Friday, December 21, 2018

Dan McCarthy Quartet

Just a quick post today of some video of a recent gig at the Homesmith Bar in Toronto with Dan McCarthy on vibes. Dan has been living in the states for some time now but is moving back to Toronto in the new year. It'll be great to have him back in the local music community! Joining him and I  that night were long time compatriots Ted Quinlan on guitar and Pat Collins on bass. Such a fun night! Here we are playing one of my favourite Pat Metheny tunes, " Midwestern Night's Dream". Enjoy!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Inside the drummer's studio part 11 Will Birch

One thing that I consistently realize is music's incredible ability to transcend culture and geography. As a shy and awkward kid with no athletic ability growing up in Saskatchewan, music was my escape, and where all my heroes resided. Most of them also resided in great Britain! Sometime in the late 70s' I heard the following song, arguably one of the finest pop tunes ever written.

The band was The Records, with Will Birch providing drums and lyrics. 

Here's some biographical information on Mr. Birch, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Will Birch (born 12 September 1948) is an English music journalist, songwriter, record producer and drummer.
Birch was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England. He played drums in various bands in the Southend area before helping to form The Kursaal Flyers in 1973. Featuring singer Paul Shuttleworth, the Flyers developed a strong live reputation on London's pub rock scene in the mid 1970s, and released several albums. Their biggest commercial success came with the uncharacteristic Mike Batt produced hit single, "Little Does She Know", in 1976, which Birch co-wrote.[1]
After The Kursaal Flyers disbanded in late 1977, Birch formed the power pop group, The Records. They released the minor hit "Starry Eyes" in 1978, again co-written by Birch, toured the United States and recorded three albums. The Records split up in 1982.[2]
Birch also co-wrote the song "A.1. on the Jukebox" with Dave Edmunds.
Meanwhile, Birch had already moved into production, working with the Liverpool based band, Yachts, plus Billy Bremner of Rockpile, Desmond Dekker, The Long Ryders, and later Dr. Feelgood. In the 1990s he moved into music journalism, writing many articles on the British music scene and, in 2000, writing an acclaimed[4] account of the 1970s pub rock scene, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. He published a well-reviewed[5] biography of Ian Dury, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography in January 2010.[6]

Mr. Birch was kind enough to grant me an email interview.  His gift with words is self evident through his thoughtful yet witty answers, and, despite his very self-deprecating assessment of his drumming, I would urge anyone who wants to hear great song-oriented drumming, to check out his recordings.

On to the interview.......

1. How did you get started in music? 

I was given a plastic ukulele - ‘Elvis Presley Official’ - and I posed in front of the mirror.

2. Was there a particular live performance or recording that had a profound influence on you as a young player?

Actually, it was a recording OF a live performance - ‘Gamblin’ Man’ by Lonnie Donegan. The drummer drove the one-note guitar solo to a place that I now know had never previously been visited by a British musician. And when Lonnie’s vocal came in for the final raging choruses, well that was excitement right there.

3. You're a very prolific lyricist and author as well as a musician. Did your work with words influence your drumming or vice-versa?

I only became a drummer and not a particularly good one because I couldn’t get past three or four chords on the guitar. And I couldn’t really sing. But I badly needed to be in a beat group or ‘band’ as they say today. Fearing I would be fired for incompetence I turned my attention to becoming a kind of leader and eventually I found myself writing the words. I discovered I was quite good at lyrics and fortunately, years later, I hooked up with people who could write tunes so much better than my derivative efforts, hence teamwork became the thing.

4. You have written songs in collaboration with a variety of artists. Are the words usually written first and music is added to them, or is it the other way around? How do approach writing lyrics for people with such diverse musical styles?
If it starts with the words, then it generally makes for a better song although a cracking melody - a potential hit - doesn’t necessarily need good words. I can and have put words to existing tunes, but I prefer words first because then the song tends to ‘say something’. Luckily my various collaborators have been happy to work in that way.

5. Your most famous composition is, arguably, "Starry Eyes" by the Records. It's a rather unusual subject for a song. Could you elaborate on its meaning and creation?
That’s kind of you to say ‘famous’, but contrary to my previous answer ‘Starry Eyes’ was actually tune first. John and I initially had a dummy lyric for the purpose of working up the song in rehearsal, then we fell out with the Records’ first manager and his departure inspired new words. In short, at the very point we were due to be signed by a major label he took a vacation. When he returned we were gone.

6. Many have said that the late 70s-early 80s were a very fertile time in England, and there were a lot of chances for bands to play live. Was this your experience, and did it have an effect on bands like Kursaal Flyers and The Records?

The London pub rock scene of the 1970s definitely helped the Kursaals, and the Feelgoods and the Kilburns and the Ducks before us. Without pub rock most of us would not have got a look-in because up until that point the record companies, agents, and promoters held all the cards. Pub rock and the punk scene that followed changed the rules, for a while. But agents and promoters aside, it was a fertile time in England from about 1958 when the 2 I’s coffee bar in Soho was a sort of dry Hope & Anchor, and the fertility survived for over 30 years, roughly until the arrival of the Smiths, the La’s, and the Stone Roses, fine groups all. Then money reared its seductive head and became the driver, not that there wasn’t money involved before, but a lot of non-music people suddenly became attracted to rock and roll. Thus, today there is a hunger for instant fame which is based on superficial attributes – the X Factor syndrome - whereas up until about 1990 it was still about the song and if you’ll pardon the pun, ‘the voice’. But I do understand the importance of promotion, and I also believe that success in rock and roll is at least 50% about the visuals. But the thing is, if we’re discussing rock music per se, the best of it was written and recorded between roughly 1965 and 1975 and anyone who aspires to making good rock today is fundamentally drawing on the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, because nobody did it better and probably never will. It’s futile to expect an upgrade.

7. The Records have a very identifiable sound and consistency in all their songs. Did you and John Wicks discuss the concept of the band prior to it forming or did this develop as you played with the other musicians? Were the tunes you and John Wicks basically complete when you presented them to the rest of the band?

Thank you for saying so. Yes, we did discuss our sound and we wanted to be Revolver. In fact, in retrospect that might not have been a bad name. Has anyone used it yet? The Beatles’ Revolver LP was, I think, the best ever made, as many others will attest. But we also listened to Badfinger, Big Star, Dwight Twilley, the power pop - horrible term – giants. We wanted to echo their promise. The other musicians who joined the Records were informed of the rules and parameters from the outset, not that we didn’t mind inserting the odd Spirit song into the set. Mostly they went along with it. John was very creative in the studio, especially vocally and I marvelled at the hours he was prepared to put in building the harmonies, and I respected our producer’s patience. When Jude Cole joined the Records, he too was a great singer and we had a magic, almost elusive blend. You can hear it on our second album Crashes, although I think it was a little under-realised. Unfortunately, we lived in London UK and Jude lived in the USA, so some inconvenient geography prevented us from consolidating our sound. And Virgin Records was starting to look the other way.

8. In the Records, were you ( according to your very amusing blog post. Available on the Will Birch blog ) the architect, the interior designer, the electrician, or the plumber?

Thanks for unearthing my thesis. John and I were co-architects. I erected a bare wall and John worked on the technical drawings. He knew Beatles harmonies and melodies backwards and could come up with great guitar lines that made you think you might have been listening to Revolver outtakes, on for example, ‘Up All Night’ or ‘I Don’t Remember Your Name’. I remember the Jam were working in the studio next door and Paul Weller popped in for a listen. When he heard our Revolver-like riff on ‘Spent A Week With You Last Night’ he said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get away with it.’ The next day we overheard the Jam recording ‘Start’! Which as you know is ‘Taxman’ backwards.

9. Your books ( including the forthcoming Nick Lowe biography ) seem to come out of your experience as a musician and performer. Did you journal events as they were happening on tour etc. or did you eventually realize you simply had too many good stories to keep them to yourself?

It’s what I know and as they say, ‘write what you know’. Actually, although I was quite confident of my lyric writing ability, on say ‘A1 On The Jukebox’ or ‘The Man Who Invented Jazz’, written with Dave Edmunds and Bobby Valentino respectively, I didn’t think I could write articles or books. I had done a few sleeve notes and bits for fanzines, but it wasn’t until Mojo approached me, in the shape of its then editor Paul du Noyer, that I thought seriously about ‘writing’. No Sleep Till Canvey Island – my pub rock book – seemed like an obvious starting point. I thought it was a story that needed to be told. Through researching the scene in depth, I came back into contact with the likes of Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and the Feelgoods – my ‘local heroes’. Ian Dury was a golden subject, of course – he had just died, sadly, and his family wanted me to collaborate on something as I had interviewed Ian several times. The collaboration idea didn’t quite work out, but Ian’s daughter Jemima and widow Sophy were still very helpful and luckily, I had many additional contacts. I therefore commenced my research. It took eight or nine years to complete, just a bit longer than a Rolling Stones album these days, but you can’t knock these biographies out overnight. My ‘Nick Lowe book’, due out in 2019, has been more like seven years. But to answer your question, I don’t really ‘journal’ other than to keep a simple diary, but I do have good recall and those who agree to be interviewed are always entertaining and their contributions are of course indispensable.

10. What projects are you currently working on?
I’m not sure I have another book idea at the moment, other than to update ‘No Sleep’, but fortunately I’m getting back into writing lyrics having given that up about 20 years ago, along with the drumming. I also have aspirations to work on film projects. I have two music-related stories on someone or other’s slate, as they say, but as everyone knows, getting a movie made is beyond impossible. I’ve been watching Michael Douglas in ‘The Kominsky Method’, and I love the scene where Elliot Gould refers to ‘the elevator pitch’. I’m not very good at those so I’m probably deluded. Film is a dream, but I’m not losing sleep.

Thanks so much Will Birch, for the interview and all the music! I'm looking forward to reading the Nick Lowe book when it comes out!

P.S. Here's the aforementioned " I Spent a Week With You Last Night" and The Jam's "Start" so we can all compare and contrast their respective " Beatle-yness"

...I suppose it's all a matter of opinion, but if I were Sir Paul, I might have my attorney on speed-dial over the bassline in that Jam tune! :)

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A new discovery ( for me )

Hey all,
I was just strolling about on social media when I came across a post with a clip of a drummer a lot of people are making a big deal about.  WAIT!!!!!!!!

It was at this point I was going to embed a video of this young drummer, but I've realized I'm not going to post it because, as the saying goes, if you can't say anything nice, don'y say anything at all!!!
I will, however, speak to what I see as the problematic parts of this person's performance which sadly, are common to a lot of the drummer videos I see lately.

Actually, I will start with a handful of positive things I saw.

1. It's a young woman.
Great! We need a lot more female representation in music!

2. She's playing (well, along to ) her own composition
Original music! Yay! Very cool!

3. She obviously has worked hard at playing the drums and does it at a high level
Good!  Physical acumen with your instrument is always a good thing.


How come after I watched the video I sort of felt dead inside?


1. The "band".
As usual in these sort of situations. The drummer was playing along to a track. Why do all these "drum channels" always do this?  Too cheap to hire a whole band?  Worried about somebody making a "mistake" ? ( It's a chance you have to take with live music folks! ) I think this is one of the factors that create the feeling of coldness I always get from these drum videos. Another factor is.....

2. The " composition ". 
Almost  always the tunes these drummers play along to have no discernible melody, are in a relatively indecipherable time signature ( or have mucked around with a common time signature to make it sound that way), and have feel changes that don't make any sense. In other words, it's a showcase composition that only exists as a place to put a drum groove/solo and I'm afraid those types of tunes don't hold up to much scrutiny or repeated listenings. and finally....

3. The "playing"
Well, there's usually a display of lots of chops. You know, lots of fast singles, heavy backbeats etc. There's usually very little improvising ( this was borne out when I watched another video the drummer made of the same tune. ) There's also rarely any humour, romance, or sentimentality either. Just physical drumming as athletic event.

Anyway, it's not like the drummer in these videos is the only one guilty of these things or invented them. That's why I didn't want to "out" her. There would have been no point.

I am going to "out" my new discovery, however.
Later, on the same social media platform I was introduced to the great Jimmy Hopps! Here is playing with Roland Kirk on the 60s hit " Ode To Billie Joe".

Phew! Okay Why did I like this so much? Well, first of all, it was playful and fun, and despite the great playing, they didn't feel like they were taking themselves too seriously! Mr. Hopps had a lovely sense of dynamics and drama ( reminds me a little of Roy Haynes ) and was really going for it and improvising. I liked the way he orchestrated the snares on and off during the tune. He has a great buoyant time feel and I liked the way he interjected triplet ideas into a straight eighth groove. Wonderful, high level playing that also leaves you with a good feeling afterward!

Now, let's all go and check out some Jimmy Hopps!