Friday, August 27, 2021

Bigger Strings: I Could Have Used More Cello

I always remember the spring of 1989 as the season where I discovered thrash metal. Inspired by repeated viewings of MTV’s Saturday night all-metal show Headbangers Ball, I purchased a copy of Anthrax’s State of Euphoria. The biggest shock to my 11-year-old brain was not the album’s bone-crunching riffs nor the numerous f-bombs, it was the fact that the opening track “Be All, End All” started off with a cello riff. These days, it’s fairly common to associate classical stringed instruments and heavy metal. After all, Metallica has released two albums performed in conjunction with the San Francisco Francisco Symphony. But at the time I purchased the Euphoria album I found the inclusion of the cello to be almost a form of sacrilege. “How dare these headbangers defile their album with a classical instrument,” I thought. Okay, I didn’t quite put it in those terms, but you get the idea. Thirty-plus years later I’m happy to admit I was wrong. The short, stringed section of the track is actually one of the most memorable parts of the album. So much so that even today, I can easily hum it. “Ba-Da, Ba-Da-Da-Da, Da-Da.” It was the first song that popped into my head when I associated the words “cello” and “rock n’ roll.” Kind of like Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “cowbell.” Surely, I’m not the only Anthrax fan who feels this way. There’s a clip of the band performing the track at one of the fabled Big Four concerts in 2010 (which featured Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth) where vocalist Joey Belladonna encouraged the crowd to sing the melody in unison. Such a precise performance by the audience was no doubt inspired by that wonderful cello.

Studio version:

Live 2010:


Should you ever wish to seduce me, let me give you a tip: whilst food would help, and I am really quite flexible in my tastes there and needs, likewise with the alcohol I would also expect to be plied with, when it comes to the music, one sure fire guarantee is the cello. I adore the warm mellifluous tones of a cello, sweeping emotion into my breast and out through my heart. No great fan of the classics as a whole, it all being a bit too clever for me, a Bach cello concerto can fully stir my loins. and, for a long time, that was the only place you could find this instrument, in orchestras and string quartets.

Things sort of got better in the whatever it was, as Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne revoked the Move and came up with the Electric Light Orchestra. I confess I loved much of the debut, ahead of Wood jumping ship. I then found the band all bit much, sawing away in abandon, substituting schmalz for the searing angst the instrument can evoke, all the songs sounding, ultimately, the same, orchestral gloop. Never mind, nice try, thought I, going back to guitar and keyboard based musics. Folk became my go to as the 1980s beckoned, and I became a subscriber to influential magazine, Folk Roots. (Later FROOTS, and sadly, as of a year or so ago, no longer.) They had a flexidisc on an early edition, a thin bendy 45rpm record, which included a bevy of artists from the nascent Cooking Vinyl record company, including Oysterband and Michelle Shocked. Each appealed enormously.

Moving ahead a little, as I have touched on this band a few times before, as it is but one part of their joyous clatter I wish to concentrate on here. And that is the part of one 'Chopper', or Ray Cooper, as his mother called him, not, by the way, the percussionist, had to play. Oysterband have always had an issue with their rhythm section. Initially drummerless, once they added drums, they have got through a number, the current incumbent being number, I think, five. Bassists have fared slightly better. Chopper was their second, in the band between 1989 and 2013.

Let's retread a little. Prior to joining the Oysters, Chopper had been part of the extraordinary faux-balkan world music collective, 3 Mustaphas 3. Predominately the brainchild of Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds, together with a changing cast of additional musicians, they played a bizarre blend of ethnic musical styles, often from the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, treating the concept as part parody, yet tackling the core of the music with all seriousness and with an obvious affection. Sort of if the Bonzo's came from Albania. Chopper, if then under the pseudonym Oussack Mustapha, was their cellist for a while, including on the song above. Perhaps an acquired taste, they were then only on the fringes of my awareness. (Edmonds, who had earlier been in th Damned, is now the extravagantly bearded guitarist in John Lydon's Public Image Ltd.)

So, no surprise, when he was drafted into his new band, he brought his cello with him. I must have seen them a dozen of times during his time with them, increasingly playing more and more cello, rather than the bass he had been employed to play. A wonderful sound, and, I believe, contributory to the increasingly common presence of a cello in rock, folk and, increasingly, even country music. Here, below, are a couple of songs that well display his mellow tones. Unsurprisingly, when he left the band, they, clearly, had to be able to replicate that part of their repertoire, and it actually took two musicians to fill his gap on stage and on records, one on bass and another on cello.

Was that the end of Chopper? Or Ray Cooper as he was increasingly again becoming known, and the answer is a definite no. A resident of Sweden, he has now released four records in his own name, all sturdy singer-songwriter fare of a recognisably rootsy origin, at times not dissimilar to his old band, but encompassing a wider range of influences, often those of his adoptive Scandinavia. Again, a couple of clips, the first to show off his stellar technique on a traditional air, the second a song, the title track, from his latest project. I had been due to see him a month ago, my first projected post lockdown concert. Sadly, it had to be postponed, given the still travelling embargo  between Sweden and the UK. Pity. I have a ticket, instead, for next year.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Bigger Strings: Maya Beiser-Epitaph

Maya Beiser: Epitaph

I’m not sure where I first heard about Israel-born, avant-garde classical cellist Maya Beiser, but it might well have been from this piece by Cover Me founder Ray Padgett about her awesome cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Beiser’s 2014 album Uncovered is a collection of ten rock songs completely reimagined by Beiser and arranger Evan Ziporyn, a fellow member of Bang on a Can All-Stars. The songs run the gamut from Muddy Waters to Janis Joplin, to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Nirvana (which I wrote about here), and my favorite of them all, her cover of King Crimson’s elegiac “Epitaph,” from their debut album, In The Court of the Crimson King

“Epitaph” was written by Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, and Michael Giles with lyrics written by Peter Sinfield, and those lyrics, were sung beautifully by Lake, who explained that the song “is basically a song about looking with confusion upon a world gone mad.” It features heavy use of Mellotron along with woodwinds and dramatic tympani, giving it a symphonic feel. 

It was this complex, symphonic sound that attracted Beiser, whose classical training did not prevent her from consuming and appreciating popular music throughout her life. In an interview for Classical Voice, Beiser said:

I was very much entrenched in classical music, and none of my teachers knew anything about Genesis, King Crimson, Brian Eno. It was not part of my education. I started to listen to this music and it completely transformed me. Pink Floyd were totally revolutionary, creating a symphonic like piece. King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph’ is one of my favorite songs of all time, and it lends itself to cello because their thinking was symphonic — classical. 

She continued: 

Part of my motivation for doing this album is for people to see how this is great music, how the masters of our time are just as great as but different than Beethoven and Schubert. … All classical music performances are covers. 

Continuing this approach, Beiser recently released a version of David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, re imagined as a cello concerto. 

To create her cover of “Epitaph,” Beiser overdubbed and processed her cello, and Ziporyn added just a hint of clarinet and bass clarinet. Beiser slows down the tempo a little, and if anything, her instrumental version is even sadder and statelier than the great original. 

As a brief aside, since this is a piece about the cello and King Crimson, about five years after the debut album, a mostly different lineup of King Crimson released Red, one of my favorite albums, and it includes a cellist (and acoustic bass player), who are uncredited, and whose identity appears to still be a mystery

One more aside--the punk record label Epitaph Records, home (at times) of bands such as Rancid, Bad Religion, Descendants, The Distillers and Social Distortion, was named after a lyric from this decidedly not punk song.