Mo Foster: In Memoriam

Mo Foster playing a Modulus Graphite 6 string fretless bass guitar at the 2013 London Bass Guitar ShowOne of the true legends and pioneers of bass in Britain has died – Mo Foster passed away from Cancer aged 78 a couple of days ago.

His Wikipedia entry gives a pretty great overview of his career, and others have written extensively about that, so I’m just going to write about our friendship and what he meant to me.

I’m not sure exactly where and when I met Mo, but I’m pretty sure it would’ve been through Bassist Mag, probably at the National Music Show at Wembley in the late 90s. Certainly by the time I was putting my first album together, we were friends and were talking regularly. But I was already deeply familiar with Mo, not just as the bassist behind the absolutely exquisite line on Howard Jones’ No-one Is To Blame (I was silently gutted when I didn’t get to play it on tour with Howard – he did a beautiful solo vox/piano version of that song to finish the set – musically brilliant, but I desperately wanted to play Mo’s line!) and with Phil Collins, but because he wrote the bass column in ‘Making Music’ magazine – Making Music was the free music mag in the UK in the 80s and 90s, and I still remember how it felt when Mo wrote that he envied people who’d never heard Hejira because they still had that first listen to experience. His column was full of incredible advice, stories and brilliance. So meeting him was already a treat. But that wasn’t the half of it. He treated me like a peer, like a fellow pro, and was incredibly supportive of my steps into solo playing. But as anyone who knew Mo knows, he was never one to sugar-coat anything. When I sent him a copy (possibly a pre-release copy? I can’t remember) of my first solo album, And Nothing But The Bass, his first comment when I next saw him was ‘you know the first chord is out of tune, right?’ and he pressed me to find better ways to end loop tunes that just fading everything out. He was endlessly encouraging, but had no time for mindless praise. He pushed me to make better music. And given how much of an influence his solo albums Southern Reunion and Bel Assis already were by then, it was a huge fucking deal for Mo to take the time to even listen, let alone give me advice.

When it came time for Mo to make his next record, Time To Think, he was recording it in a church in Oxford (St Michaels Church, Summertown) and he invited me to call in to the sessions – to sit and listen while Mo and the band (including his closest friend and longest collaborator, Ray Russell) recorded a couple of the tracks from the album was unbelievable. And then I got to follow through the trials and tribulations of getting it mixed, fixing a fairly major recording error (to hear the beauty of the album, you’d never know that’s what happened!) and to then play it to death when it was released.

And here’s how Mo shaped my own music – when it came time to make my second album, what became Not Dancing For Chicken, I was hanging out with a lot of looping musicians, people who were really pushing looping tech in exciting and radical directions. Truly brilliant experimenters. I was absorbing their ideas, throwing in a few of my own, and the initial sessions for NDFC featured a whole ton of squeaks and bleeps and live cut up loops. I tried to record it with a mic’d amp, we did two days of recording and then I took those recordings home. At the time I was listening to two albums on repeat – one was Time To Think, the other was an album by Dyzrhythmia, featuring my other great bass mentor of the time, Danny Thompson. I was sat one afternoon after reviewing the recordings for NDFC, listening to Time To Think and it suddenly, and obviously, struck me what was missing – TUNES! I’d got so into the tech side of things that I’d lost that my great strength was playing melodies. I was good at tunes! The bleepy stuff was well done, but it lacked that essential thing that was, at the time, my real focus. And it was Mo’s album that reminded me. I immediately hit record and the first thing I recorded was a tune that I named Danny & Mo. Two incredible humans who gave me way more of their time than I could ever have hoped for and whose encouragement and endorsement was absolutely pivotal to me giving this solo bass lark a proper go. Mo was a proper legend who not only gave me the time of day and a huge amount of encouragement, but gave me the kind of critical feedback that was designed to help me make better music. And it did.

I would see Mo periodically through the years, visiting him at home on occasion, and every time he’d have another story, a joke, something to make everyone laugh. The Cliff Richard ‘dogshit dance’ story, Ted, His Cock And His Band, Stevie Shatner-Nicks… stories and jokes that anyone who knew Mo knows from the punchline… He’d email me, I’d go and see him play (I remember one particularly beautiful show at Lauderdale House), he even told me he wanted me to guest on an album he was putting together. In 2013, as per this picture, my 6 string fretless Modulus was, he said, the first 6 string bass he’d ever played, and he sounded amazing on it.

Back in May he emailed me asking about cancer treatment, and I did my best to help him with a little advice, but it would be the last time I heard from him.

I already miss Mo, and the bass world has fewer laughs in it. Farewell to one of our beloved instrument’s great advocates and finest raconteurs.

Musicology – A Few Thoughts On Prince

Often when a musician dies, the platitudes that are heaped on them feel like too little too late. Imagine if Terence Trent D’Arby died, and suddenly the whole world rediscovered what a work of god-like genius Introduce The Hardline… was? Or any number of amazing MCs who changed the course of rap but whose work has been ignored for years…

Despite the heartbreaking knowledge that he had DECADES of vital music-making ahead of him, Prince, at least, had the opportunity to read and hear on pretty much a daily basis that the world recognised him as one of the greatest artists of the recorded music age. There’s nothing remotely controversial about stating that Prince was ‘our Mozart’ – perhaps the most hyperbolic of all musical accolades. We’re all pretty much OK with that comparison. Like Mozart, he had a complete mastery of the form that he placed himself in, throughout his life he expanded on every parameter of what ‘pop’ could be numerous times in ways that everyone else then followed, and he had a keen ear for how things were developing and was able to absorb them (just look at what he did with hip-hop and RnB in the 90s).

Having been listening to him since (the single) 1999, on the radio, the first Prince thing I actually bought was the single of Glam Slam – not often talked about in the pantheon of great Prince songs, I was just taken in by the guitar tone at the beginning. SO much about Prince frustrated teenage me. I was wholly wedded to preconceived idiomatic constraints – I couldn’t deal with people inventing their own creative paradigms. I wanted Prince to make ‘rock’ records or ‘funk’ records, things that I could label. That he had this obvious and outrageous instrumental virtuosity but made it completely subservient to The Music – or indeed, on stage, to The Show – drove me nuts. It took me a few more years to embrace and learn from that laissez faire approach to other people’s labels. Lots has been written about him doing that with fashion and gender norms, but for me it was the musical transgression that was most fascinating. Maybe Batman was the first time that I properly understood what that way of thinking made possible…

And at the heart of all of his musical world was his status as one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – multi-instrumentalists of all time. For most people, ‘multi-instrumentalist’ means ‘plays guitar AND keyboards, and can play drums too!’ – there are handful of people I can think of who are genuinely world class on two different instruments (Gary Husband, Mike Keneally etc…) but Prince’s well-documented mastery of SO many instruments, and his invention of a whole new genre application for all of them, was on a unparalleled level. That all of that skill – all of the time it must’ve taken to get THAT good on guitar, bass, piano, synth, drums etc. etc. – was at the service of some completely other-worldly musical vision, making music that was both familiar and completely alien, where the reference points were all in place, but the sum total of them was only ever accurately labellable as ‘Prince music’ – that thing that frustrated small-minded teenage me – THAT was the thing that I looked at when I was at college and went ‘nope, I’m going to put all my energies into one instrument.’

You see, at music college, everyone had to do piano lessons, everyone had to sing. And Prince presented me with a choice – did I want to go that route, and have whatever music my brain came up with channeled through a polymath aesthetic, where I learned to play everything I needed, or was I going to put my energies into doing it all on one instrument? Prince made that decision easy. He made the creation of your own musical world into A Thing. He did it, conspicuously, proudly and without apology. I wanted that, but knew I’d NEVER get there by learning loads of instruments. In the same way that hearing Michael Manring steered me away from trying to play bass as an unprocessed, unlooped solo instrument, Prince shifted my understanding of what multi-instrumentalism meant, and gave a whole lot of clarity to my own path – my passion, my energy, my vision and my sense of where I needed to end up years later was in exploring just how far I could do with this one instrument. Prince’s multi-instrumental virtuosity and mastery gave me vertigo. I knew not to go there.

It was years later that I got to read extensively about his prodigious work ethic, that I got to know a number of musicians who worked with him, and understood what was actually going on behind the media creation. A bloke utterly driven by music making, willing to play two sometimes three shows a night in order to make more music. Who would then go back home and straight into the studio, sometimes with a band, sometimes just with an engineer to record yet more music. God only knows what’s in that vault. It’s highly likely that my favourite music ever is languishing in there somewhere never to be heard. That he released some music that doesn’t connect with me is itself inspiring. He wasn’t beholden to anyone else’s mythology. He made the records HE wanted to make, and was clearly devoid of fucks to be given for how we felt about them…

So what do we, as musicians, do with this? I don’t know about you, but I accept the challenge – the challenge is to make deliberate, purposeful music, to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music, to keep challenging the received wisdom about what music is and what its for (Prince’s infamous struggles with the Internet are instructive for a whole number of reasons, some really great observations and moves, and other ridiculous ones (he thought iTunes should give him an advance, and once claimed to prefer CDs to digital music… errr) ) – but to never let up on the need to make music happen, to build a life in which we get to do the thing that matters to us, and only to us – being wilfully obscure is as stifling as trying to write hits. Just make the music that matters… I have no interest in stadium shows and all night jam sessions in clubs. I don’t make music for that, it’s not a context where the music I need to make can exist – but Prince built that world because that’s what he cared about.

So don’t copy what Prince did, copy why he did it. Build the life that allows you to do the thing that matters. Make the best music you can, then make more of it, make it based on the demands of the music itself, not some bullshit industrial process that’s beholden to release dates and touring schedules. Built a vault of unreleased work if that’s what needs to happen, then find a way to get it out to the public, if that’s what needs to happen. Listen, absorb, synthesise, invent, create, experiment, fail, succeed. But do it deliberately. DO IT.

JFDI – Just Fucking Do It.

Insignificant Thoughts On David Bowie

I’ve mostly given up on writing about people who die. The public mix of heartfelt loss and restrospective hagiography does what it does and doesn’t need my words. My words aren’t needed now either (are they ever?) but it feels like an interesting exercise because Bowie’s presence in the music and cultural landscape of my lifetime was unique.

Unlike an awful lot of music listeners, I’m not particularly in love with Bowie’s 70s work. The canonical, adored, oft quoted stuff. I haven’t even listened to the Berlin Trilogy, beyond the singles. It feels like important work within culture, but it also felt so present in the world that to go and investigate it at this point would be less interesting than looking at almost anything else in the world of music. Confirming either the correctness of the popular take on his work, or my hunch that I’d like it but not enough to fall in line with the mountain of praise heaped on it felt both unnecessary and antagonistic. I don’t like listening to music in order to prove a point. His or mine. [After all, I’m a bloke who plays instrumental music on a bass in people’s living rooms. If I was apt to be shaped by consensus, I’d be in a 5 piece guitar band playing songs with a bunch of white dudes. Probably with beards.]

But, of course, like Dark Side Of The Moon and any number of classic bits of the pop canon that I’ve never given a focused listen to, it’s there in the ether. It’s there in its influence, it’s there in shopping centres – at least the singles are.

I did own Ziggy Stardust, I owned Space Oddity, I owned Pin-ups, i borrowed Scary Monsters and The Man Who Sold The World. I even bought Never Let Me Down and REALLY tried to like it. (Time Will Crawl still makes me smile, and somewhere I’ve got him playing it on TOTP on a VHS tape).

But I bought them as research, as a touchstone for what this massive figure, so oft cited, so ever present on the radio and TV, so beloved… for what he meant.

It wasn’t til Tin Machine that his music really connected with me. I know, Tin Machine, the one that everyone hated. I don’t think I was much aware of the hatred before I bought it. I lived in Berwick On Tweed, so there wasn’t much room to be arch about these things. I bought things based on hunches. and I got the 12” single of Tin Machine, with a sprawling insane messy live version of Maggie’s Farm on the b-side. THIS was the shit. Listening to Ziggy felt like being part of a club. Listening to Tin Machine felt like an initiation into something far more troubling. It was the point at which – in my world – Bowie stopped being a cultural monolith and instead became an artist about whom there was debate, on whom shitty writers in the pop music press heaped scorn for willfully rejecting the tropes of late 20th century modernist conceit. Tin Machine sold millions of records. MILLIONS. It was a ginormous success in so many ways, but didn’t play the game. That fascinated me. As did everything he did after that. Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day… that’s where my favourite Bowie music lives.

I LOVE that he carried on innovating, behaving like a cultural magpie, absorbing bits of the underground into his work and making it the zeitgeist. There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about influence vs cultural appropriation, but that’s for someone smarter than me… I love that he worked with such great musicians – he was like Miles Davis (perhaps the only musician of the century with influence on the same scale and across so many worlds? Beatles fans can argue with that if they like 😉 ) in that he could spot genius, and assembled music like ingredients for a recipe – anyone who had Fripp, Belew, Reeves Gabrels, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Torn on guitar is doing fine. Gerry Leonard is another guitar genius. Gail Anne Dorsey is both an exceptional bassist and singer, and while the vast majority of Bowie’s musicians and collaborators were white dudes, he was arguably more open to diversity than most – Nile Rogers was a surprise choice after the Eno collaboration years, and Gail was one of the longest serving members of his band (and sang Freddie Mercury’s part on Under Pressure live!!) …though it surprises me that according to Wikipedia they never wrote together.

So, for me, the magic of Bowie isn’t in Heroes, or Five Years or Let’s Dance. It’s the frailty of The Loneliest Guy, it’s the introspection layered over David Torn’s burbling gentle guitar glitch. It’s Angry, Messy, Shouty Bowie, playing small clubs while having a huge amount of fun, as Reeves waves a guitar shaped wand over the music of Tin Machine, it’s releasing an album chock full of super-hip and super-deep NYC jazzers the day before his death.

So I’m not listening to Heroes today, or Sound And Vision, or Space Oddity… I’ll be listening to Cactus (a Pixies cover! You’ve no idea how great that was to hear when it came out), You Little Wonder, Slip Away, Where Are They Now… Give me 90s and 00s Bowie, Bowie actively ignoring the bullshit around his own legacy and the bloviating about his 70s so-called ‘peak’ and making music that he seemed to care about.

It’s not that they’re better, or have to mean more to anyone else. It’s that when the world hands you a Bowie-sized set of material – musical, historical, cultural, fashion, media, film, and a dialog with meaning through artifice – everyone gets to tell their own story. David Bowie is Lego – there’s a normalised way to assemble the pieces, a recognised big story to it, but everyone gets to pull it apart and build their models, tell their own story, construct their own launch pad for inspiration.

I have a number of friends who worked with him. All had a deeply complex relationship with him and the machine around him. You can’t engage with something like that as equals. That’s both fucked up and inevitable. That he wrestled with it better than many is of note, but also it’s part of why the notion that we may never see his like again doesn’t sadden me. He was him, we are now, and it’s all good. No-one needs to make hundeds of millions of pounds out of music, no-one needs to be a global megastar. Given that the affordance existed for that to happen, I’m glad that we had David Bowie as part of that absurdity. But the seduction of bigness is the most mundane, meaningless part of what Bowie meant, for me. That was the story before he interested me. Fighting that, making work in spite of it and the pressure it brought is where his vitality lay.

I’m not sad because a legend is gone. His music’s still there, and it’s unlikely I’d ever have met him. I’m sad because in the same week that Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90, we’re robbed of another couple of decades of Bowie fucking with our heads, doing infuriating stuff, making great music and making misunderstood music, disappearing for years and then changing his mind and being a monumentally huge and pervasive influence without being a dead icon. That’s rare. Like, once in history rare.

The temptation is to write some kind of personalised send off, addressed to the departed, but that wouldn’t mean much, because I didn’t feel close to him. I wrestled with his work, I love that it made me think, that at times I wanted to not like it and ended up loving it, and the opposite was also true. I like that music was enough. And I still have that. So for that, I’m deeply grateful.

We’re Not Thatcher’s Children, we’re Mandela’s.

Long Walk to FreedomThere were two events in my 20s that helped me understand the scale of the age we live in. one was visiting the Berlin Wall. The other was reading Long Walk To Freedom.

All of a sudden, the scale of the importance of what was going on in my lifetime was brought home. It wasn’t just seeing it on the TV, it was reading about world changing events and people and REMEMBERING them happening. Seeing the broken wall, walking from West to East Berlin, and remembering watching it live, being taken apart. Continue reading “We’re Not Thatcher’s Children, we’re Mandela’s.”

Buying Music by Musicians In Trouble (Helping Vic Chesnutt’s Family)

On Christmas Eve, I found out via Kristin Hersh on Twitter that Vic Chesnutt was in a coma – Vic’s a singer/songwriter that I’ve known about since the mid 90s (Andrew AKA Calamateur played me a compilation album of his songs called Sweet Relief II).

I suggested over on my Posterous blog that if people wanted to help, they should buy his music. If he got better, he’ll have medical expenses, and if he didn’t, his wife will need money to live.

A lovely friend on Twitter questioned the usefulness of buying his music, suggesting that the magnitude of medical expenses couldn’t possibly be dented by buying music, what with labels and publishers taking all the money anyway… Continue reading “Buying Music by Musicians In Trouble (Helping Vic Chesnutt’s Family)”

Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame – Michael Jackson And The Death of Global Super-Stardom

The death of Michael Jackson – like so many celebrity deaths – has brought with it a swathe of responses, both from the public and in the media.

Anyone who ever met him gets dragged out to talk about ‘their relationship’, and anyone remotely famous who might have a connection (be it sharing the pop-charts with him in the 80s, that they at some point in the past expressed a liking for his music, or just happen to be famous and black) is door-stepped for their comment.

It’s a fairly unpleasant media feeding frenzy, but it’s definitely serving a voracious need amongst a large section of the populus to be handed a secular liturgy for mourning the death of someone that, while insanely significant in the history of popular music, hadn’t made a notable artistic contribution in 20 years, and was written off a few years ago as a freaky paedo that many people (without any real evidence or experience of the case) thought escaped jail on a technicality…

For all those of us who hadn’t seen him live in over a decade, only listened to his older records (or not at all), and whose main month to month awareness of his was the reports of his spectacular and mind-boggling financial collapse, the emotional outpouring seems to be more an expression of 3 things:

  • a desire for some kind of connection with *the thing that’s going on* – get our opinion in, be part of the public conversation, tell everyone you always thought he was a genius/freak/whatever.
  • a sadness – close to grief – for our youth (a deeper expression of the same thing that drives people to watch I Love The 80s)
  • a largely unarticulated – but it appears, deeply felt – sense of loss for the age when musical and media megastars could MEAN something. (Andrew Dubber mused on this on Twitter)

Michael Jackson in his day combined musical genius, innovation and fame-beyond-measure. He was a truly global phenomenon. Massive far beyond the reaches of late 70s Ameri-centric radio and the English-speaking world. Larger than life, weirder that weird, but astoundingly gifted. Ever since Off The Wall came out, generation after generation of kids have connected with his music (there’s something about his music that definitely – and in light of the court case from a few years back, disturbingly – connects with pre-teen kids more than almost any other soul/funk-based music).

His creative partnership with Quincy Jones, producer of Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, produced some of the most iconic moments in the pop canon, but since Bad, he’s produced little that’s considered musically significant (I saw him live in the late 90s, when I interviewed his bassist, Freddie Washington for Bassist Magazine – outstanding show, but definitely all about the decade-plus old hits).

So what do we get out of grieving?

What are the questions we need to ask about the impression we had of him, the false feeling of connection we had with him as a person through his music and the press, and our complicity as part of a media-hungry world that fueled his madness (largely, it seems attributed to a seriously screwed up relationship with his dad, but made worse by his fame-neccesitated isolation).

Neverland, bubbles, oxygen-tanks, Liz Taylor, plastic surgery, llamas, friendships with kids, that documentary… A life documented like a dystopic flip-side to the Truman Show, but one that destroyed him.

At the recent UnConvention conference in Salford, I was asked at the end of our panel on being ‘outside the box’ what my one piece of advice was for musicians looking at their place in the world of music. My comment was

‘it’s more important to be nice than it is to be talented’

if becoming a ‘great musician’, and more pertinently, a ‘famous musician’ turns you into a reclusive lunatic, your priorities are screwed. Quit music, get a job in a bookshop, and leave fame to those whose narcissism is so overpowering they’ll pursue it to their own death.

Michael was rightly celebrated for his musical contribution, but his fame and its destructive influence on his life was out of all proportion to that (how could any music possibly live up to that??) – his public persona was a media-created 2-headed chimera: musical deity and social demon, invented to seed the front pages with stories between the album releases. If the next album’s a turkey, who cares, we’ve got pics of him in an oxygen tent, kissing a monkey dressed in tiny human clothes! Win!

Fame is the downside to success, and the way it removes the consequences from ones actions means that people like MJ who desperately needed help to recover from his screwed up childhood-in-the-spotlight never got it. If you’re heading towards it, in the words of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “Run away! Run away!”

Or, indeed, put another way:

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Nothing is worth that.

So, commenters – fame, celebrity, talent… where does it all go from here? What does a tale like this mean for those of us working in music, and using social media to break down the myths around our lives? Is ‘accessibility’ just another myth, once you get beyond a certain as-yet-undefined number of pseudo-personal connections? Have at it!

Oscar Peterson RIP

Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson died on Christmas Eve. His album Night Train was the first jazz album I was ever able to play along to, due in large part to the amazing lines and tone of his long-time bassist Ray Brown, but also the relative simplicity of the underlying harmony. The magic though was in what they were doing over the top… It’s a principle I’ve held onto with most of my jazz playing ever since – keep the changes simple and give the players room to stretch. And from Ray’s playing on that record, I got a sense of how a line can be supportive, swinging and clear in its statement of the harmony.

It was one of the first jazz albums I understood at all – I liked a lot of jazz that I’d heard before it, but didn’t really know what was going on. It got me on a more emotional, visceral level. With Night Train, I could follow the changes through the solos and pick out a lot of what Oscar was doing in relation to the chords in his solos. It was beautiful stuff, and to this day it’s the album I go to first when recommending a first jazz album to get to my students.

So in memory of Oscar, here he is with not one by TWO world class legendary bassists – Ray Brown and NHOP –

And here’s the obit. from the Guardian.

Karlheinz Stockhausen RIP

German electronic music pioneer and unrelentingly experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died, aged 79.

I first heard his music when I was about 15 or 16, listening to hours and hours of John Peel’s radio show every week, and eager to soak up new ideas about what music could be. In a music lesson at school, Mr McCormick put on ‘Frogs’, and the few of us that were developing an interest in experimental music had our minds well and truly expanded. None of us had heard anything like it, and we all found it – crucially – hilarious. I’ve always found deep comedy in much experimental music: not by laughing ‘at’ it, but just in the absurdity of abstraction, in a Dadaist tradition, I guess… Stockhausen’s Frogs was a high-brow musical version of Monty Python for us, and as a result, hugely compelling and influential.

For a while around that time, I had my first ‘experimental’ music group – a duo with a friend at school called ‘Pigfarm’ – it was basically us making a racket whilst recording it. We would rustle plastic bags, run taps, read surrealist poetry, talk in squeaky voices, play thing backwards and generally make a largely tuneless ridiculous noise (though I do remember a sublime version of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ complete with stuff being smashed up in the background and preset rhythms on a cheap keyboard employed for comic effect.

It was, of course, total nonsense, but it was important nonsense for us in that it was about making ourselves laugh. It was also in a sense frustrating because our technical skills at both recording and playing limited just how ridiculous we could be… I learned at that point how skillful great free players have to be, whether they’re playing instruments or just making a racket – if the racket is going to be engaging, it takes ideas and skill and concentration…

And Stockhausen was a MAJOR figure in my musical world at the time, referred to on an almost daily basis as the arbiter of all that was most extreme in music – up there with Napalm Death and John Zorn in the pantheon of ‘how far can you go?’ musical talk…

Figures like that are vital. Since then, I’ve heard music of his that I love, and music of his that leaves me unmoved… it’s highly likely that the problem is with me not him in the bits that I don’t get… I look at his music in a different way now, but his name is still there as a beacon of limitless experimentalism, of the pioneering spirit that ignored the nay-sayers and just did his thing. String quartet suspended in helicopters? no problem. Orchestral music with the players sitting in the audience? sure thing. Music for four simultaneous orchestras? er, OK. Live frogs on stage? easy…

Whenever I dip my toes into the world of experimental music, free improv, atonal music, non-idiomatic music etc. I draw on an experimental streak that runs through the middle of my own musical journey – it’s clearly not there in the harmonic content of what I’m playing these days (I doubt Stockhausen wrote much diatonic music in his life…) but it was definitely there in my decision to start experimenting with solo bass in the first place. I didn’t go into it be experimental, but the fact that at such an early age, Stockhausen, along with John Peel, John Zorn, Napalm Death, Air (not the french chill-out dudes), John Cage, Steve Reich and the guys I was hanging out with at school that were equally willful in their desire to make a funny racket helped me to approach the world of music with a sense of adventure rather than boundary, a desire to have fun, to test the limits of what I could do with my instrument, and not be afraid of having my own ‘high concept’ about what I was doing, even if it wasn’t remotely audible to the person listening to the end result.

Stockhausen had more bad press than perhaps any composer in history, but also changed the course of music in the 20th century. From The Beatles to Miles to Zappa, the more visible icons of change and progression in music during the 1900s were all influenced by the man.

Anita and Joe gone…

Two hugely influential people have passed away in the last 24 hours – yesterday came the announcement that Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, has succumbed to the Hepatitis that had been unknowingly plaguing her body for 35 years after a blood transfusion when giving birth in the early 70s. And today, the news broke about Joe Zawinul – keyboard player with Miles Davis, Weather Report and then the Zawinul Syndicate – who died in hospital of an undisclosed illness.

Both were incredible pioneers in their respected fields, Anita raising issues of animal cruelty, fairtrade and sustainability long before they were fashionable, and campaigning vigorously on a whole host of human rights issues over the years. She proved it was financially viable to care about the planet, and managed to bring all those issues to the lips and eyelids of the brand-conscious masses in a way no-one before or since has managed.

Zawinul will definitely go down as one of the great pioneers of jazz in the last 50 years – from his work with Miles onwards, he was constantly setting standards and pushing back boundaries, developing ‘fusion’ before it had a name, and crucially before it became synonymous with overplayed wanky nonsense in the 80s. Weather Report, along with Return to Forever, took the innovations of the Miles band, and ran with them, forging a unique style, and began what became Zawinul’s main path over the next 30 years – fusing jazz with African rhythm and harmony, which lead to him bringing to public a near-endless stream of incredible hitherto unknown african musicians.

For bass players, he’s the man who brought us Jaco Pastorius, Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe. He recorded with Gary Willis, Matthew Garrison… the man knew how to pick a great bassist.

Both Anita and Joe weren’t without the chinks in their armour – hagiography does no-one any favours. Anita was, in spite of her campaigning, insanely wealthy (she may have been giving loads of money away, but it does frustrate me when socially conscious millionaires don’t take the chance to use their wealth as a comment on the futility of it by conspicuously dispensing with large chunks of it… but that’s just me), and she sold the Body Shop to L’Oreal – now, I’ve no idea whether she had any choice in that, whether it was her decision, but she didn’t say what the rest of the animal rights world said – ‘L’Oreal?? and The Body Shop??? WTF??’ – given that L’Oreal have an APPALLING animal cruelty record. The Body Shop is still run as an independent entity within the cruel monolith of corporate filth that is the french cosmetics giant, but it’s a shame that the campaigning voice of the bodyshop is now at least partially muted thanks to it’s corporate ties. Individuals can criticise the corporate hand that feeds them, and just deal with the fall out, even if it means getting sacked, but for one company owned by another, it just gets silenced.

And Joe was, by most accounts, a misanthropic old bastard. Curmudgeonly to the core, and part of the extensive group of musicians whose cocaine usage led to the downfall of Jaco Pastorius (Jaco was completely straight-edge til he started working with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell – both seemingly blaming the other for getting him onto the ‘instant-wanker-just-add-white-powder’ substance).

However, with all these things, it’s a case of ‘there by for the grace of God’ – I’ve never been a multi-millionare, so I can’t say with any accuracy how I’d deal with it. I’ve never grown up as a jazz musician working with the king of horrible-geniuses Miles Davis, and I wasn’t a pro musician in the 70s and 80s when such an insane number of musicians were doing massive amounts of coke… I wasn’t there, I haven’t walking a yard in those shoes, let alone a mile, and the achievements of both these giants in their field of the late 20th century will be remembered not for their controversies but for their pioneering work, their progressive approach to the world, their iconoclastic status and by their fingerprints all over the landscape that the helped to shape.

Rest in peace, Anita and Joe.

© 2008 Steve Lawson and developed by Pretentia. | login