Tuesday, August 31, 2021


Well, strings don't  come much bigger than Victoria. Who she? Victoria is the stand-up bass guitar Danny Thompson bought for a fiver (£5) in around 1954, when he was fifteen. And who Danny Thompson? Shame on you for asking, but I guess not all tastes are as rarified as mine. Sir Danny of Thompson, as he has yet become officially recognised as, an MBE having to suffice, is the fella who has gone as far as most in making stand-up bass other than an old fogey associated item. If you are familiar with Pentangle, Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson, the chances are that you are familiar with his work. If you have watched the Transatlantic Sessions, live or on TV, the chances are that you have seen him, an avuncular presence, holding all the virtuosi musicians also featured in check, more that likely with a beatific beam on his face, itself usually under a hat of some intrinsic coolness.

With Martin Simpson, 2014

I used to hate the double bass, it encompassing everything old and fuddy-duddy of the pre-rock era. All these bloody b&w jazzers, with the bass perpetually walking up and down in the background, whilst the usual focus of attention showed off in the foreground, besuited drummers tip-tapping away politely alongside. Sometimes they crossed over into my awareness, notably in the Seekers, my father's favourite band, courtesy the comely charms of Judith Durham. They could always be relied upon to turn up on BBC Saturday night variety shows, I finding the grinning buffoon on bass an offence to my pre-pubertal sensitivities. (Apologies thus due, now, to Athol Guy, the player in question, even if I have not the heart to go back and actually check out his playing.) This prejudice took forever, a bit like trumpet, to rid, but, boy, when I did....

With Richard Thompson, 2001

Thompson was the man from the start, even if I was slow to get up to speed. As an RT freak, it was when he first started appearing alongside Richard, his Thompson 'twin', that I got up to speed. You know how it is, when you sometimes 'get' something, the scales fall from your eyes like roof tiles in a hurricane. Suddenly I was hoovering up John Martyn and, even, if a bit later, Nick Drake. (His vocals still alienated for longer than I care admit.) Suddenly big ol' bass was cool, she even when one Gordon Sumner came on board, I was already, o yes, on message.

So, Daniel Henry Edward Thompson..... Like the recently deceased Charlie Watts, he too was an alumnus of Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, taking over bass duties from Jack Bruce. Following that four year period, 1664-7, he became a member of Pentangle, that undersung folk-jazz hybrid, ploughing their idiosyncratic acoustic vibe at the same time as Fairport and Steeleye were inventing an electric folk tradition. He and Terry Cox, drums, both crossed the then gulf between traditions, joining nominal folkies Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, with the consummate purity of Jacqui McShee on vocals. 

With Pentangle, 1972

The John Martyn years, which followed, were as famous for their onstage "dynamic" as for the often mercurial music, both not averse to the occasional pre-, per- and post-stage snifter. Thompson was able to take a longer view, and withdrew. Martyn, sadly not, his death as much to do with the ravages of alcohol as anything else, if sober at the time of his death. 

With John Martyn, 1977

A solo career beckoned, or at least as bandleader, his band, 'Whatever' a sonic free for all, genre-wise, with some astonishing material. When this expanded to into an even wider ubiquity, as 'Songhai', featuring flamenco purists, Ketama, alongside Malian kora maestro, Toumani Diabaté, any sense of categorisation became redundant.

Songhai, 1988

Round about the same time he hooked up with kindred spirit, Richard Thompson: each had embraces Islam, possibly, in part, as an escape from the hedonism of the musical life. For several years he was the right hand man to his namesake, whether in a band format or as a duo. An interesting memento of that time comes with 1997's 'Industry', a joint production, encompassing both the songs of RT and the music of Whatever. It's a worthwhile listen.

Industry, 1997

A jovial presence, he was also getting work as an amiable onstage presence at Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festivals, as host and master of ceremonies. I remember my horror, I think in 1998, as it was announced from the stage that Thompson had sustained a stroke. The audience were invited to sing Danny Boy, so that, by phone, he could hear their well wishes. I thought that the end, but he made a decent recovery and was soon playing again, seemingly as well as ever. The couple of times I caught the Transatlantic Sessions tours, in the early 20 teens, he was terrific, the cheer for him, when introduced, as big as for any of the other performers. Grab a look at his website for a list of records he has appeared on, a ridiculously large roster, encompassing jazz, folk, blues, world, everything, including a number of surprises. Did you know he played on Cliff Richards' Eurovison winner, 'Congratulations'? Or with artists as diverse as T.Rex, Kate Bush and David Sylvian, let alone most of Donovan's recordings. Not bad for an old jazzer!

Transatlantic Sessions, 2016
Back with RT, 2019

Here's rather a good interview, from only a year or so ago.

Get this!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Bigger Strings: The Black Angel’s Death Song

Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song

John Cale is another musician whose work I’m aware of and have enjoyed, but never (until now) spent much time learning about his life and career. I knew he plays the viola, among other instruments, that he was one of the founders of the Velvet Underground, put out some solo albums, at least one of which I played back in my WPRB days, and did an album with Brian Eno a couple of decades ago (gasp!). This turns out to be, somewhat embarrassingly, a pretty pathetic summary. So, in brief (and admittedly, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia), Cale was born in Wales in 1942, adopted the viola as his primary instrument and studied music at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Cale once described the viola as the “saddest instrument of all and, no matter how adept you get at it or no matter how fast you play it, you can’t get away from the character of it.” 

Cale quickly became enamored by the more avant-garde and experimental classical music becoming popular in the 1960s, including organizing a Fluxus concert in 1964 and conducting the first U.K. performance of a John Cage piece. He obtained a scholarship to work with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, but they “fell out,” and Cale then moved to New York where he participated in an 18 hour performance of an Erik Satie composition and joined La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music. 

OK—enough with the classical music (I mean, really, two posts in a row writing about classical music which I know basically nothing about…. I’m really not trying to pull a Metal Machine Music and alienate you all). 

Cale also liked rock music, and joined up with Lou Reed to found what became the Velvet Underground in 1964. Cale’s taste for the experimental, particularly drones, when combined with Reed’s penchant for rock and poetry (and manager Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol-ness) resulted in early albums that were kind of all over the place. 

One of the more experimental songs from the debut album, Velvet Underground & Nico is the cheerily named, “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which, for the most part, features Cale’s droning and dissonant electric viola with Reed and Sterling Morrison each playing away on guitar, while Reed chant/sings wordy lyrics in a style that had to be influenced by Dylan. There’s also what sounds like feedback, but was actually Cale hissing into the mike. I know that description doesn’t make it sound all that appetizing, and the song got the band fired from their residency at Manhattan’s Café Bizarre. But while it isn’t something that I’d listen to regularly, there’s something intriguing about it that made me glad that I checked it out again for this piece. 

So, what’s the song about? It is hard to say. Reed himself has said that “The idea here was to string words together for the sheer fun of their sound, not any particular meaning.” But the imagery is so strong, I find that hard to believe. I’ve seen claims on the Internet that the song is about life’s choices, heroin, suicide, the Holocaust, and Communism. Check it out, and let me know what you think. 

Eventually, Reed and Cale fell out over the direction of the Velvets, and Cale was replaced by Doug Yule (I guess you had to have four letters in your name). Cale went on to a career as a producer (for, among others, the Stooges, Jennifer Warnes, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Squeeze, and Alejandro Escovedo), collaborator (including with Reed on Songs for Drella in 1990), and solo and soundtrack artist.