We’ve All Gone Solo

We’ve All Gone Solo #14 (Spooner Oldham)

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Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham may have been born in Center Star, Alabama but the name of his hometown does not indicate the nature of his otherwise successful musical career. A studio session keyboardist, songwriter and sideman par excellence, Spooner’s unassuming, personable and adaptable instincts have stood him in good stead when playing alongside those destined to be more famous. Established as an organist in the house band at the world-renowned FAME studios in Muscle Shoals while barely in his twenties, he would play and/or write songs for the likes of Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and the Everly Brothers. Starting in the Seventies, he branched out as a collaborator and live sideman with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dickie Betts etc. and right up to now with peeps like Cat Power and alt-Southern rockers the Drive-by Truckers.

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Look out, Spooner, Mr. Pickett is sneaking up on y’all

“Luckily, I was born with a creative mind,” Oldham told Uncut magazine in its Dec. 2015 issue, admitting he dislikes to practice. Instead, he relies on an uncanny ability to come up quick with just the right touch to add to whatever song is being cut. That could be the excitable glissando at the end of each verse of Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” or the stately church-like organ on Percy Sledge’s classic romance sermon “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Also luckily for Oldham, he found early on a compatible writing partner in fellow Alabaman Dan Penn. They went on to pen a follow-up smash for Sledge (“It Tears Me Up”) as well as a number of other hits, notably the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” and “I’m Your Puppet” for the Florida cousin duo James and Bobby Purify.

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With chops like these, no one would begrudge Spooner trying to steal some more of the spotlight for himself. In fact, as early as 1965 he had cut a 45 credited to Spooner and the Spoons. By 1972, he had moved to L.A. and was part of another studio house band, when a brief break in an otherwise busy recording slate led to his solo album, Pot Luck. This is an LP that played to his strengths in two ways: Side One is an admirable collection of original material and Side Two is dominated by an extended (mostly) instrumental medley that re-works many of the classic tunes he played on in the previous decade. The first side originals like “Julie Brown’s Forest,” “Easy Listening” and “The Lord Loves a Rolling Stone” are sterling examples of how deeply Spooner has absorbed the essence of classic Southern soul, adding in a taste of the Band in their more reflective moments. As it turned out, this fine album was recorded for a small label that went bust soon after, making it a rare collector’s item, though it was recently released on CD.

Oldham, who tellingly admitted in the Uncut interview that he was uncomfortable as the main attraction, went back to doing what came natural. When the demand for in-house studio bands waned later in the 70s, he started hitting the road as sought-after sideman, a notable early example of this was as Bob Dylan’s keyboardist during Zimmy’s mixed-reaction tour during his period as an evangelical convert. His rich legacy as a key part of the Muscle Shoals sound kept his name known to newer generations of astute musicians. Drive-by Truckers’ frontman Patterson Hood, son of FAME studio bassist David Hood, took up Oldham’s offer of help, tendered when Patterson was first starting out in high school bands, and Spooner ended playing both on the band’s stalwart 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and its ensuing tour. And that the way’s you feel it will always be with Oldham, now 72. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later, reading from two pages of thrice-folded note paper, there was typically no attention drawn to himself, only gratitude for what he was able to contribute to some of the best popular music of a golden era, and a typically modest declaration to keep on making great music in the finest spirit of collaboration.

We’ve All Gone Solo #13 (Chris Squire)

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Yes in the early 70s was the very embodiment of progressive rock’s heyday. Taking the stage while the majestic finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” poured out through the PA system, they had the whole package: the capes, the dry ice, the keyboard arsenal and, of course, the ten and fifteen minute songs full of second-wave Aquarian mysticism backed by bravura musicianship. They could fill arenas and sell albums by the bushel in Europe, North America and down under, have their praises sung in Rolling Stone (the Fragile album was lauded as “a powerful and moving emotional experience”) and even have a hit single or two like “Roundabout” and “All Good People.” Of course, the backlash would hit soon enough. There were legions of critics who seemed to decide all at once that they would forfeit whatever street cred they possessed if they got caught liking anything without a blues-based framework and hence blackballed most prog rock as sterile or pretentious. A lot of Yes fans remained though and so did the band, adapting to shifts in musical culture and countless line-up changes. Sometime in the 1990s it became safe to go back to being themselves, now as a “legacy act.” Not that that stopped the revolving-door personnel shifts.

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The one constant in the Yes lineup from their debut record in 1969 until his death in June of 2015 was bassist Chris Squire. The London-born Squire also sang back-up and co-wrote a lot of the band’s material. But what he’ll be remembered for is his work on the signature Rickenbacker 4001 four-string, an influential player who was prominent in the band’s instrumental scheme of things. No longer would the bass guitarist have to be relegated to the back of the stage aside the drummer. His style was melodic and fluid but formidable, the Rickenbacker sound was somehow both trebly and thunderous, as he made clever use of his instrument’s two pickups. In the classic heyday configuration, with vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and either Bill Bruford or Alan White on drums, Squire stood as tall as anyone in a role often viewed as negligible, a central figure in an Olympian instrumental framework.

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Chris takes a quick look at the keyboard encampment to make sure he and Rick Wakeman are not wearing the same cape.

But who was Chris Squire anyway? With a few notable exceptions (Peter Gabriel in the original Genesis, for one) progressive rock was not really known for single predominant personalities; they were more like amped-up chamber ensembles. Chris always seemed accommodating and thoughtful in interviews; a writer for the defunct Rock magazine in 1972 jump-started a discussion by telling Squire he had recently heard the single “Grounded” by his earlier band, the paisley-pop combo called the Syn. He was amused and maybe a little abashed, after all his new band was now writing rock songs in sonata form, but came across as the most amiable of the Yes men. There wasn’t exactly a lot of dirty laundry to hang on the line with this crew: for a while there Wakeman was the only imbibing and meat-eating member and Jon Anderson was well known for writing epic verse about missing his wife while on tour—check out side four of Tales from Topographic Oceans if you need a reference on that.

It was really was all about the music and for Chris this included his solo showcase “The Fish,” which was also the nickname of this Pisces. When it first appeared on Fragile (where each member took a brief solo turn) this piece was an instrumental add-on to “Long-Distance Runaround” and demurely bowed out after 150 seconds. But on the triple live album Yessongs it becomes a volcanic ten-minute powerhouse jam, the other four members popping in and out with accompaniment while Chris, fingers flying over the fretboard and egged on by the decibel-crazed punters at London’s Rainbow Theatre, builds it up to a roof-raising conclusion. They don’t make ‘em like this no more no how.

Squire’s 1975 solo album Fish out of Water came during a brief band hiatus after the release of the Relayer album, where Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz had temporarily replaced Wakeman after a falling out over the envelope-pushing Topographic Oceans. Squire assembled a neat little studio group of Moraz, Bruford, ex-King Crimson man Mel Collins on sax and Caravan’s Jimmy Hastings on flute. An orchestra was part of the picture but used sparingly and along with his foregrounded bass, Squire sprinkled in some lead guitar. It’s a glossy and attractive piece of work that dispenses with the clattering tendencies of his regular band and dials down the pseudo-philosophizing while retaining the same general presentation. Squire began his musical days in a school choir and has a similar (if slightly lower) voice to Jon Anderson’s, so the vocal element (often a drawback in the solo work of non-frontmen) is fine. The first two songs, “Hold Out Your Hand” and “You By My Side” have romantic lyrics and sprightly, almost danceable rhythms, and seem to point the way to Yes’ more radio-friendly turn in the early 80s, when they had their sole #1 hit with ”Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

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But all that could wait. This is still the mid-70s, bro, and when you staked your claim you did it in songs that went double digit in minutes. There are two here: the questing “Silently Falling” which clocks in at 11:26 and features a long, brooding and elegant outro and the 15-minute closer “Safe (Canon Song)” which has delightful hints of Gershwin in its orchestration and whose bass-driven arrangement ends in stately fashion. Though well-loved by Yes fans, this album lived up to its title as Squire quickly dove back into the Yes stream, a rock-solid band guy to the last. He would only have one more official solo release, a 2007 Christmas album. When I saw Yes two summers back it was on one of their last American swings with the one guy left to stretch back all the way to the starting line: in this umpteenth line-up you had Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White but the estranged Jon Anderson was replaced by a young singer (Jon Davison) and the keyboards were handled by ex-Buggle Geoff Downes, who had had a cup of coffee with Yes in 1979. No matter: even with progressive rock forever remaining the ill-regarded stepchild in critical circles (which has helped keep this greatly successful group out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) it was no issue to the enthusiastic and generationally-mixed crowd in the outdoor venue. This included many twenty-somethings who were bouncing in the aisles during the exalted finale of “Starship Trooper,” with Squire holding down the center one more time before being called to “shine your wings forward to the sun.”


Classic Yes, live at the Rainbow Theatre December 1972. (From the 1973 “Yessongs” film).

We’ve All Gone Solo #12 (Sandy Denny)

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“I’ve always lived in a mansion on the other side of the moon,” Sandy Denny sings in the last verse of the leadoff track to her 1974 solo album, Like an Old-fashioned Waltz, indicating the innate remoteness that may lie very close to the core of the British folk-rock singer’s appeal. But nothing was ever clear cut with Denny. She continues, “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune,” making a winking fairyland reference before closing the couplet with a claim that even the most ardent fans of her band Fairport Convention would contest after hearing their freewheeling live album “A Moveable Feast” that was released the same year. But this song, ostensibly about the many comings and goings in the Fairport line-up, extends to a certain peculiar and universal pain. “I can’t communicate with you and I guess I never will/We’ve all gone solo,” she sings to no one and everyone and with the lead guitar of Richard Thompson (who had just delivered a piercing solo a minute before) chiming in, delivers the plaintive rhetorical cry of “Ain’t life a solo?” in the crystal-clear upper register that would be known to millions of rock ‘n’ rollers even if they never followed her solo career.


Please ignore the YouTuber’s cheesy slide show, this is a feast for the ears, not the eyes.

For those millions Sandy Denny will be remembered for her soaring, call-and-response duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin IV’s “Battle of Evermore,” the great Celtic-flavored song that served as a table setter for the magnum opus “Stairway to Heaven.” By that time, Sandy had made her mark after joining Fairport for their second album, playing a large part in the development of the English folk-rock genre.

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Early days yet. Sandy in a publicity shot from 1967.

Born in London in 1947, she had classical training on the piano and was likely influenced by a Scottish grandmother who was a singer of traditional tunes. When Denny auditioned for the then Jefferson Airplane-influenced group in 1968 after the departure of Judy Dyble, Fairport guitarist Simon Nicol said her effervescence and musical skills made her stand out like “a clean glass in a sink full of dirty dishes.” It was Denny’s traditional repertoire, already well-honed in folk clubs, that influenced the group to play the age-old material of their homeland (and original material in a similar style) in an amped-up style that culminated in the landmark Liege and Lief album, which hit #17 in the UK charts.

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Like many English bands of the day, Fairport Convention moved to the country to “get it together.”

Denny had become friends with Zeppelin when Fairport had shared concert bills with them but by1971 she had left the Convention and put out her first proper solo album (recordings she had made in 1967 had been only haphazardly released). With unimpeachable vocal strengths, a deft hand at songwriting and her soft-featured good looks, Denny seemed poised for great success, perhaps an Anglicized Joni Mitchell. But there was never that breakout. Though revered by listeners in her core constituency, a persistent melancholy seemed to pervade her sound (despite her rep in Fairport as a bit of a hell-raiser) and her elliptical lyrics kept more casual listeners at arm’s length.

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By the time of her third album, recorded in the middle of 1973 but not released until ’74, there appeared to be an effort (of which Sandy was part) to broaden her appeal. With her boyfriend (and Fotheringay bandmate) Trevor Lucas co-producing, Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz had a bright surface but a brooding interior. Art directors took the nostalgic title tune a bit too much to heart, putting Denny’s trademark long blond hair up in a bun for a prim Edwardian-style portrait that likely didn’t do much for impulse purchases. Still, it was a lovely collection of songs even if none of the originals can quite match the masterful “Solo.” Songs like “Carnival” and “Dark the Night” have their own counter-intuitive uplift and the Joni-esque closer “No End” has a slow-building majesty sure to please the base. Less appealing is the incongruous addition of two jazz standards (“Whispering Grass” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”) whose lounge-lizard production values break the quiet spell of the original material.

By the time LAOFW was released to little effect in the summer of ’74, Denny had re-joined the Fairport with her now-husband Trevor Lucas on vocals and lead guitarist Jerry Donahue replacing Richard Thompson, sort of a package deal trade as all three came over from the side project Fotheringay. What followed was the Rising for the Moon studio LP and the aforementioned Moveable Feast live album from the subsequent tour, re-packaged as Convention Live in the CD era. Here was Sandy in a more natural habitat, fronting a spirited band and delivering fiery vocals on both traditionals (“Matty Groves”) and her own material (“John the Gun”). But that edition of F.C. was not fated to last and there was on last solo album (1977’s Rendezvous) before her tragic death in 1978. Here Denny was figured as a pop chanteuse with covers of “Candle in the Wind” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” almost crowding out some fine originals like the all-too-fitting closer, “No More Sad Refrains.”

Sandy Denny died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1978, a few weeks after sustaining a head injury in a fall down a flight of stairs. One wonders if things would have been different in today’s world, where we are better versed in mental health awareness, and to have interceded with someone known to have body image and substance abuse issues, as well as depressive tendencies. Denny continued using alcohol and drugs during and after the birth of her daughter Georgia and became estranged from her husband after the accident, with Lucas—fearing for the safety of the child—even taking her back to his native Australia.

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Richard Thompson and Sandy’s daughter, Georgia Lucas, in 2006

When we wheel back from those awful circumstances and look at this remarkably talented and ill-fated woman, the clues almost seem to be staring right at us in some many of her tunes (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” indeed) and we are left with the aching consolation of what was accomplished during the all too brief time she was here, going solo or not.

We’ve All Gone Solo #11 (Danny Kirwan)

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To millions of music fans, Fleetwood Mac means Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, along with the founding rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and recently rejoined singer-keyboardist Christine McVie. It’s not hard to see why. They were the most commercially successful incarnation of the band (remember a little record called Rumours?) and for the last forty years, the only incarnation. But before rock music’s timeline became so stretched out, there were of course two earlier stages of the band. The psychedelic blues combo fronted by guitar legend Peter Green and, after Green left in 1970, a transitional period in the early Seventies that saw the addition of Christine and, for a while, Bob Welch. Straddling those two periods was Danny Kirwan, who was born in South London in 1950 and joined Mac as an 18 year-old guitar prodigy in ’68. By the time he left in 1972, Kirwan was the de facto leader of the band, but was let go amid tales of alcohol abuse and erratic behavior.

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Someone like Kirwan, who developed mental health issues and was out of the music business by the late 70s, is an easily forgotten by the average pop fan. But for the passionate baby-boomer music buff, who have big record collections and read legacy rock magazines like Mojo and Uncut, a guy like Danny is often revered beyond what would normally be expected. And that’s how it should be. With the earlier version of FM, he was part of a formidable three-guitar formation (the third axe played by Jeremy Spencer) who carved out indelible rock classics like “Oh Well,” “Albatross,” “The Green Manalishi” and “Black Magic Woman.” In the post-Green years, the band developed a more ethereal and at times folk-rockish sound and, with the addition of Christine McVie, developed a feminine mystique that would that would really broaden their appeal a few years down the road.

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With a front line of Kirwan, C. McVie and Welch, the group made two excellent albums (1971’s Future Games and 72’s Bare Trees) that certainly set the table for that mega-success to come. Kirwan had a hand in composing about half the material on those records and his maturing writing style on songs like “Woman of 1000 Years” and “Dust” was central to their aesthetic appeal. But like a lot of the people I’ve profiled in this series, Kirwan’s step up from role player to nominal leader didn’t seem a good fit. There were stories of it being a stressful arrangement and Kirwan’s developed a serious drinking problem, leading to bad behavior which alienated him from band members. In the end, Mick Fleetwood was the only one he was still on speaking terms with, if only to let the guitarist know he was out of the band.

Kirwan’s first solo album wasn’t released until 1975, when his Second Chapter came out around the same as Fleetwod Mac, the curiously eponymous LP that was the first to feature the Buckingham-Nicks team. In some ways, Kirwan’s offering was a continuation of his more low-key offerings with his former outfit: thoughtful, melodic, attractively folkish if a tad under-produced. “Ram Jam City” is a sprightly uptempo number to kick things off, but not nearly as driving as its tittle may suggest. The rest of the old side one is an enjoyable set of songs analogous to Nilsson or early 70s Paul McCartney. It’s on the second half that the record deepens and Kirwan’s engaging voice and nimble guitar work are put to best use on songs like “Lovely Days” and “Silver Streams.” An air of melancholy like a premonition has already edged in by the time we get to the beautiful closer “Cascades.”

Danny Kirwan’s second chapter would be an abbreviated one. There would be a few more undervalued solo LPs to follow, while his old band, mining a similar musical vein but with more of that ineffable “It Factor” went mega-platinum. Many have said that if Kirwan’s issues could have been worked out, that his talents would have contributed greatly to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup, even if it would have been a crowded stage. But the vicissitudes of a pop musician’s life are many and often fall unkindly on the more deserving. Kirwan would spend part of the 80s and 90s homeless in London, occasionally being shadowed by tabloid reporters who on at least one occasion made fun of his alcoholism in a news story. Things may have improved some since then but tentative talks about a one-off reunion of early edition Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer who, despite life problems of their own, are musically active) don’t hold out much hope that Kirwan can be included. Never say never, but in the meantime, astute and sensitive fans still have Second Chapter as a great Sunday morning listen while wondering what could have been.

We’ve All Gone Solo #10 (Jerry Harrison)

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There must be plenty of people out there who dig the Talking Heads who couldn’t tell you the first thing about Jerry Harrison, except that he was the handsome, curly-haired guy who switched off between guitar and keyboards. But that’s OK. Harrison is the music equivalent of a versatile utility baseball player who could play any infield position and maybe even fill in at catcher. He comes off the bench to hit a 2-run double during a World Series that his team wins, and is forever fondly recalled by hometown fans. And so it is sometimes with rock ‘n’ roll.

Jerry Harrison was born in Milwaukee in 1949 and moved to the Boston area to study architecture at Harvard. There he met Danny Fields and the journalist and future punk impresario introduced him to Jonathan Richman. He joined Richman’s group the Modern Lovers in 1971 and played keys on their seminal debut album (recorded the next year but not released until ’76). After Jonathan turned to a quieter and more naïve performing style, Jerry left but the legacy of that first record—with its streetwise but brainy aesthetic—was not lost on the groups in the emerging New York scene centered around CBGBs. When the Talking Heads, then a trio with singer-guitarist David Byrne and the husband-wife rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, were looking for a fourth member to fill out their sound, Harrison was recommended to them by mutual acquaintance Andy Paley.

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He went to New York to meet the band and audition and they were impressed with his versatility. Harrison, in a move sure to be appreciated by parents everywhere, agreed to join the group so long as he could finish his last semester at Harvard. The Heads’ success, with Harrison as the group’s valuable middle man, is well known. But when tensions between dominant frontman Byrne and the Weymouth-Frantz axis came to a head in the late 80s, the group went on a long-term hiatus, before officially breaking up in 1991. Harrison didn’t waste much time getting in the solo game, releasing “Casual Gods” in 1988, the same year as the Heads’ last studio album. Jerry had also put out a solo disc in 1981 (“The Red and the Black”) but with the band’s future in doubt, this perhaps was made with more of a sense of urgency to it.
From the opener “Rev it Up” you get the sense of a consummate pro at work. Led by Harrison’s signature trebly, funky rhythm guitar, the song is a suave booty-shaker that is not dissimilar to his old band in the “Stop Making Sense” period.

Certainly, the overall sound, with the glossy production values and world-music overlay, is of its time but in a good way. Harrison has a nice mid-range voice even if he is not the most expressive of vocalists. And while as a lyricist he is not as willfully eccentric as David Byrne (few are) he can be just as striking upon closer inspection (“I feel there’s a time coming when we are all angels… a time when nothing will be new”). The standout track of “Casual Gods” has got to be “Man With a Gun” an ineffably touching tune about the mysteries of love that also comes with a stylish video.

“Casual Gods” was an impressive album (even if it did get a little samey towards the end of side two) and seemed to promise that there would be more to come. There was a follow-up album a couple of years later (“Walk on Water”) but that was his last solo effort to date. As is the case with many of the musicians profiled in this series, some people are just born to supporting roles. While watching the “Stop Making Sense” concert film, for instance, it’s a little hard to imagine a low-key dude like Jerry Harrison climbing into that giant white suit to claim the spotlight like David Byrne does so memorably. We all have our roles to play and for Jerry it would mostly be as producer or in-house player, working with the Violent Femmes, General Public, Crash Test Dummies, the BoDeans, Black 47 and many others. And say what you will about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at least it gets warring bands back together one more time and for the Talking Heads it happened in 2002, with Jerry looking just as boyish as ever.

(The anecdote about Harrison joining the Talking Heads was taken from Will Hermes’ great book “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” which takes its title from the Heads’ first single (before J.H. was in the group). More on that tome in my upcoming post “Books That Rock, Part 2.” Coming soon!)

We’ve All Gone Solo #7 (Ronnie Wood)

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Is Ronnie Wood rock music’s ultimate wingman? Born in 1947 in an outlying district in London, he’s a guitar-playing guy who came into the world at just the right time. After knocking around a bit in the capitol’s hothouse music scene, he got a gig in 1967 playing bass for the Jeff Beck Group and never looked back.

When the restless Beck dissolved that version of JBG, Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart quickly joined forces with Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenny Jones from the beloved Small Faces whose own frontman, Steve Marriott, had left to form Humble Pie. With the Faces, Wood went back to shouldering a six-string and took up his stage right position, dishing out his buzzing riffs and slide guitar fills through several notable albums (and co-writing such great tunes as “Stay With Me” and “Ooh La La”) and high-spirited tours with that archetypal group of working-class blokes made good. Oh, and since the mid-70s he’s been a Rolling Stone.

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So life’s been good for this son of a long line of river barge operators—he’s been rock royalty for over four decades without ever seeming to hog the spotlight. Employing the time-tested tricks of the trade (rooster haircut, low-slung guitar, dangling cigarette) Wood’s been a reliable foil to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in rock history’s most durable top-line act. He’s also played with Bob Dylan at Live Aid, represented the Stones at the Last Waltz concert, had an affair with rock super-muse Patti Boyd Harrison, been in and out of rehab several times and was twice married to models—the second one divorced him several years back after he had a fling with a barely-legal Russian girl. I think that about takes care of the checklist.

And when it was time to do his first solo record in 1974, he came up with the perfect title. (I was going to name this blog series I’ve Got My Own Album to Do before choosing the more compact title I nicked from the chorus of “Solo,” the Sandy Denny song about the comings and goings of Fairport Convention alumni). Naturally, Wood had no trouble rounding up some mates to help him out. The credits are full of Faces and Stones (both Mick and Rod the Mod help out on vocals), not to mention the great rhythm section of bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Andy Newmark. This album is a real corker, as they say across the pond. You expect ol’ Ron to be chuffing away on the bluesy rockers that were the calling card of his various groups, but there is also some impressive variety in the songwriting. There’s the very nice “Far East Man” with George Harrison (who co-wrote it) on slide guitar and harmonies, plus a few songs (“Mystifies Me,” “Cancel Everything”) that channel that sweet melancholic vibe associated with his Faces songwriting partner Ronnie Lane. These slowies are especially well-suited to Wood’s slightly raspy, Everyman voice. But whether the mood of an individual song is sad or sassy, the overall ambience recalls a fun night out with the lads and it all ends with a loose, funky instrumental jam called “Crotch Music.”

This wouldn’t be Ronnie Wood’s only solo LP. His most successful one in the States would come in 1979 with Gimme Some Neck, which led to the short-lived semi-supergroup with Keith Richards called the New Barbarians. But mostly, life with the Stones has kept him pretty busy over the years, with occasional solo outings to fill the gaps and keep him (mostly) out of the tabloids. When you’re this high up in the court of the Royal Rock Stars, it is good to be The Wingman.


From the 2007 concert film “Shine A Light.”

My next book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released later in 2015.

We’ve All Gone Solo #6 (Pete Sinfield)

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(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

Progressive rock as a genre had well and truly arrived in October of 1969 with the release of King Crimson’s formidable debut album In the Court of the Crimson King. This was obviously not sock hop music but instead an album to be reverently pondered in teenage dens of iniquity half-obscured in a cloud of hashish smoke. Their music, like many of their prog contemporaries, was undeniably adventurous, ranging from almost medieval-style balladry to speed-demon jazz-rock—in this case led by the guitar work (lilting and furious by turns) of KC kingpin Robert Fripp.

In a musical zeitgeist where subject matter was reaching way beyond the old boy-gets-girl-or-not variations, it was not unheard of for bands to have their own in-house wordsmith—Procol Harum’s Keith Reid, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, etc. Enter Pete Sinfield, born in the Fulham section of London and raised by his bohemian-activist single mother, helped by Maria Wallenda from the famous high-wire family. An easygoing poet/songwriter type, he was briefly in a band with multi-instrumentalist Ian MacDonald before the latter joined King Crimson. Sinfield didn’t have a chance matching up with the highly-skilled players in this band, but his words were a perfect fit. Pete’s fanciful lyrics had an otherworldly flair, drawing on both ancient-sounding fantasy scenarios and science-fiction. The words were printed prominently on the inner-gatefold amid the album’s striking artwork.

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The keeper of the city keys
Put shutters on the dreams.
I wait outside the pilgrim’s door
With insufficient schemes.
The black queen chants
the funeral march,
The cracked brass bells will ring;
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king.

Such writing reflects the era in its own way, the turbulence, the inner searching, the drugs. Though Sinfield’s type of lyricism, along with prog rock in general, came under a lot of criticism for its perceived pretensions, younger boomers embraced it as an alternative maybe to the naïve we-can-change-the-world stance of slightly earlier hippie times. In fact, a lot of his implied social criticism (see “21st Century Schizoid Man”) holds up much better nowadays.

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Sinfield in 1971.

Sinfield would pen the words for the first four King Crimson albums and near the end of that tenure, released the 1972 solo LP “Still” with Manticore Records. Although he was a decent enough singer, he did enlist ex-Crimsoner Greg Lake to help with some vocalizing. Still was a pleasing effort that wisely stayed away from trying to replicate the instrumental firepower of his band’s output (though several of them help out), leaving the songwriting front-and-center. There are some eclectic touches: a brass section on one song and a vegan-themed rocker called “Whole Food Boogie” stand out. But the best parts are on ethereal numbers like “Under the Sky” and “The Piper”, the folksy “Hanging Fire” and the untypically straightforward “Can You Forgive a Fool?”

On into the Seventies, he re-teamed with Greg Lake to write for supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer, as well as for Italian proggers PFM. In 1975, Sinfield and Lake collaborated on “I Believe in Father Christmas” which has become a holiday standard, although the steely core behind the seasonal frosting is a trademark touch. Sinfield has attempted in recent years to record another solo album, stymied in part by health issues, though he remains active as a poet and member of the British Academy of Songwriters.

Here he is featured in a 2008 clip from the excellent Prog Rock Britannia series, looking back at the heady early days of King Crimson.

We’ve All Gone Solo #5 (Sylvain Sylvain)

Sylvain LP

(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

Someone like Syl Sylvain is an ideal embodiment of this series. This plucky rock ‘n’ roll survivor was a founder and second guitarist of the New York Dolls, the seminal urban-rock band who, in the time-honored tradition of pop pioneers, went under-recognized in their own time only to become beloved cult icons later. It was in lower Manhattan in the pre-gentrified early Seventies, that Sylvain met his eventual bandmates. The Dolls did a lot of the groundwork for the punk and alt-rock paradigm that followed with their swaggering rhythms, streetwise lyrics and outrageous fashion sense. Sylvain, however, was destined to be overshadowed by junkie figurehead Johnny Thunders on lead guitar and by flamboyant singer David Johansen. This despite being the group’s reliable riffmeister and, with his earlier background in fashion, a likely influence on their famously glam, drag-influenced image.

Syl was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Egypt in 1951, but anti-Semitism led his family to emigrate when he was still a boy, eventually settling in Queens. He kept his shit together through the Doll’s tempestuous tenure, while the hard-drug scourge claimed original drummer Billy Murcia in 1972 and eventually Thunders, who died in sordid circumstances in 1991. When the original incarnation of the New York Dolls flamed out in 1977, Sylvain said he felt like “the Dolls left him” and that eventually there would be a more stable second act. He had enough cache to be able to record a solo album for RCA, released in 1979.

Like a lot of would-be breakout solo efforts in this series, his self-titled album was a likable work that deserved a better break. Non-frontmen have a steeper hill to climb, and even though Sylvain is very adept at mining the Dolls’ key influences (50s rock, tender Brill Bldg. balladry, street poetry), he still can’t overcome his core value as a role player. This three-song sampler does show what fans were missing and makes the case of Sylvain Sylvain as a cool party record for those hipsters in the know.

In the Eighties and beyond there were the expected various projects that never quite panned out (the Ciminal$, the Teardrops) until the long-awaited Dolls re-union came about in 2004 when Sylvain rejoined Johansen (and for a brief time before his death from leukemia, original bassist Arthur Kane) for a festival appearance and then as an ongoing concern. They have released three pretty good albums since 2006 and toured all around, delighting the old-timers and younger fans who didn’t have a chance to see them first time around.

sylvain-sylvain-color
Dressed to impress and still rockin’

We’ve All Gone Solo #4 (Ken Hensley)

weed

One of my favorite real-life Spinal Tap moments is when Uriah Heep vocalist David Byron announces on their 1973 live album that the next song features keyboardist Ken Hensley on the “Moog Simplifier.” This was eleven years before the film so you know it’s legit, not like some band today cheerfully calling out “Hello Cleveland!” when they know perfectly well they are in Pittsburgh. The Heep were a solid second-tier English hard rock outfit of that era, never quite achieving the full thunderdome aura of Zeppelin, Sabbath or Deep Purple. But they seemed like decent blokes and were quite capable of slugging it out night after night in the mid-sized venues of those halycon days. They could serve up the straight-ahead stompers like their hit “Easy Livin’”, break out the Simplifier for grandiose proto-power ballads like “Circle of Hands” or get the crowd shaking with a then-trendy 50s rock medley.

hensley in 1973
Ken Hensley in 1973

Ken Hensley, seated stage left at his Hammond organ piggybacked with a Mini-Moog, was maybe overshadowed a bit by lead guitarist Mick Box and the dramatic singing of Byron. Yet in a way, he was the band’s MVP. The Hammond was a big part of their sound but he could also play a mean guitar when called for or take the occasional lead vocal; above all he was Heep’s principal songwriter. So it’s little surprise that he tested the solo waters early. In 1971, a year when U.H. released two studio albums, Hensley found time to repair to Germany for a one-off project called Weed, recorded with a local band there called Virus. But it’s a Hensley solo LP in all but name with Ken doing all guitars, keys and vocals.

Leading off is a great spring-has-sprung number called “Sweet Morning Light.” Since at least the time of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, this theme has almost always been a cue to employ a light touch. Here we get a cobweb-clearing blast of noise before the Teutonic central riff kicks in. Winter is over by decree of the metal gods!

All in all, “Weed” is a pretty dope album, if you will. Though he doesn’t stray very far from the Heep template, Hensley is a confident performer who lays it all out 70s style. There are rockers, a brooding acoustic guitar number (“Lonely Ship”), a piece that starts with a hushed piano solo before the band barges into the room (“My Dream”), the Procol Harum-ish “Before I Die” and the title cut, a vigorous jam-band instrumental.

Yet in 1971, Uriah Heep’s most successful phase lay just ahead of them, so the heels were cooled a bit on the solo work (though 73’s “Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf” is also recommended). At the end of the 1970s, with the group’s classic line-up splintered, Hensley left U.H. and entered into various bands and did further solo records. But after David Byron’s death in 1985, Hensley went into semi-retirement, eventually re-emerging and collaborating with a long line of British rockers with whom he came up with in the day: the guy would even go on to write a my-life-in-music rock opera called “Blood on the Highway.” Heep were always an item on the Continent (a Cold War-era Bulgarian hippie movement was named after their 11-minute warhorse “July Morning”) and Hensley has found recent success summer gigging in places like Norway where genres like progressive metal flourish. Apparently, being Big in Scandinavia has replaced the old Big in Japan fallback once enjoyed by the likes of the Runaways, the New York Dolls and, for that matter, Spinal Tap.

“Lady in Black” is one of Hensley’s most notable turns as lead singer with Uriah Heep.

We’ve All Gone Solo #3 (Nicky Hopkins)

Hopkins

Sitting on a bench in London’s Hyde Park “on holiday” in Sept. 1994, I chanced upon a lengthy and admiring obituary of pianist Nicky Hopkins in The Guardian. Hopkins, one of rock’s great session players, had died at age 50, far away from the city where he had first rose to prominence in the Sixties, playing keyboards on classic recordings by the Stones, the Who, Jeff Beck, the Kinks and many others. Instead, he passed away in Nashville which seems oddly appropriate, giving his calling. Hopkins struggled with Crohn’s Disease throughout his life, making a career as a studio hired gun more agreeable than that of a touring musician.

The Guardian obit talked about Hopkins’ uncanny instinct to play just what was needed on any number of great rock records—even the partial list in his Wikipedia entry is mighty impressive—he was an expert in both technique and feel. About halfway thru the article it was suggested that as a natural accompanist the result of his time taken in the spotlight was bound to be underwhelming. Still, “The Tin Man was a Dreamer” (his second and best known solo LP) is a good listen. I especially like the song below, with its sly wink to an occupational situation I’m sure he faced on more than one occasion.

By the late Sixties, Hopkins had made a move to America’s West Coast, recording with Steve Miller, the Jefferson Airplane (with whom he played at Woodstock), Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jerry Garcia, among others. After Nick’s health problems caught up with him in 1994, Kinks frontman Ray Davies spoke appreciatively about the pianist’s great ability “to turn an ordinary track into a gem.” Of course, it was Davies who had, way back in ’66, wrote the tongue-in-cheek song “Session Man” partly with Hopkins in mind. But N.H. was a far cry from the song’s clock-punching player, as one listen to the tune’s distinctive harpsichord intro will indicate.