal with me!!!
Tonight, 11th July 2017 at 10pm Ireland's finest radio broadcaster Carl Corcoran will, for one last time, present The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM.
It is a sad and momentous moment for Irish music.
No other broadcaster has given so much support to Irish musicians as Carl has done over the past decade on this seminal late night radio show.
I'm just one of countless Irish musicians he has regularly played side by side with J.S. Bach, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, the Bothy Band and other musical legends from across the wide spectrum of classical, traditional, jazz, folk, pop and other music from around the world.
Beyond that, no other broadcaster I've heard has Carl's ability to mix these vastly different genres so seamlessly that you rarely, if ever, feel compelled to 'touch that dial'.
Carl's abilities as a broadcaster are literally second to none. Being a night owl who travels a lot I've heard late night radio on stations across Europe, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Whilst there are some excellent broadcasters like Verity Sharp on BBC's Late Junction and WNYC's John Schaefer, Carl easily holds his own at the top of the list of international late night broadcasters. It's no wonder people tune into him all over the world.
Carl is a sorcerer of sound, a living sound-cloud, a masterful genre-hopper who can make sense of the muddled puzzle of a Spotify-fueled modern world so full of music it can be hard to know where to begin at times. Now that he's leaving Lyric FM, against his will, there's a huge hole to fill. I don't envy the person who has to take over from Carl. His boots will be as hard to fill as Alex Ferguson's were at Man Utd, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. His replacement could become known as the David Moyes of Irish radio........
It's impossible for RTÉ to replace Carl and it was very foolish of them to let him go. Carl Corcoran IS The Blue of the Night. Without him it's just another radio show. No matter who they get to replace Carl, Irish radio just won't be the same. As far as I'm concerned 'The Blue of the Night' ends as a radio show on 12th July 2017.
Often, when he goes to an ad break Carl says 'don't touch that dial'. Tonight, for the last time, I won't touch that dial. But once Carl Corcoran's final 'Blue of the Night' comes to a close and Carl goes to a permanent 'Blue of the Night' break, the dial will be turned to silence.
Thank you Carl Corcoran for your many years of support and brilliant broadcasting, your warm radio voice will be very, very sadly missed. Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.............
Epilogue: Messages in a Blue Bottle
Just as a mark of the man, I'd like to share two emails Carl Corcoran sent me 'out of the blue' in 2010. I'm sure he won't mind me sharing this correspondence.
Email 1: First Contact
The first email I ever received from Carl is the first correspondence I ever received from an Irish broadcaster (unless a childhood autograph from Mike Murphy counts!). Carl's email came after my friend and former manager Eamon O'Donnell, unbeknownst to me, called into RTÉ with one of my CD's. As fate would have it, it ended up on Carl's desk and he's been playing my music ever since.
Date: Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 2:59 PM
Subject: CD Delivery
I received a copy of your CD "Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar"
- dropped into Donnybrook. I don't know if you arranged/did that - but
many thanks. I have enjoyed listening to it and will be adding it to
the Playlists in the coming weeks.
My first ever message to Carl in reply shares a sentiment that many other musicians will identify with -
Many thanks for your email. Great to hear from you and I'm delighted
you enjoy my CD. I'm honoured that you are adding it to your playlist.
I often drive late at night after gigs and sessions and tune into the
Blue of the Night, so I look forward to hearing myself on your show
Email 2: The Warmest and Heartiest of Praise
Carl stayed true to his promise (not all broadcasters do) and he has played my music far more than any other broadcaster. Many musicians will tell you the same of their music. His support led me to invite Carl to the premiere of my fiddle concerto Aontacht, performed by Martin Hayes and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the National Concert Hall later in 2010.
Following the concert Carl sent me this email 'out of the blue'
Date: Thu, Nov 25, 2010 at 2:07 PM
Heartiest congratulations on last night's SPECTACULAR! It was seriously excellent. Like you, I have the highest regard for the talents of Martin, and the magic of Hayes and Cahill. To hear them, and the music, in the context of orchestra was an exhilarating experience. Your composition and arranging skills captured the essence of the music and the musicians better than any such trad/classical combinations I have heard. The "marriage" of the genres was true to the spirit of the music and the tradition - well done. This was achieved mainly due to your knowledge of the music, your innate sense of music and your talent as an arranger/composer. Due praise should be heaped on the composer, soloists, orchestra and very especially for David Brophy whose enthusiasm and passion for the works infused the musicians on the stage and the audience alike.
Thanks for the opportunity of being present for this unique experience. I look forward to a recording of the works, which I hope is imminent.
Kindest regards and continued success.
I received many messages of congratulations after that concert. None were as, knowledgeable and heartfelt as Carl's. His warm, genial, velvety voice reflects the man he is.
p.s. to Carl - A recording of the works was imminent but unfortunately still hasn't seen the light of day and I don't know if/when it ever will, but that's another story involving the lack of foresight of the Powers That Be in RTÉ which you may be able to relate to!!!!!!
Maybe it's because I'm an 80's child, maybe it's just a matter of musical taste, but the news today of the untimely death of the former artist known as Prince has impacted me a whole lot more than the death of David Bowie just a few months ago.
Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of Bowie's music and I mourned his passing, but to me, for his 80's output alone, Prince is in another (Paisley) park in terms of creativity, musicianship and pure pop music brilliance.
It often takes the death of a great artist for people to take stock and fully realise the artist's genius. In Prince's case it's particularly true because for most of the past 25 years he hasn't come close to touching his prolific, almost flawless 80's output. He's gained more headlines for his personal life and fights against the nasty music business than for any of his inconsistent post-80's music.
Yet his death has made me consider what it is about his work that appeals to me way more than more universally lauded icons like Bowie, Dylan, Springsteen and Lennon. Prince is rarely spoken of in the same terms as these artists and perhaps he shouldn't, because his genius was on another level to them all.
A key reason to why he's not yet appreciated in the same way is the era he became famous in, the era I grew up in. The 1980's have only very recently become 'cool' again. For the entire 1990's and much of the 2000's the 80's just weren't cool. So there was no way music critics would mention Prince in the same breath as the legends of the 50's, 60's and 70's. But just take a sampling of his big and not so big 80's hits and it becomes clear Prince is one of THE great songwriters of the 20th Century, right up there with Bowie, Dylan et al.
1999, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Sign O'The Times, I Would Die 4 U, Raspberry Beret, Little Red Corvette, Kiss, Alphabet St, Batdance, Girls and Boys, Controversy, Let's Go Crazy, Pop Life, the list goes on and there's plenty of great album tracks too.
Not to mention the career-defining hits other artists had with songs he wrote - Chaka Khan with 'I Feel for You', Sinéad O'Connor with 'Nothing Compares 2 U', The Bangles with 'Manic Monday'.
Much more than a Singer-Songwriter
In the 80's Prince was a hit machine and ALL his hits are enduring classics.
But where he trumps all other pop/rock artists, be it Bowie, Dylan, Springsteen, Lennon and almost any other pop/rock icon I can think of (even Kate Bush) is the pure scope of his creative genius. Just take stock of the following information and consider if any other pop star compares to him!
1. Genius Songwriter/Producer/Arranger
He wrote, produced and arranged ALL his albums, enough said.
2. Guitar God
He was a FANTASTIC rock, funk and pop guitarist with his own recognisable style, capable of the funkiest of rhythms and the most blistering solos since Hendrix. Yet his perfectly placed single ringing guitar note in 'I Would Die 4 U' illustrates how he was always in service of the song. He also turned the art of over-indulgent fret-wank on its head during performances of his controversial song 'Head', where he treated his guitar in a manner appropriate to the song lyrics! Perhaps the most under-rated rock guitarist, he's up there with Hendrix and WAY ahead of Clapton.
3. Virtuoso Vocalist
He was an incredible singer with a distinctive and versatile voice. From screaming falsetto to soulful tenor to deep-toned croons that he layered in wonderfully creative ways.
4. Magical Multi-instrumentalist
He played nearly all the instruments on his records. Famously, when the record company executive who eventually signed him heard his demo he said to the scout 'Who is this band, they're great', the scout looked at his boss and said 'That's not a band, it's one 17 year old kid playing and singing everything!'.
5. Talent-Spotting Star-Maker
He had a great knack for spotting talent and groomed many of his proteges to become stars in their own right – Wendy & Lisa, The Time, Sheila E and, most incredibly of all, he turned wide-eyed Scottish Eurovision singer Sheena Easton into a funky, sexy 80's icon!
6. Era-defining lyricist
His imaginative politically and sexually charged lyrics defined the era. None more so than 'Sign O' the Times', my generation's 'Blowin' in the Wind'. He also predicted text message speak with songs like 'I Would Die 4 U' and 'I Wish U Heaven'. Prince can also be credited with provoking all those 'Parental Advisory' stickers that have become a status symbol for hip-hop and metal acts. Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center in response to being offended by the sexual content of the Purple Rain song 'Darling Nikki'. The offending lyric seems so tame by today's standards -
'I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess u could say she was a sex fiend, I met her in a hotel lobby, Masturbating with a magazine.'
7. The Prince of Performers
He was a master showman and band leader, a dynamic stage presence with a great sense of theatrics. One of my biggest regrets now is that I never saw him live, but the concert films he made are a testament to his brilliance as a live performer. Many people rank him as one of the best live performers of all time. This grainy but brilliant concert from 1982 (just before he went HUGE) explains why - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAYQUbh8HHA
8. Fashion Icon
One of his biggest hits 'U Got the Look' summed up his visual genius too. He is regularly described as a style icon. The way he styled himself and his band 'The Revolution' was just perfect for the time and his famous purple royalty look is one of the few styles from the 'decade that fashion forgot' that still look good today. Whilst his hit-making ability faded, he remained stylish to the end.
9. Making Odd Mainstream
He created some downright odd tunes that no one else could've turned into a hit, the prime examples being his extraordinary 'Batdance' and 'When Doves Cry'. His albums also contain some bizarre, almost avant-garde interludes such as the strange backwards vocalisations that follow 'Darling Nikki'.
10. The Trademark Beat
He had his own patented rhythm, heard in most of his 80's songs. A standard 4/4 beat with an accented electronic hand-clap on the fourth beat, so simple yet so distinctive. Once you hear it you know it's Prince.
11. Video Pioneer
His videos were groundbreaking, from the perfect 'band' video '1999' to the stark simplicity of 'Sign O' The Times' and the provocative seduction of 'Kiss' he was always one step ahead of the MTV generation. Duran Duran didn't stand a chance!
He was a master orchestrator whose orchestra was the 80's studio. He combined multi-layered vocals, snyths, drum machines and guitars (and later strings, winds and brass) with a level of sophistication to rival any of pop music's great orchestrators. Brian Wilson, George Martin, Phil Spector you name it, Prince is right up there with them.
13. The Born Star
Prince was his actual real birth name! Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he didn't need a gimmicky stage name, he was simply born to be a star.
14. Creative Integrity
He always fought for creative control, from insisting on producing his first album aged 18 to changing his name to a squiggle to confound his exploitative record company Warner Bros, to speaking out and acting against the artist-exploiting streaming age of Youtube, Spotify . Yes kids, you won't find much of his music on youtube or similar sites. That's why there's no links to his iconic videos here.
Whether you're a Millennial who's not so familiar with his work or one of those people who liked his hits but never bought an album, the best thing to do is forget about Spotify and Youtube, just go and buy his great treasure trove of 80's records, Purple Rain, 1999, Parade, Around the World in A Day, Batman, Controversy, Lovesexy, Dirty Mind.
Though his big hits continued through the early 90's, I was never so taken with his 90's New Power Generation. The saccharine 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World' marked the point where I lost interest in his new releases. Occasionally a new album would come out and be hailed as 'a return to form' by press releases, but this was always a case of hype over substance. His last albums HITnRUN Phase One and Two being cases in point. Ok albums but paling in comparison to his astonishingly consistent run of 80's classics.
The Bowie of the 80's
Whether you like his music or not, there's no disputing Prince's genius. He was the Bowie of the 80's, pioneering new sounds, visuals and fashions. Prince defined a decade at a time when Bowie was out of original ideas and turning to Nile Rodgers to revive his career with the kind of funk-pop that Prince could come up with in his sleep.
But the point of this isn't to say Prince was better than Bowie, that's all a matter of personal taste, the point is to demonstrate why Prince Rogers Nelson can and should, at the very least, be mentioned in the same breath as Bowie and all the other pop music icons that the mainstream press worship as music royalty.
Prince is dead, long live the Purple Prince of Pop.
Greek philosopher Socrates once said 'No one ever raised a monument for a critic'.
Then Jean Sibelius famously paraphrased,
'Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.'
Now, the critics think they have forever got one up on Socrates and Sibelius because film critic Roger Ebert had a statue built in his honour.
Yes that's the same Roger Ebert who gave bad reviews to classics like The Godfather Part 2, Blade Runner, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Full Metal Jacket!
Apparently the critics say their 'beloved' Roger deserves his statue, but the critics, as is often the case, are wrong.
So critics, pay attention to my update of the Socrates/Sibelius critic critique.
'The only reason a statue was put up to Roger Ebert is because no statue was ever put up to a critic.'
It’s almost a week since I attended Kate Bush’s extraordinary comeback show ‘Before the Dawn’ in London’s Hammersmith Apollo and I’m still thinking about it, a lot. I don't consider this a review of the event since I couldn't bear the idea of being likened to a critic, rather these are personal reflections intended to describe the event for those who weren't fortunate enough to be there.
Immediately after the gig I had a strange kind of feeling, a kind of detachment that didn’t make any sense because the show was absolutely spectacular. My mind was processing the detachment as me being disappointed at the show but in hindsight I realise, I wasn’t disappointed, I was awe-struck and almost speechless.
The problem with being a musician attending other people’s concerts is that you always notice the imperfections and dwell on them much more than the average person.
So, immediately after the show my mind was nit-picking, being a critic thinking about the bits that didn’t quite work; the fact that she didn’t use live strings, the fact that she didn’t end the show with Dave Gilmour ripping a solo through ‘Wuthering Heights’, the fact that Peter Gabriel didn’t turn up to duet with her, feeling slight disappointment about the great songs she didn’t fit into her 3 hour show, thinking about some of the technical sound issues that occasionally cropped up.
All these are the hallmarks of a musician’s response to a gig.
But after the show my mind was just in its infancy of processing what I’d just witnessed.
Now though,thinking back to what I was thinking DURING the show I realise it’s probably the greatest pop/rock performance I’ve ever witnessed. It was astounding, unpredictable, joyous and moving.
Act I - The Unexpected Opening
It all started so unexpectedly ‘normal’. At 7.45 any fears that she might chicken-out at the last minute were laid to rest when she danced her way on stage in a conga line with several dancers as her 12 piece band launched into ‘Lily’, a lesser known album track from The Red Shoes. No one saw that coming!
Those who were used to seeing all those early sexy images of Kate Bush might be shocked with how she’s changed, but reality check needed, she’s a 56 year old Mum who has avoided the cosmetically obsessed pressures of pop stardom for the last 20 years. So, rather than being a mess of plastic surgery and insane fitness regimes like some singers of a similar age, she just looked like a glamorous, slightly eccentric 56 year old Mum, which is exactly what she is!
But the concert was never about how she looked, it was about how she performed.
First test was THAT voice:
At the start it was kinda hard to tell from where I was sitting up towards the back of the circle, her voice was a bit low in the drum-dominated mix but eventually the sound engineer sorted it out and she could be heard in all her glory. On ‘Lily’ and ‘The Hounds of Love’ she sounded a little tentative but still sounded way better than most singers, but I wasn’t comparing her to other singers, I was comparing her to herself.
Happily the adulation being thrown at her from the enraptured audience in those opening, historic moments only seemed to give her more confidence and after she sang ‘Joanni’ from Aerial and ‘Top of the City’ from The Red Shoes her voice had blossomed into that sensual and soaring powerful instrument we hear on her records. She really nailed the impassioned vocal dynamics of ‘Top of the City’, turning it into so much more powerful a song than it is on record. That highlighted part of the real beauty of this concert, all of these songs, bar one, had never been performed live by Kate Bush and the live setting gave many of the songs new life outside of the records, as so often happens.
But there was something very strange about the performance of these first few songs. After all the speculation surrounding a spectacular live show, these opening songs were presented in a simple stripped down stage presentation, just Kate singing at the front of her band of seasoned pros. The only thing that was unusual was the fact that her 16 year old son Bertie was part of the backing vocal group, which made the backing vocals sound eerily like Kate harmonising with herself.
‘Running Up That Hill’ was greeted with an enormous roar and, like several songs during the show, a standing ovation, but still it was just the normal rock n’roll show staging and this wasn’t at all what we were expecting.
The standard rock show format continued through ‘King of the Mountain’ from Aerial and I was beginning to think the show might be a bit underwhelming, but then almost out of nowhere the song started building to an ominous climax, the stage started getting dark and hey presto, the magic began. The almost bland staging of the opening six songs turned out to be an ingenious theatrical ruse.
The standard rock show setting got subsumed into the background, the band disappeared whilst still playing and instead the focus came to centre-stage where one of the percussionists brought out a strange device which he swirled around his head to create a howling wind sound. Cue spectacular light show, confetti exploding from the stage and a complete change of scenery.
From that moment until the end of the show the audience was transfixed, always wondering what the hell might happen next!
Act II - The Ninth Wave
The change signalled the beginning of The Ninth Wave, the complex suite from The Hounds of Love. The speculation had been correct. It was performed in its entirety, but no one could have guessed at how exactly it would be performed.
It was turned into a music theatre production of the most bizarre and unpredictable kind, too complex for me to explain in detail but I'll try to sum it up.
The stage was set up as a deep sea scene like the belly of a whale, waves were generated on an undulating carpet; for And Dream of Sheep a projected film screen showed Kate singing live floating in water as if waiting to be rescued from the deep sea; during Under Ice there were axes and a chainsaw used to simulate the breaking of ice until Kate emerged dramatically from a trap door; for Watching You Without Me a living room set was wheeled on stage with her son and stage husband in it, they acted out a scene with a ghostly Kate Bush in the background; for the most avant-garde section Waking The Witch there were dancers with some very odd costumes including skeletal fish masks surrounding her and a dark priest-like character taunting poor Kate. Towards the end a large rescue pod took centre stage from which Kate yet again emerged. The most spectacular bit involved a massive moving light projector in the ceiling simulating a helicopter searching for Kate, who, in the basic premise of The Ninth Wave is lost at sea.
It all sounds bizarre but most of it worked a treat. As a visual, musical spectacle it was quite astounding and the music was, for the most part, performed to perfection. My only gripe was a pre-recorded fiddle track was used on The Jig of Life which went out of synch with the band. John Sheahan would've kept in time with them!
The penultimate song of the suite, Hello Earth began with what sounded like a live uilleann piper, though it was impossible to see who was playing pipes from where I was sitting since the band was clouded in darkness.
Perhaps my favourite bit in the concert came at the end of The Ninth Wave when, after being held into the air and taken through the audience by the fish-headed dancers, she re-emerged as normal Kate, the lights came up and the band all strolled towards the front of the stage for a joyous, acoustic rendition of the last song of the suite, ‘The Morning Fog’. That, dear readers, is the bit that caused me to shed a few tears. It was just a beautiful, joyous moment. The culmination of a momentous passage in popular music history, the first ever staging of an iconic almost 30 year old concept piece. The theatrical setting really, really enhanced The Ninth Wave, it was just made for the theatre and I appreciate the piece so much more now.
Then the curtain came down and, thank Kate, it was only an interval. She could have ended it there and I’d have been happy, but no, she had a whole lot more in store.
Act III - Aerial
In my previous blog post I’d mentioned how much her 2005 album Aerial meant to me, particularly the second disc suite A Sky of Honey. After she’d played so many songs to open the show I figured there’d be no way she’d include the whole suite, if any of it at all.
As the curtains rose for the second half a new elaborate stage set up was revealed that seemed to hint at A Sky of Honey, however the initial music seeping out of the speakers was the title track of 50 Words For Snow. Was she instead planning on doing an elaborate staging of that? Was the tall disguised man in black standing at the masssive door and holding a strange boy-sized puppet actually Stephen Fry getting ready to recite the 50 Words For Snow? Thankfully, it wasn’t!
It was another ruse, Kate keeping us guessing. About 1 minute into the backing track of 50 Words For Snow the music was overtaken by birdsong and the opening sounds of A Sky of Honey. Again the rumours were true and thus began a mostly sublime, hypnotic and sumptuous staging of the piece.
Kate’s voice was so warm and pitch-perfect during the gorgeous 'Prologue', it set it up so wonderfully. She was also seated at the piano for the first time in the concert, which added to the dreamscape.
Then the question as to what to do about the unfortunate presence of Rolf Harris on the original recording was answered, completely logically. When the character of The Painter came on stage, it wasn’t Harris, it was Kate’s son Bertie who not only sang but acted throughout the show. For the most part he held his own very well, in fact, it was hard to tell for sure if it was him or a professional West End actor/singer in the painter’s outfit. It’s only after the show I found out for sure it was him. As the suite went on he had little bits of dialogue and he sang ‘The Painter’s Link’ previously sung by Harris, but Kate’s singing of 'An Architect’s Dream' and 'A Sea of Honey' which bookended 'The Painter’s Link' were just sublime and hypnotic.
In this staged version the music was accompanied by stunning visuals evoking nature and birds and muted, tasteful dancing which Kate took part in.
The one bit that didn’t quite work for me, and I think quite a bit of the audience, was a new song specifically written for Bertie to sing called ‘Tawny Moon’. It’s not that Bertie’s a bad singer, he has a fine music theatre style voice, but the new song was just too long and indistinct to justify it interrupting the previously perfectly paced suite. But I can forgive Kate her indulgence on this one, particularly since without Bertie’s encouragement this live show would never have happened. The song did however kind of kill the total immersion and enjoyment I was experiencing whilst A Sky of Honey was developing so hypnotically. The main problem was the song just went on too long, if it was a few minutes shorter it would have been fine. It was almost unfair to place Bertie in such a setting where his voice and stage presence would inevitably be compared to his genius Mum. On the other hand it could be seen as the ultimate motherly gesture of kindness, bestowing on her son a once in a lifetime opportunity that others could only dream of. In time perhaps Bertie will blossom into a bit of a musical genius himself.
Normal, abnormal service was resumed when Kate re-emerged to sing the closing songs of A Sky of Honey ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Aerial’. The suite was driven to a rousing finish with guitarist David Rhodes spouting a very quirky bird mask and dancing with Kate in typical Peter Gabriel style. Then came the climax that got the audience off their feet, Kate was transformed into a blackbird and hoisted into the air by some clever technical feat.
The crowd erupted at the end of A Sky of Honey with the realisation that we were the first people to witness a kind of show that no audience had ever witnessed before. The band and Kate took their bows and left the stage, but there was no way the crowd would let them go without an encore.
Eventually the crowd got their wish and for the first time since the 1980’s Kate Bush strode out alone onto the stage and over to her piano to sing and play solo.
She chose Among Angels from 50 Word for Snow, which wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of fan requests for encores. However it seemed perfect for the night that was in it. It was a truly moving moment to witness and grown men could be seen sobbing!
Then she re-introduced the band for what she said was ‘The Last Song’ and at this point the mind raced as to what it might be, there were so many great songs she’d not yet sung. I was glad of her choice of song though, it was that song that got me into her music in the first place ‘Cloudbusting’.
The performance was triumphant and sealed a truly wondrous show that quite frankly pissed all over any other comeback concert I’ve witnessed, hell I’ve never seen a show like it. As the drum driven climax of ‘Cloudbusting’ burst open through the theatre, that previously respectful, phone-free, seated audience went wild and for the first time ushers were called upon to send some over-enthusiastic people back from the front of the stage to their seats. A bit unnecessary perhaps but again it highlighted something else quite ground-breaking about the show, she had changed the notion of a modern pop/rock concert from being a boisterous affair filled with booze, cameras and tuneless crowd sing-alongs into it being more like an opera with the audience respectfully listening to every word, gazing in child-like wonder at the theatrical spectacle in front of them.
For music as good as Kate Bush’s it’s exactly the right kind of atmosphere to sample it in and there’s no doubting this show will be a game changer in the music world. She did it entirely on her own terms without giving in to nostalgia yet only the most casual Kate Bush fan could have been disappointed at her song selection. Sure it could've been nice to hear all the big early hits like 'Wuthering Heights' but perhaps she was wise not to attempt to recreate the vocal gymanstics of those songs.
The post-concert reaction has been almost unanimously positive in the media and amongst her fans. In one fell swoop, after a 35 year hiatus, Kate Bush has re-written the rule book of pop concerts just like she did with her Tour of Life in 1979. Today’s pop stars are still ripping off elements of The Tour of Life, no doubt they’ll start ripping off Before The Dawn long before the sun sets on Kate Bush’s career.
So, now I return to analysing my original post-concert mood, it was dumb-struck awe, pure and simple. There were moments in the show I could quibble about, moments of technical mistakes or momentum killing haminess that distracted me at the time but I was happy with every single song Kate sang, astonished by the stage production and moved to tears on more than one occasion.
So I guess it was a pretty good night out in London’s far West End!
It’s a show I’d go back to see again, if I could. One viewing simply isn’t enough to take it all in. But nothing will ever top that first night experience, that feeling of not knowing what was coming at any moment, that feeling of suspense, drama and joy.
35 years in the making, It was the greatest comeback in popular music history, plain and simple.
I've never been so excited to receive a pair of tickets as I was last week when finally, almost 6 months after ordering them in a panicked frenzy, I received my tickets for Kate Bush's first concert in 35 years. Yes, I'm one of the lucky ones who managed to get first night tickets for what must be the most anticipated comeback in modern popular music. How did I get them? It's all down to instinct.
Instinct has been behind my gradually evolving appreciation of Kate Bush since I first encountered her music. In 1985, as an 8 year old boy, I remember sitting in wonder watching her ground-breaking video for 'Cloudbusting' on Top of the Pops. That was the first time I really noticed her, the first time I'd noticed the great actor Donald Sutherland and possibly the first time I'd heard and really appreciated a classical string arrangement.
'Cloudbusting', like nearly all of Kate Bush's output, was then and remains unlike any other music. The generation before me had a similar experience when she came completely out of left-field to top the charts with 'Wuthering Heights', another song unlike any before or since. Bush is utterly unique and beguiling, an undoubted musical genius.
However it took me a while to really appreciate the richness of her music. Sometime in the 90's, as a teenager, I bought the compilation 'The Whole Story' and a good portion of that album got regular airplay in my otherwise heavy-metal dominated teenage years.
I clearly remember walking through a shopping centre in 1993 and hearing 'Rubberband Girl' from her then new album The Red Shoes for the first time. The rocker in me was impressed by the Joe Satriani style guitar riffs going through the song, yet again she'd produced a song that I really liked. However, for some reason I can't explain I didn't buy The Red Shoes or indeed any Kate Bush studio album until 2005 when she made her first big comeback, not to the live stage, but with her first batch of new material since 1993, the double album Aerial.
At the time, I was living in Finsbury Park, London just after finishing a composition degree at the Guildhall School of Music. Whilst classical music studies had dragged me away from the pop music world for a while I got curious about the album after the UK media frenzy that announced its arrival. Instinct set in as I walked by the record section of my local Tesco’s and I decided to buy the album without hearing anything but a snippet of the Elvis-referencing single 'King of the Mountain'.
I went home to my dingy Finsbury flat, put the first disc of the album 'A Sea of Honey' on and didn't stop listening until the second disc 'A Sky of Honey' ended almost two hours later. Then I listened again and again. It was a mind-blowing masterpiece!
I became a bit obsessed with that album for a while and even bought copies for relations as presents. For pure consistency and content it is my joint favourite Kate Bush record alongside The Hounds of Love.
Soon after this her entire back catalogue ended up in my possession and Kate Bush was firmly etched onto my mind as one of my favourite composers in any genre.
As I have listened to these albums a little documented fact about Kate Bush became more and more obvious. Kate Bush, that supposedly ‘quintessential English’ songwriting genius is half-Irish and proud of it too as she explained in an Irish Independent interview a few years ago
"I'm incredibly proud of being half-Irish. I really wanted to get that Irish blood in me to come through, so I worked very hard on it."
Her Irishness comes from her late Irish mother Hannah Daly. One only has to listen to her moving tribute song 'A Coral Room' from Aerial to understand how incredibly close she was to her Irish Mum.
One certainly can't deny the quintessential Englishness the British press laud in appraising her work, as highlighted in the recent BBC4 Documentary. However that documentary lamentably ignored her Irishness, as have most of the British press articles surrounding her live comeback this week.
So this is my attempt to redress that balance. We Irish have a right to lay claim to Kate Bush as also being one of our own due to the Irishness that Bush so earnestly incorporated into her classic 1980's output.
Throughout the 80's Bush acknowledged her Irish roots by integrating Irish traditional musicians and instruments into ALL her 1980's records. Her brother Paddy Bush apparently drew her in this direction and his mandolin playing and her lilting vocal on the 1980 hit 'Army Dreamers' give the first strong hint of her Irish roots. 'Violin' from the same Never for Ever album features The Bothy Band's Kevin Burke as the titular violinist.
The list of famous Irish traditional musicians to play on her subsequent albums is like a who's who of Irish music. The roll call of Donal Lunny (Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts), Liam O'Flynn (Planxty), John Sheahan (The Dubliners), Seán Keane (The Chieftains), Davy Spillane (Moving Hearts) and very characteristic arrangements by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan connect her to almost all the major Irish trad bands of the 60's, 70's and 80's and the Riverdance boom of the 90’s.
It's hard to tell from the sleeve notes how much of the trad-style music is arranged/composed by Kate Bush or Paddy Bush and how much is Whelan’s, however one thing that's unmistakable is the instrumentation and melodic content are like an angular, experimental precursor to Riverdance.
'Night of the Swallow' from the 1982 album The Dreaming, Whelan's first credit on a Bush album, features Lunny, Keane and O'Flynn intoning a very Whelanesque turn of phrase over Bush's dramatic story-telling.
Perhaps the best known use of Irish musicians in her output is during The Ninth Wave, a concept piece that makes up the second half of her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds of Love. Sheahan lends gorgeous whistles to the haunting opening track 'And Dream of Sheep' before Lunny and O'Flynn join in on the climactic coupling of 'The Jig of Life' and 'Hello Earth'.
A b-side of 'Cloudbusting' is Kate's sean-nós version of the old Irish song My Lagan Love. If her beautiful version doesn't convince you of her Irish blood nothing will!
The Sensual World towards Riverdance
On her 1989 album 'The Sensual World', Bush and Whelan collaborated again and moved even closer to Riverdance territory with the Bulgarian-Irish fusion melodies on the title track, this time featuring Davy Spillane as the piper alongside Lunny and Sheahan. Spillane also contributes to ‘Never Be Mine’ and 'The Fog' on the same album.
But there's a mystery in all this Bushian Irishness, who composed those 'Irish' melodies? Bush remains credited as the only official composer but Whelan gets the credit for 'Irish arrangements'. The Irish style melodies in these songs certainly sound like something Whelan might pen, but then again, who inspired who? Perhaps it was Bush who composed the melodies and thus inspired Whelan? One rumour has it that Paddy Bush is behind the tunes. Chances are it's probably a combination of them all.
Besides these tracks with Irish musicians it is curious to hear Bush occasionally bring out a lilting almost-Irish accent on tracks like 'Suspended in Gaffa', 'Army Dreamers', ‘The Red Shoes’ and 'The Big Sky' (which incorporates some 'diddely dyes' for good measure).
For reasons that perhaps only Bush herself can explain 'The Sensual World' was the last original studio album by Bush to feature any Irish trad musicians. Her final nod to her Irish heritage thus far is her recording of 'Mná na hÉireann' at the invitation of Donal Lunny for his Common Ground project in 1996. Learned phonetically due to her lack of Irish and coloured by a lush orchestration, this is not a recording for sean-nós purists. Nevertheless the impassioned beauty of Bush's voice on this recording is undeniable.
Whilst it's tempting to think the Aerial track 'Bertie' might be an ironic tribute to Bertie Ahern (with its very Irish sounding chorus of 'Lovely, Lovely, Lovely, Lovely Bertie' set to Baroque strings) it is in fact a song named after her son and the Irish lilt in the song is likely subconscious.
18 years have passed since 'Mná na hÉireann' and over 30 since her first recorded forays into her Irishness. So it's hard to tell how much she'll acknowledge her Irish roots in her upcoming live shows.
The Kate Bush that re-emerged in 2005 with the wonderful double-album Aerial and again in 2011 the concept album 50 Words for Snow is clearly a different person. She's got a more mature, deeper voice yet she's still capable of reaching great creative heights, most notably the 42 minute suite 'A Sky of Honey' that makes up the second half of Aerial (rumoured to be a significant feature of the upcoming shows).
The Ninth Wave is also rumoured to be featured in the shows, if so, one wonders will some of those Irish music luminaries be re-uniting with Bush to perform those songs live for the first time? It would be quite something to see Lunny, O'Flynn (or Spillane) and Sheahan on stage with Kate Bush. Even if it's other Irish musicians in place of them it would be a hugely significant moment for Irish music.
There's such anticipation and media hype surrounding these shows there's always a worry the show as a whole might be a let-down. However, word on the street and the web has it that Bush is doing her damned best to ensure these shows will be something special. She's used innovative booking methods to ensure minimum ticket scalping and quite boldly but politely messaged her fans asking them not to spend the concert glued to their phones or iPads. In an age when concerts are plagued by phone and tablet addicts it will be a relief to attend a concert where most people will hopefully do as Kate wishes and just immerse themselves in the live experience. The Hammersmith Apollo is quite an intimate venue which makes it all the better. Those of us without prime seats might all be actually able to clearly see her and the theatrics of her show without having to rely on a big or small screen. There's even a chance the sound will be really good, which is a rarity at stadium/arena concerts!
I've been thinking a lot about what she might play and wondering how that will have a bearing on the audience's enjoyment of the gig. Whilst the exact personnel and set-list is shrouded in secrecy it is known that she's brought in a top class backing band, including her old faithful bassist John Giblin, virtuoso drummer Omar Hakim and Peter Gabriel's long time guitarist David Rhodes, so all's good there. Fans are involved in intense speculation about guest performers, with her mentor, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour top of the wish-list alongside Peter Gabriel. We do know that one of her other former collaborators Rolf Harris is definitely not going to make an appearance as he is now in jail for sex offenses. If Bush does perform A Sky of Honey she’ll surely have to replace Harris’ recorded vocal contributions, I’d suggest this as an ideal place for Kate Bush fan Steve Coogan to bring Alan Partridge back to the stage!
There are strong hints in the snapshots of official tour info that she'll play material from Aerial and The Hounds of Love. If she does, I'll be ecstatic along with most of the audience. Either way it'll be worth it just to hear her sing even one of her greatest hits, 'Running Up That Hill', 'Cloudbusting', 'The Hounds of Love', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Army Dreamers', 'Babooshka', 'This Woman's Work' etc.
Her only tour, The Tour of Life from 1979 was hailed as a ground-breaking theatrical extravaganza at the time, so there's no telling what she can do with modern technology. It's known that she undertook three days of elaborate underwater filming for the show and that there are puppeteers, experienced theatre production staff and extensive stage sets involved. All the signs are there that we're in for something spectacular.
She can't let us down can she?
She couldn't let herself down could she?
She wouldn't come back to live performance without putting on one hell of a show would she?
If the live comeback proves successful we can only hope it will inspire Bush to solidify her Irish roots by performing in Ireland for the first time. If she does I'll do my best to be in the front row, unless of course I can make it into the house band!
Kate Bush opens her 'Before the Dawn' residency at London's Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday 26th August and continues for 22 nights. All shows are sold out however tickets are occasionally resurfacing for sale on the Eventim site.
Philip Glass tells a funny story about his days as a composition student in the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At the time Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 Tone 'Serialism' Composition Method was the only legitimate path to follow if one was a composition student. The music produced by this strict, contrived compositional method is generally so alienating to audiences that it only appeals to composers and academics that get more intellectual than aural satisfaction from it.
Glass’ story perfectly illustrates this.
In a Julliard Student Composition concert one particularly dense, complex work was being performed to the general displeasure of the audience’s ears. Glass amusingly observed how he saw one student turning to another to declaim without any hint of irony ‘This is actually a much better piece than it sounds.’
Glass uses this story to illustrate that when academic composition reached this point it broke the camels back and so by the late 60’s and early 70’s many composers were breaking away from the Schoenberg method to return to tonal and modal music, thus liberating the rest of us future composers.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, since there now exists a whole subculture around this kind of Composers’ Composer music. This is music that certain types of composers, normally a large majority of those who study composition academically, tend to appreciate for the technical aspects more than the actual musicality of it. Such works are usually defined by pretentious titles, complex technical programme notes and a dry, academic approach which favours technique way above intuitive composition methods. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are ‘free improvisation’ works where anything goes and everything is left to Cageian chance.
In both circumstances 'composery' composers tend to act very interested indeed, in fact they’re often heard to say with Steve Davis like drollness ‘That was very interesting’. Very rarely will such music illicit an emotional response ‘That really moved me’, ‘That gave me great joy’, ‘That was really exciting’ etc. In this sense this kind of music is really unique in the general music world. What other form of music is composed with such an emphasis on the intellectual over the emotional? Some modern jazz is getting to this point, but it's a fine line.
If you’ve ever been to a standard symphony orchestra concert where a new work by a contemporary composer is performed there’s a 90% chance the music will fall into this category of 'composers' music'. Curiously the general audience appreciation for such music is very different in Ireland and the UK than it is in the home of classical music, central Europe.
When Irish and British audiences first encountered arrhythmic, atonal serialist based music in the early 20th Century they reacted with horror. Now, 100 years later, audiences have become so used to the fact that their evening of Mozart and Brahms will be interrupted by another ‘awful’ contemporary work that they seem to lazily accept it and politely applaud the music and musicians when it’s over. The one or two enthusiastic yells one might encounter after all such performances are undoubtedly coming from the eggheads in the crowd, the composery composers.
On recent trips to see the Berlin Philharmonic I noticed a curious difference in the audience response to more ‘intellectual’ technical music. They seemed to really appreciate the technical aspects of the music and gave a long ovation to a solo violinist who performed a hugely technical violin concerto which seemed to me nothing more than a technical showpiece devoid of any emotional depth. Upon speaking with a German colleague afterwards I raised this issue and he confirmed to me that modern German audiences not only have an appreciation for technical, intellectual music, they often have a preference for it over emotional, intuitive music.
Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of how the central European classical tradition has moved so far from its roots in folk music into the world of academia that audiences are losing sight of the intuitive, emotional and natural human characteristics of music. Germanic audiences it seems, place technical perfection way above the very emotional response that less technically conscious music can provide.
I’ve often found myself bored by technically ‘perfect’ performances and technically brilliant compositions because the concentration of the artist has gone 100% into perfecting the technical aspects at the expense of spontaneous, emotional responses. Classical music competition winners so often fall into this category, technical perfection is awarded over emotional genius.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this strange, scientific musical sub-culture is the dogmatism that still plagues it. Practitioners of this form of music tend to be hopelessly elitist, like Pierre Boulez. Their way is the ONLY way forward, they are the true innovators, the true composers of new music and anyone who doesn’t buy into this is either openly mocked or treated with a kind of silent, shunning disdain. They’re treated as intellectually inferior and unenlightened.
The reason I mentioned Philip Glass at the start of this article is that he is usually the number 1 hate figure for the composery composers. They can't get any intellectual stimulation from his music because it is, in relative terms to the music they appreciate, incredibly simple. When I was a composition student I found myself drawn to his music simply because I liked how it sounded, the technical simplicity of it didn't bother me.
However I did become very self conscious about the fact that it was just not 'cool' for a composition student to say they liked Philip Glass. It was something to be embarrassed about. I remember giving my first radio interview as a young composer and it took me a huge effort to overcome an almost paralytic fear of telling the interviewer that Philip Glass was one of my favourite composers. But I did and more and more I've learnt not to be ashamed of that at all. Glass is a compositional genius, he has done what so few composers have been able to do, create a distinctive, instantly recognisable and contemporary sound from the most basic of building blocks. The fact that he earned worldwide fame and fortune from it is a testament to his perserverance. He was an obscure composer driving a taxi for a living until his early 40's!
So to return to our composery composer types and their dogmatic followers, what such people often fail to understand is that composers and audiences who reject the way of the composers’ composer are often just as, if not more intelligent as they. Some of us have even gone to great lengths to try to gain an appreciation for such music, spending hours studying it in college, sitting patiently at concerts, reading the technical notes in detail, always waiting for that revelation, that Eureka moment ‘Ah yes, now I get it!’
The truth is however, for the vast majority of people, no matter how intelligent they are, they are never going to appreciate such music, no more than they’ll appreciate complex mathematical equations or other scientific theories. Composers’ composers do not compose music as 99% of humanity defines music, instead they either create scientific sound or something more akin to performance art where the theatricality and social implications of the artistic statement are much more important than the actual sound of the music. The emphasis is not on musicality, on moving people emotionally with music, the emphasis is on making a scientific or pseudo-intellectual statement through sound.
Due to this I like to make a clear distinction between what I do and what they do. I compose music, music that is meant to be listened to and appreciated on an emotional level by those who listen to it. If some fraction of the audience gains intellectual stimulation from it that’s all well and good, it’s not in any way the aim however. So if I ever compose a work where the only response from listeners is an intellectual one, then I have failed in my duty as a composer of music.
Composers’ composers do not compose music in the traditional sense. They create scientific sound or sound art which will only ever be appreciated on an intellectual level. For this reason I believe such ‘music’ should be evaluated and disseminated in a completely different sphere. Funding and support for scientific/academic music should come from the scientific/academic community, not the Arts community. Then the more theatrical, performance art music, so inspired by John Cage, should surely be supported as performance art, a form of theatre rather than a pure style of music composition.
There are certainly audiences, though small, for such forms of music, so I’m not advocating censorship of any kind. Instead, for the good of all concerned, I’m advocating the creation of a clear line of distinction between the different composition aesthetics. After all, I don’t want my music compared to Pierre Boulez’s music, it’s not just a different style of music we’re involved in, it’s a whole different vocation, he is a sound scientist, I’m a music composer. He doesn’t care if people enjoy his music emotionally, I do and I’m not ashamed to admit it either.
And before anyone levels that old chestnut that I must be therefore compromising my art to appeal to an audience, my retort is straight and simple. I only compose music that I would like to listen to myself, if the audience appreciates the music, as they often do, all the better. If I compose a piece that I don’t enjoy listening to yet composers’ composers do, then I have failed and compromised my art.
Composers like me are as uncompromising as so called ‘uncompromising’ atonal composers. We just have different ideals that we refuse to compromise.
24 June 2014
A defining moment in my life in music came when I was aged 11 or 12, sometime around 1988-1989. Iron Maiden appeared on Top of the Pops, performing Infinite Dreams from their now classic Prog-Metal album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It must have been my first exposure to the music style that would dominate my teenage years, Heavy Metal.
Soon afterwards I was consuming all the Iron Maiden records I could find. Then., as I entered secondary school, I found friends and solace in the Heavy Metal world. It was the perfect foil for all the teenage angst that I couldn’t avoid.
Soon I learnt about Metallica and their magnificent And Justice For All album, this led to Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Anthrax’s Persistence of Time, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and of course I was led back to the godfathers of the genre, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
As I grew older there was an expectancy amongst my disturbed elders that I’d ‘mature’, heavy metal was just a phase and I’d grow out of it. For a while I actually followed along, even selling on some of my treasured Heavy Metal tapes in the hope that it would signal the dawning of this magnificent mecca called ‘maturity’.
This period also coincided with the decline of the golden era of heavy metal in the 90’s. For me it began with Metallica’s Black Album. Their commercial peak may have made them megastars but I’ll never forget that crushing disappointment after I’d excitedly rushed back to my Mum’s flat from the record store to play the follow up to the great And Justice For All. So much hype surrounded the album and the smash hit Enter Sandman that I expected to be blown away, but I wasn’t, in fact, I think I got angry. This wasn’t Metallica that I’d grown to love. Their new producer, Bob Rock, had turned them into stadium rock sell outs. I should have expected that from the man who produced Bon Jovi!
Soon after, when Bruce Dickinson announced his departure from Iron Maiden, it truly signalled the end of an era and the dawn of a new era dominated by sub genres of Heavy Metal that really didn’t do much for me. Death Metal, Funk Metal and the worst of them all, Nu-Metal.
So at that point the heavy metal teenager in me went into hibernation and I entered the ‘serious’ world of music academia and contemporary composition where the mere idea of Heavy Metal music is generally treated with disdain. (With the exception of this pioneering Academic!)http://www.veooz.com/photos/jGxcgx0.html
Then, in the mid-2000’s things started to change, word came out that Metallica were doing shows dominated by their great 1980’s back catalogue and they’d got a great new bass player to boot in RobertTrujillo. Living in London at the time, I decided to take my fellow composition student Shu Wang to see them. Here we were, two so called ‘serious composers’ rocking out to Metallica. Shu, being from China, had never been to a rock concert before, she almost went crazy with excitement!
Around the same time Iron Maiden had regrouped with Bruce Dickinson and another member who’d left, guitarist Adrian Smith, to herald a spectacular new version of Iron Maiden with 3 lead guitarists. I went to see them at Earls Court, something akin to seeing Thin Lizzy in Croke Park if poor old Philo was still alive. I’ll never forget the energy of the concert, sitting as I was high up near the rafters, the mosh pit below was like a scene from the Lord of The Rings!
At that moment I realised Heavy Metal isn’t just a teenage fad, it’s an addiction that stays with you for life, unless you consciously contrive to get rid of it.
Now, aged 37, I’ve come full circle and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that my youngest sister, just turned 17, is a bit like I was at that age, a devoted heavy metal teenager. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but I’ll forgive her that!)
Once I found out that she enjoys Iron Maiden as much as I do I vowed to bring her to see them play. So I checked their tour schedule and found them performing at what I can only describe as the mother of all Heavy Metal festivals, Nova Rock_ in Austria. Not only was there Iron Maiden, there was Anthrax, Slayer, Sepultura, curiously The Prodigy and the Godfather’s of Metal themselves Black Sabbath, amongst a host of newer bands and some Nu-Metal survivors best avoided.
So that was it, I decided to bring her for her birthday. A big risk you might think, bringing a 17 year old to a heavy metal festival. Could I handle the responsibility? Could I keep her away from the inevitable drunken fighting and general mayhem?
Drunken fighting? At an Austrian music festival? You gotta be kidding me. Lyrical content and general loudness of the music aside, it was decidedly civilised!
You see rock music festivals in Europe are a much different proposition to those in Ireland, Britain and the USA. People actually behave themselves and trouble is rare. They go along to have a good time ‘listening’ to music and seeing their favourite bands on stage. So at Nova Rock I saw exactly zero fights, I witnessed perhaps 2 people that were obviously drunk, I saw no lewd sexual behaviour other than a couple of guys harmlessly streaking.
It was, believe it or not, a friendly, positive, happy family event. YES, a family event. You see there’s now a few generations of Heavy Metal fans. Those original Black Sabbath fans are now grand-parents, those original Iron Maiden fans are now parents and they’ve brought their kids up in the heavy metal lifestyle and, some hideous tattoos and dodgy Death Metal bands aside, the kids appear to be turning out alright.
The only worry I have is for the genre itself. It appears to be in a bit of stagnation. My sister, being a teenager, is naturally attuned to the top younger metal bands of the moment and we got to see some of them. Trivium, Arch Enemy, Avenged Sevenfold, Miss May I.
All the bands sounded to me to be too derivative of other bands I knew when I was a teenager. Originality and imagination seems to be sadly lacking. The prevalence of that grunting Death Metal vocal style that I never warmed to was particularly lamentable.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but now matter how much any of these bands grunted or wailed none of them could match the power of Slayer, whose original members are all now in their 50’s. Tom Araya may not be able to head-bang anymore due to a back injury, but my God, Slayer put in a powerful performance, perhaps the ‘heaviest’ heavy metal show I’ve ever seen. I never got to see them when I was a teenager, a big mistake given this showing. I should’ve seen them at their peak. However they’re really not far off their peak at the moment. The so-called Godfathers of Speed and Death Metal remain head and shoulders above their followers and produced the standout performance of Nova Rock for me.
The festival was an interesting test to see which of the older bands still endured. Anthrax, performing surprisingly early on the main stage, showed they still have the energy and skill of old, however their music hasn’t dated quite as well, less timeless and more of its time than Slayer. I’d be much less likely to revisit their old records than Slayer’s.
The one act that really didn’t fit the bill was The Prodigy, never a metal band, they did pioneer the use of loud, metal style guitars in Electronic Dance Music. For Nova Rock they noticeably tried very hard to emphasise this rock edge, but it just came across as dated and that they were trying too hard to please the rock-biased audience. The Prodigy is a dance music band, a classic one at that, perhaps they should stick to their strengths or just call it a day.
Iron Maiden is the one metal band I’ve never really lost touch with. I’ve bought most of their albums as they’ve come out, except the nadir that was the Blaze Bayley era, before Bruce returned to vocal duties. I’ve seen them live several times, including last year in Barcelona. So their headline performance on the Saturday night wasn’t a life affirming experience for me like it surely was to my sister. To her, she was seeing true legends of the genre on stage for the first time. They didn’t disappoint the nostalgia seekers in their set, sticking almost entirely to their classic 80’s repertoire, with the exception of their only post 80’s certifiable classic ‘Fear of the Dark’ from 1992. What’s most impressive about them is their continued energy and conviction, the band still play like men possessed, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray play beautifully melodic solos with all the virtuosity of yesteryear whilst Janick Gers is a true showman with all the rock guitar tricks in the book. Drummer Nicko McBrain is still as mad as a brush, pounding away at his kit like Animal from the Muppets and Steve Harris has hardly changed at all from the young, distinctive bassist who stood at the front of the stage in that Infinite Dreams Top of the Pops appearance. Most impressive of all though is Bruce Dickinson, he still runs about the stage with so much energy and is singing better than ever. Whilst some singers lose their range with age, Bruce still hits the high notes, and perhaps hits them with less strain than he used to. 35 year on Iron Maiden still rock, it’s official.
The real festival headliners though were the real legends of the genre without whom the festival and most of the bands wouldn’t exist, Black Sabbath.
When I was a heavy metal teenager Black Sabbath were still around, but they weren’t touring with Lord Ozzy Osbourne, they’d another singer whose name escapes me. Back then the prospect of me ever seeing Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler on stage together was practically zero. However, here, at Nova Rock, three of the original Black Sabbath members were back together on stage as part of a triumphant reunion. To a heavy metal fan that's like seeing Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on stage together again.
The one question mark over it was whether Ozzy could still cut it, after all he seems such a shambles on his dubious ‘Celebrity’ TV appearances. Once they hit the stage though most of the fears were laid to rest, Black Sabbath proved why they are the Godfathers of heavy metal.
The template of their songs is quite simple, Tony Iommi’s timeless, catchy and deeply heavy riffs mostly doubled up by Geezer Butlers powerful, pioneering, dirty bass sound are given a thunderous backing by drummer Bill Ward on the original recordings. Ward is the only original member absent from the 2014 line up however he is ably replaced by Tommy Clufetos who produced an epic, impressive drum solo in the middle of the set. Rock cliché it may be, but it wouldn’t be a Black Sabbath set without at least one drum solo!
The main question mark lay with Ozzy, could he still hold his own as the original heavy metal front man? Well, mostly yes he could, whilst he occasionally fell flat with his vocals and his timing during the slow sections of the bands title song ‘Black Sabbath’ was suspect, he’s still an endearingly crazy front man, he still can get the crowd riled up and he creates a joyous, celebratory atmosphere from the stage that contradicts the doom-laden nature of the songs, yet energises the audience and the band.
The one thing that really struck me though is exactly why the Black Sabbath sound defined the term 'Heavy Metal'. The sound they create is exactly that, 'Heavy' and 'Metalic'. Interestingly, speed seems to dominate most metal since the late 80's, however Black Sabbath play a form of music clearly derived from the blues that is rarely very fast. It's mostly a dark, loud, slow form of blues and that's what makes it feel so heavy. Sabbath provided a lesson to their proverbial Godchildren, you don't have to be relentlessly fast and aggressive to make great Heavy Metal Music.
Ozzy, Tony and Geezer may be old men in their 60’s by now, but they still have the energy of much younger men, they’re clearly enjoying this perhaps final phase of the Black Sabbath story.
One of the most telling moments of the show was when the usually stone-faced Tony Iommi hatched a smile. The old masters are clearly enjoying this twilight of their career and how could they not when they have an audience of tens of thousands cheering along and celebrating their legacy.
For me, and numerous other Heavy Metallers no doubt, seeing Black Sabbath live with Ozzy at the helm was akin to seeing The Beatles or Led Zeppelin reforming and actually defying their age by putting on a great show.
If it wasn’t for my sister following in my foot-steps by becoming a heavy metal teenager I may never have caught Black Sabbath live. But now I can tell my heavy metal grand-kids, ‘I saw Black Sabbath’!
No matter how old you get or how ‘serious’ your professional endeavours become, if you become a rock music fan in your youth there’s a rock n’roll flame in your heart that’ll never die out.
If, like me, you end up composing music for orchestras and string quartets that heavy metal influence might even occasionally crop up in your compositions. Like in this piece
Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock N’ Roll can never die……….
This is Dave Flynn's personal music blog. All posts are written by him!