Friday, April 7, 2017


"Pity them who see him suffer,
Pity poor old Steeleye Span;
John Bowlin's deeds they will be remembered;
Bowlin's deeds at Horkstow Grange"  

So goes the lyric of the broadsheet ballad, 'Horkstow Grange' made more famous by english composer Percy Grainger, and, irrespective of what or who it applies to, from this comes the name of the UK's 2nd best known folk-rock originators. I think many will be aware of venerable stalwarts, Fairport Convention, if only through these posts, but almost always held in the same breath, if not regard were/are Steeleye Span.

Indeed they have a shared history, the one seguing from the other, with occasional tendrils propagating back and forth, as they derive from the same founding member, one Ashley Hutchings.

Having pulled Fairport together in 1967, inventing a british folk-rock soon thereafter with 'Liege and Lief', he promptly left. The folk-rock of Fairport wasn't pure enough. Too much rock. This didn't mean a return to unaccompanied ploughboys singing to sparse instrumentation, or not entirely. Hutchings still wanted electricity, just a greater otherwise traditional purity. So he hooked up initially with two existing singer partnerships, Tim Rice and Maddy Prior, and Gay and Terry Woods. This was 1969 and it was Steeleye Span.This short-lived line-up produced but one album, before the Woods departed, being replaced by Martin Carthy, iconic even then, erstwhile duo partner with Fairport's Dave Swarbrick. Fiddle player Peter Knight was drafted in alongside, this, my favourite version lasting all of 2 albums, including the magisterial 'Please To See The King.'

As seemed normal with bands at that time, change came as routine, Carthy and Hutchings both then leaving, Hutchings moving on to a varied career of founding further bands, usually with 'Albion' in their name. Carthy returned to the folk clubs and an ever enhancing reputation, solo and with his wife and their family. Steeleye, like Fairport ahead of them, on the loss of their founding father, decided to make a go of it, going from strength to strength. recruiting Bob Johnson on guitar and Rick Kemp on bass. This line up even produced a UK (christmas) hit single in 'Gaudete.' With robust management, they also attracted guest musicians such as David Bowie and comedian Peter Sellars, the latter on ukulele. Not bad for a folk band. (Actually it was.....) They even added a drummer by their 6th recording, hitherto having been avowedly against, give or take the occasional guest right back on their initial outing.

Along the way they endeavoured a wider appeal, invoking 'Wombles' producer, Mike Batt, giving them a 2nd hit, 'All Around My Hat', so one more than "rivals" Fairport. Not their finest moment, perhaps, in terms of authenticity, but tell that to their bankers. Knight and Johnson,  leaving not so long after, left the rest in a pickle, Martin Carthy rejoining in order to fulfil contractual obligations, along with accordion maestro, John Kirkpatrick. This was destined not to last, and the band more or less fell into disarray, even when Knight and Johnson returned. Hart, then Nigel Pegrum, the drummer left, with Kemp hors de combat due to a shoulder injury. Confused?

New musicians joined, but not until their 25th reunion gig was the die cast for a more solid future. Now with Tim Harries on bass and Liam Genockey on drums, Gay Wood rejoined, the band temporarily again having 2 female leads. But not for long, as Prior, the focus for so long, promptly left. Surely this was the end, but the band limped on. Since then Woods has left again, Kemp has rejoined, left and joined again, Johnson has retired hurt, being replaced by Ken Nicol, himself then leaving after a few years. Stalwart Peter Knight finally left, in, now, 2013, yet still the band plays on, now a core of Prior, Kemp, Genockey and whoever else is currently depping. With 22 past and present members, over 23 albums it is hard to keep up. Yet somehow there remains a signature sound, usually centred around muscular guitar chords, soaring fiddle and the unmistakeable vocal of Ms Prior.

Look further

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Steel: Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Joni Mitchell: Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire


Joni Mitchell released Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire on her album For the Roses in 1972, and I must have first heard it close to that time for the first time. I turned twelve that year, so I had no idea what the enigmatic lyric was about. To me, it was an enticing dark fantasy that might involve a deal with the devil. I understood Hotel California in the same way, picking up on the undercurrent of seductive danger, but not the context. Now I know and can clearly see that both songs are about drug addiction. In particular, the cold blue steel in Joni Mitchell’s title is a heroin needle. So my deal with the devil idea wasn’t really wrong; I just didn’t know the identity of this particular devil.

Joni’s original recording of this song serves as an interesting marker for where she was in her musical career at the time. The song begins with little more than voice and guitar, harkening back to the folk period Mitchell was leaving at the time. But gradually, the arrangement fills out, until the song finishes in a much jazzier territory that Mitchell would explore over her next several albums.

Tim Curry: Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire


When Joni Mitchell finished her run of jazzy albums, she began to explore electric rock. If she had recorded a version of Cold Blue Steel at that time, it might have sounded something like Tim Curry’s recording of the song. It’s a shame that Curry is best known as Dr Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This performance strips away the campiness of Frankenfurter, and finds the sense of menace in a blistering rock version of the song. Curry never was a major hit maker, but he was serious about his music.

Boi Akih: Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire


I found this version of Cold Blue Steel while researching for this post. Boi Akih gives the song an interesting jazz treatment that might have been what Joni’s song would have sounded like if she had not written it until the Mingus album. This version emphasizes the seductiveness of the lyric, while the dissonant musical elements preserve the sense of danger.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

STEEL: Revolting Cocks "Stainless Steel Providers"

Make a motorcycle sound with your lips. My 1 1/2 year-old son does it whenever he sees a motorcycle, bike or scooter.

Leave the saliva on your mouth for the rest of the article. Let it dribble down.

The audacious industrial label Wax Trax is one of Chicago’s most important contributions to music history. Two Wax Trax bands especially-- Ministry and the Revolting Cocks-- are/were revolutionary groups that were crowded under the industrial umbrella as a result of their drum programming and sampling and the bands they toured with, though neither band threw themselves entirely into the clank-on-steel sounds of bands like Nitzer Ebb or Einsturzende Neubaden, the latter which literally played with junkyard steel on stage.

Ministry followed an interesting trajectory, from moody, funky synth-pop (Revenge), to nihilistic industrial (Land of Rape and Honey) and then onto industrial-metal (The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste and New World Order) before sliding into stolid, straightforward metal on ensuing albums. They were/are politically vitriolic and have always had a decent sense of humor, though they were never as smart as they wanted to be. But at least in the 80s and early 90s, they were pull-your-pants-down-in-front-of-a-cop reckless and a couple pints in front of everyone else who had cloudy visions of making the industrial dance/metal music Ministry and Revco were at the time. And it’s a hell of a testament to the creative talents in both bands that they were as prolific as they were despite taking tons of drugs.

Each band had an adventurous mixed cocktail of members throughout their tenures, though mainstays were guitarist/vocalist Al Jourgensen and bassist Paul Barker. Revco--the side project- was sleezier and dancier than Ministry, but far more formidable than an alter-ego. As much as Al (referred to as “Uncle Al” in many circles) proclaims to hate the nascent stage of Ministry and its funky synthpop (once saying that most bands sell out after their first record but he sold out before he even got started), the first three Revolting Cocks albums (1986-1990) and parts of Finger Lickin’ Good (1993, “Cracking Up” and “If Ya Think I’m Sexy”) pump a smug affection for dance music, though Revco was always plunge- yourself-into-a-barrel-of-tahini and do a lap dance kind of dance music more than chart busting stuff. Maybe this is Barker more than Jourgenson for after Barker left Revco, Revco left the dance party and settled for simple and tame electro-metal rather than anything with a unique, dancy vision.

So let’s talk Barker as Al gets most of the attention. He was tall with curly black hair and glasses whereas other members of the two bands were in dreadlocks, mohawks , gelled crew cuts or sometimes shaved clean on the crown. Barker came across like a young, cool professor who preferred his students to his colleagues. His bass lines were catchy, dark and eternally simple, the nerve from which every 5-8 minute Revco song was energized.

Revco was one dirty bacchanalia and ever body was welcome, including their sometimes topless dancers the Revolting Pussies. A few of the many contributors include Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre, NIN’s Trent Reznor, Chris Connelly, drummer William Rieflin (now of King Crimson and REM), Belgium’s inimitable Luc Van Acker and Front 242’s Richard 23. The best exhibition of Revco’s wildness and rabid bite is the live You Goddamned son of a Bitch (1998), the extended version including a cover of PiL’s “Public Image” and two songs off of Beers Steers and Queers including the crotch-hammering “Stainless Steel Providers.”

“Stainless Steel Providers”, which debuted on You Goddamned…. before showing up on 1900’s underappreciated Beers Steers and Queers is kick started with the revving up of a motorcycle, a sound which sparks the rhythm throughout. On the live version a menacing industrial din moans underneath. Vocalist Chris Connelly, who includes the song on his personal favorites (Initials C.C. Outtakes and Rarities Volume 1), delivers more attitude than on the album version. He’s a tripping and pissed off neurotic delivering a diatribe on a couple empty cases of Old Milwaukee at a party. And what’s it all about?

            Quick locate and detonate your public enemy
            Stainless steel, believe it’s real
            It’s all you mean to me
            What’s that sound, what’s that sound
            It bleeds efficiency


Steel. Revco and Ministry usually paraded around in cowboy hats and leather. In some of their videos they fired around Chicago in motorcycles, such as in the video for Ministry’s “Stigmata” where Jourgenson is being dragged by a rope attached to a shiny, steel hog driven by a near giggling Barker.  Vrrrroooom Vroooooom. I wondered if they actually rode motorcycles or if it was some kind of irony being as close as they were to Milwaukee’s Harley Davidson Plant. Motorcycle gangs and cowboys--two groups whose image exudes maximum masculinity. But the two bands have always dressed like this. Al even talked about retiring, moving to Texas and playing country music. But how long can you be ironic until it becomes you?

In my late 30s, some friends of mine started a bowling night on Sundays. They dressed in loose and long polyester shirts, donned Blatz hats and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon. After a few months, Sunday Bowling Night became Friday Bowling Night. They started betting on their scores. They stuck by PBR while pale ales started becoming popular. Then they stopped going to shows. Bowling was easier and more interactive. They got home earlier and could watch tv.

My friends with a broad taste in music don’t get this band. I have one high school buddy who loved their work enough to pump it in his car on cruises past Dairy Queen and McDonalds through our tiny downtown on Friday nights. He dug industrial music but in truth, he loved anything with a huge bass: “Well, you might say this song is tits Becker but lets see how its bass checks out on my speakers!” And in his Honda Civic we’d go, me always in the back seat, where I felt more comfortable than the shotgun in the front everyone competed for. I connected with him for the first time in 20 years this summer and he still listens to industrial music.

I never saw Revco though I saw Ministry three times. Rieflin, Connelly, Luc Van Acker, Barker and Richard 23 apparently did a short 6-date tour a couple years ago as just “The Cocks”. I checked out the clips. Though it wasn’t as reckless as the 80s and 90s, you could sense a belief in the tunes endurability. Luc Van Acker was comfortable in his royal tubbiness. Richard still had the gelled crew cut and Kojak shades.  Barker still geeked around in back, hunched over the bass.

On the record, I never saw the problem with bowling. I liked the dark lighting, the streaks of neon, the smell and the clatter of pins knocking around. I think it’s a fine way to spend a Wednesday night.

steel: pedal steel

purchase [Take It Easy]
purchase [These Days]
purchase [Sleepwalk]

I've had a lot of work to do to put this together. More than I anticipated. Quite some time back in this blog, I commented that covering a theme sometimes requires that you educate yourself: read, listen, dig around.

I'm still wet around the ears. Some day I would like to own and learn how to play the pedal steel guitar. It's a pretty intimidating instrument - and this from a guitar player who doesnt have first hand experience except for listening. But I have been doing a little background reading and listening, both of which only further my previous conviction about the contraption. Contraption in that  -if it is your stage instrument, you need to know how to set it up. It's not an instrument you pull out of its case, tune and go (like a guitar or a flute): you'll need a tool kit to put it together before your gig - tightening bolts, attaching legs and pedals in addition to the sound cables. There are various configurations (2 necks, 10 string or more), and then there are the pedals:  for volume and several others that bend combinations of strings - best, apparently, in combination. So, you've got one hand sliding the steel bar, the other picking combinations of strings and then your feet (and knees) controlling volume and bending.

While the pedal steel features in country music (and was birthed in the 30's out of an interest in the Hawaiian slide), it was a variety of 70's music that initially got me interested. The deeper I looked into that 70's sound, the more I saw that there were a handful of pedal steel players that got around, sort of a shared community of the skilled. . Many of the famous names end up doing session work for others, partly because the good are so few and far between.

The 70's music that turned me on to the sound include the following:

One of the Doobie Brothers steel players was John McFee. McFee also played on The Who's The Kids Are Allright. He has also played with Elvis Costello, Hewey Lewis, the Grateful Dead and more.

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter also played with the Doobie Brothers. Before that, he played with Hendrix. He played with Steely Dan up through Pretzel Logic before moving to the Doobie Brothers.

Sneaky Pete Kleinow (RIP 2007) similarly got around, playing with Steve Miller, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and others. Sometimes credited as the man who brought the pedal steel to rock.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Steel: Alison Steele—Night Bird Flying

[purchase Jimi Hendrix’s Night Flying Bird]

I’ve written numerous times about the importance that the radio I listened to growing up had in nurturing my love of music. I was lucky to live in New York (or at least, the suburbs of New York) during the heyday of WNEW-FM, one of the seminal free form/progressive stations in the country. I spent hours listening to Dave Herman, Scott Muni, Pete Fornatale, Vin Scelsa, Dennis Elsas (who I still listen to on WFUV), Richard and Dan Neer, and the other DJs who had the freedom to mix genres, go off on rants and rambles, play long, complex songs, and create shows that were more than the sum of their parts. But after all these years, one of the most memorable members of the WNEW staff was Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who was on during the overnight, when I had to listen really quietly, or on headphones, so my parents didn’t know I wasn’t sleeping.

Steele was memorable not just because she was a woman in an otherwise male-dominated lineup (although the station did have, at various times, other female DJs), but because of her distinctive, sultry voice, and because of the experimental, somewhat spacy nature of her show, which mixed poetry and social observations with the music. Here’s the way she opened up her show, for a while:

The flutter of wings, the shadow across the moon, the sounds of the night, as the Nightbird spreads her wings and soars, above the earth, into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come, fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, at WNEW-FM, until dawn.

Here’s a different opening, equally cosmic:

Steele was a New Yorker, born Ceil Loman in Brooklyn in 1937. I’m kind of taken aback that this icon of cool was born in the same year and borough as my father. Steele (she was, for a while, the third wife of orchestra leader and DJ Ted Steele, who was two decades older) initially got into radio in 1966 by being one of four women chosen from an audition pool of about 800, to create an all-female DJ staff at WNEW-FM, playing middle of the road music. But after 18 months, the station switched to the progressive format that ultimately made it famous, and Steele was the only one of the women asked to stay on, despite her lack of knowledge of the type of music she would have to play..

Here’s a long soundcheck from Steele’s show from Valentine’s Day, 1977 which gives you an idea of what her show was like. You can hear the type of music she played and her between songs patter (a word that doesn’t do her justice), including a love poem. She created something that drew you in, made you think, and played good music (although I’d have to question the Bread decision).

The Night Bird left WNEW in 1979, not long after I started college and began at WPRB, to work in television, returning to the airwaves in 1984 on WNEW-AM, the middle of the road AM sister station. She moved back to FM in 1989, on WXRK, known as K-Rock, where her overnight show, similar to what she did on WNEW-FM would end, and Howard Stern’s crapfest (I’ve never been a fan) would begin. From what I understand, Stern would disparage her, but in reality, he respected Steele, and aired a tribute to her after she passed away in 1995, of stomach cancer. She is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although the Hall doesn’t list DJs on its website, it says so elsewhere on the Internet, so it must be true.

I’ll admit that I didn’t listen to Steele much, if at all, after she left WNEW-FM, but her shows on that station certainly influenced me. And I’m in good company. Jimi Hendrix wrote a song called “Night Bird Flying” which was reportedly inspired by her radio shows. The song was not released until after Hendrix died. As you may know, the Hendrix estate is very, very protective of Jimi’s music, and you can’t even find a video of the song in its entirety to watch. But there is this officially sanctioned Behind The Scenes video discussing the song, mostly by producer/engineer Eddie Kramer, which should give you a sense of the song.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

STEEL: B.J. Cole

Or what my wife calls slidy steel. Too obvious, too literal? Well maybe, but I cannot let this pass, the instrument being my favourite musical sound, as well as being a great way to pep up lack-lustre material: go ask Dylan*! But who or what to feature, as there are way too many wonderful players to give each a shout.

Born and bred in the UK it was never something I had knowingly heard until my teens, until a sideways lurch from my love of the Byrds led me to the Flying Burrito Brothers. I was hooked by those searing, sweeping shards of glissando, melancholia on max. For a while, the mere presence of steel was enough to draw me in, my understanding of the instrument leading me away from Kleinow to Perkins, from Rhodes back to Maness, taking in the heights of Emmons and Leisz along the way. Seemingly a near impossible instrument to play, needing co-ordination of fingers, hands, knees and feet, all working against each other, it has escaped an exclusively country music manifestation and has infiltrated other genres. Which is, eventually, where I get to the titular player.

Cole is english. That alone used to be remarkable in its own right, but his list of sessions reveal the degree with which he is held in international acclaim. Put off by the ubiquity of "plain" guitar, and intrigued by the 'Sleepwalk' of Santo and Johnny, he sold all his toy trains to buy, first, a lap steel, then retrading up to the full pedal steel experience. Initially orthodox, applying country tropes to a standard heavy rock framework, in the band Cochise, it was really after their demise that he found his feet (knees, hands and fingers.) Big breakthrough, arguably, was his appearance on Elton Johns's equivalently breakthrough album, 'Madman Across the Water', on standout track, 'Tiny Dancer'.

But it is his more exotic excursions into ambient, jazz and electronica that really crystallise for me the enormity of his talent. Here are examples of each:

                                         Pavane pour une enfante défunte ('Transparent Music' 1989)
                                         Chasing a dream ('Lush Life' 2009)
                                         Hipalong hop ('Stop the Panic' 2000)

These are but tasters for the horizons he expands, alone and in collaboration, yet still as likely to turn up, in a tiny club, playing still alongside old chums like Terry Reid or Hank Wangford. I have certainly travelled cross-country for the opportunity to see the sidesman, not the singer. But pride of place in the Cole canon has to be this performance, with R.E.M., as part of a british TV special. Never has Country Feedback fed so far back into emotion. Listen and weep.

Spoilt for choice? Go here for more information.

*P.S. Dylan's current go-to steelman? Charlie Herron.

Steel: John Henry

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: John Henry


“Post songs that ring like steel.” As soon as I read that description of our new theme, I knew what my first selection would be. John Henry, and specifically this version, is a favorite from one of the first albums I ever bought for myself. As the youngest of three brothers, I was used to hand-me-downs, and that even included music to some extent. I got albums for my nascent collection that one or the other of my brothers had gotten tired of, and I also set about replacing music that was no longer available to me when my oldest brother moved out to go to college. But it was with albums like this from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that I began to define my collection as mine, as an extension and definition of me. It represented the beginning of my exploration of both folk and blues music.

The song is also a good starter for our new theme, in that it pits man against machine. Steel does not occur in nature. It is an alloy of iron and carbon, with other elements added in different proportions to make different types of steel. So steel itself is an early triumph of human technology, but the song John Henry reminds us that technological advances can have a human cost. In the song, John Henry is a steel driver. That is how he defines himself, and he takes great pride in his work. But now there is a machine, the steam drill, that can supposedly do the job better than him. The song tells of how John Henry set out to prove that he was better than any machine, and what it cost him.

A steel driver had the job of hammering steel drills into a rock face. The resulting holes would then be dynamited to make tunnels through mountains. This was an essential job during the building of the railroads in the nineteenth century. There are many claims that John Henry was a real person, and there are historical markers in several different locations that claim to be the site of the contest in the song. What is clear is that the technological change depicted in the song would place the action of the song somewhere in the 1870s. Whether or not the action of the song actually took place at all, the song and the legend are one of the finest expressions we have of human pride in the face of technological change, and that is a theme that still resonates, or rings, today.