Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Flashback, March 1965: EC Out, Beck in with the Yardbirds

The departure of Eric Clapton (pictured) from the Yardbirds in March 1965 became like a shifting tectonic plate in the landscape of British blues rock. When everyone had recovered their senses, not one but three guitar gods had materialized, each spawning his own set of groups or supergroups that would dominate rock ‘n’ roll for the next few decades.

Tracing the relationships that developed at this time is like drawing a crazy family tree of the British Invasion. It all results from what I think of as “musical mitosis.”

Not familiar with that last word? The best—and certainly funniest—explanation of this phenomenon was offered on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Howard Wolowitz explains how his asexual friend Sheldon Cooper might reproduce: “I believe one day Sheldon will eat an enormous amount of Thai food and split into two Sheldons.”

The band realignment involving Clapton became perhaps the maddest mitosis to occur in mod London’s music scene in the mid-Sixties. In short order, three young men, destined to be acclaimed as masters of their instrument, had been thrust to the forefront: Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. 

It all began with what Clapton, at least at the time, regarded as a move toward artistic freedom but that others in the music industry saw as career suicide. He had joined the Yardbirds only two years before at age 18, as the replacement for Anthony “Top” Topham. But with the group finally on the cusp of achieving success, he didn’t like the direction it was taking.

“The truth is, I was taking myself far too seriously and becoming very critical and judgmental of anybody in music who wasn't playing just pure blues,” the guitarist recalled four decades later in Clapton:The Autobiography. Specifically, as an admirer of the American blues, he had grown contemptuous of pop music. And so, where his bandmates saw the yellow brick road with a tune brought to them, “For Your Love,” Clapton smelled a sellout and became “constantly argumentative and dogmatic about everything that came up.” His sole contribution to “For Your Love,” their breakthrough hit, was a short blues riff in the middle.

Eventually, with his dissatisfaction becoming plainer and plainer for all to see, Clapton was taken aside by the Yardbirds’ manager and producer, Giorgio Gomelsky, and told that the group would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave.

Though this was something like the outcome he desired, Clapton was still stunned that the group—really, anyone—would not want him around. Yet within a month, he was feeling far more pleased about his decision after he was asked to join John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, who shared more intensely his affinity for the blues.

Before leaving the Yardbirds, Clapton recommended a well-regarded studio musician as his replacement. But the heir apparent to “Slowhand,” Jimmy Page, declined the offer at first, recommending in turn his boyhood chum Jeff Beck. The latter was on board when the Yardbirds rode the wave of their “For Your Love” success with a hot streak that included "Heart Full of Soul", "I'm A Man" and "Shapes of Things."

The Yardbirds part of the story can be wrapped up relatively quickly. When the group’s bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith, departed a year later to become a record producer, his spot in the band was taken, surprisingly, by Page. Well, for awhile, anyway, until he began to share lead-guitar duties with Beck. 

The last Yardbirds single to feature Beck, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” came out in October 1966. A month later, he began to exhibit an even more conspicuous case of what might be called “Clapton Disease”—i.e., unmistakable dissatisfaction—and, after a tour of the U.S. in which he did not show up at times, was fired for what was termed “health” reasons.

At this point, it’s probably easiest if we take each of the three separately:

*Clapton, after his stint with Mayall, went, in succession, to Cream, Blind Faith, solo, back to a group setting in Derek and the Dominoes, and back on his own, with "Layla" becoming an FM standard, in both its fiery electric guitar and acoustic versions, two decades apart;

*Beck, no sooner out of the Yardbirds, formed The Jeff Beck Group, featuring lead singer Rod Stewart; another incarnation of the same group in the 1970s; a short-lived power trio Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice; and solo (I saw him in 1976, on a bill with Jan Hammer and headlined by Jefferson Starship, where I came away gasping at the sounds he coaxed from his guitar); and

*Page, with the Yardbirds breaking up, formed the New Yardbirds, then decided to rename it as Led Zeppelin (legend has it, on the advice of Keith Moon). Of all the groups in which the three men participated, the latter lasted the longest, only breaking up in 1980 in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death.

In 2011, Rolling Stone Magazine updated its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Clapton, Page and Beck were all listed among the top five (#2, 3 and 5, respectively; Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards took the #1 and 4 spots, respectively).

Song Lyric of the Day (Lucinda Williams, on Not Giving Up)

“My burden is lifted when I stand up
And use the gift I was given for not givin' up.” — Lucinda Williams, “Protection,” from her CD Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Photo of the Day: Oradell Reservoir, Bergen County, NJ

This past Saturday, more than a week after the official start of spring, snowflakes came whooshing down for four hours around midday in my area of Northern New Jersey. Though annoyed and distracted by the elements, I was entranced enough by the watery view before me to get out of my car, lug out my camera and take this shot of Oradell Reservoir, looking south from Harrington Park, N.J.

Quote of the Day (Comic Ryan Reiss, on Why NY Is the True ‘City of Romance’)

“People say Paris is the city of romance, but I say it’s New York. You only pay $2,900 a month in rent once before you look at whoever you’re dating and say, ‘I love you—let’s move in together.’”—Stand-up comic Ryan Reiss quoted in “Joke of the Week,” TimeOut New York, Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 2014

Sunday, March 29, 2015

This Day in Classical Music History (Beethoven Makes Public Debut)

March 29, 1795—In Vienna, the musical capital of Europe, 24-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven served notice of a new era in music with a debut in which he played one of his own compositions, leaving listeners running out of superlatives for a new, young force daring to break convention.

I see all kinds of quiz results taken by friends on Facebook. I’ve always avoided these until last week, when, on a classical music history site, I took one that matched my psychological profile to the closest composer. I was expecting—all right, hoping—that the response that would come up would be George Gershwin, a figure of real accomplishment who also happened to be a pretty convivial guy.

Instead, I learned, I matched up most closely with Beethoven.

If you want to know the truth, I read the assessment with some ambivalence. Being compared with a genius is flattering, if transparently ludicrous. But being compared with one whose tempestuous nature led contemporaries (and even a few biographers) to question his sanity—well, that was a different story.

Then I read the summary of why we matched. It seems that we both were enormously, even obsessively, driven in our creative pursuits, sometimes to the point where we worked in solitude for maximum concentration. Neither of us could be said to have many friends, but those friends we did have, we felt intense loyalty to.

Phrased that way, I suppose, we did have something in common. (And so now, Faithful Reader, you have two profiles: not just one of the composer, but also one far more elusive in this blog: of myself.)

Historical eras are notoriously arbitrary conventions, and perhaps none more than musical ones. For instance, what distinguishes the Classical from the Romantic composers? Beethoven, for instance, is generally lumped in with Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a Classical composer, but that seems, as much as anything else, a convenient way of classifying him with them according to a preset timeline and a personal association of the three.

In other important respects, though, Beethoven can be seen as a harbinger of the Romantic Era. His music, like others of the latter era, dealt with nature (e.g., the “Pastoral” Symphony); found many of its deepest wellsprings in literature (Plutarch provided spiritual consolation as his hearing deteriorated); dealt with the tumultuous power of love (the Moonlight Sonata); and embodied his advocacy of greater artistic and political freedom (he stripped his dedication of the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon after the latter had himself crowned emperor of France).

Learning at the hands of Haydn would have been an opportunity that almost anyone else would have dreamed of, but Beethoven was soon intent on cutting loose on his own. Before long, he received his chance at a series of charity concerts, benefiting widows and orphans of the Society of Musicians, at the Burgtheater, the national theater of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

He may have been outspoken in his republican sympathies, but an artist—even one, like Beethoven, intent on creating a commercial market for his work that would liberate him from patrons—has to start somewhere. For Beethoven, it was this national court of the empire in which he lived. The first benefactor of the theater, Emperor Josef II, had boosted attendance simply by showing up, providing a venue where those who hoped to influence imperial policy.

The stakes for Beethoven’s first public performance were enormous, demonstrated by the stress-induced abdominal power that had not bothered him in his native Bonn but that had bedeviled him since arriving in Vienna. Now, “severe colic” plagued him at the most inopportune moment: just as he was striving to complete his composition in time for his show. In the end, he was only able to get it done with two days to spare, as copyists sat in an anteroom, receiving one page at a time of the finale.

It is difficult, given the place that Beethoven occupies in the now-starchy classical music universe, to get a sense of the seismic impact of his performance. “Apart from the beauty and originality of his ideas, and his ingenious manner of expressing them, there was something magical about his playing,” observed fellow pianist-composer Carl Czerny. Late last year, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in listing Beethoven’s unique contribution to classical music instrumentation, pointed out that “The modern piano bears the imprint of his demand for a more resonant and flexible instrument.”

Contemporary listeners knew they were in the presence of something overwhelming, but none of the acclaim translated into the groupies who would throw themselves at a later piano life force, Franz Liszt. Beethoven courted a number of women in his lifetime, but as soon as they got a load of his temperamental outbursts and often slovenly, smelly apparel, they’d had enough.

The composition that Beethoven tried out that magical night in 1795, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, was one he had been working on ever before arriving in Vienna several years before. He was not terribly impressed with it, perhaps feeling it a bit derivative of Mozart, and so he would revise it a fair amount before he would allow it to be printed several years later. That only demonstrated his perfectionist streak all the more.

(To see—and hear—what the effect was about with this work, please see this YouTube clip of this composition, featuring the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelson, with Paul Lewis on the piano.)