NRBQ – “Me and the Boys” (1979)

October 31, 2009 at 10:55 am (Music)

A true rock & roll classic from Big Al & the boys…


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Big Star – “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (1972)

October 31, 2009 at 10:49 am (Music)

A should have been classic by power pop legends Big Star…


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Austin Powell – “March of the Flower Children: The Final Thoughts of Sky Saxon” (2009)

October 31, 2009 at 10:45 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article about the late Sky Saxon (former singer of 60s garage psych punks The Seeds) comes from The Austin Chronicle, July 24, 2009. Saxon passed away on June 25th. Definitely an original…


With perfect poise, Sky Saxon sits cross-legged atop a bed of brown and gold silk sheets in his living room. Unpacked boxes surround him, only heightening the sense of physical disconnect permeating the rustic, South Austin home he recently leased. There’s a cosmic awareness to his presence, an aloofness that suggests he’s fallen down a rabbit hole and made himself quite comfortable in it.

Exactly one week from today, on June 25, the onetime leader and bassist of 1960s garage-rock pioneers the Seeds will die unexpectedly of heart and kidney failure at St. David’s South Austin Hospital from an undiagnosed infection in his internal organs. At the moment, he appears peaceful and at relative ease, casually pulling at strands of his thinning, shoulder-length hair with slightly overgrown fingernails. His emerald, starry eyes look distant and tired; his face droops down low, resembling Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series – an aged wizard passing on his torch. With an assembly worker’s precision, he rolls a joint effortlessly, as if by second nature.

“If someone were to ask me, I’d say there were four bands that defined the Sixties,” bellows Saxon in a deep, dry voice, without prompt and to no one in particular, opening what was intended to be a series of interviews. “They are, in no particular order: Love, the Seeds, the Doors, and the Byrds. With those four bands it was enough, and all the ones that came after that imitated our sound. The Byrds brought Dylan back in with the 12-string guitar. With the Seeds, I brought in the piano and organ the way it had never been heard before. The Doors copied the Seeds, but they did heroin, so their music was more down.”

Saxon’s already lost to the world within his head, an iridescent realm of profound spiritual conviction and conspiracy theories, filtered through the haze of the psychedelic 1960s.

“The Seeds smoked herb, sacred herb,” he clarifies while continuing the tradition. “That’s why their music was up. Of all the music, the Seeds will probably survive. I’d have to say that whatever drug someone does is going to reflect on their music.

“If people have hanging over their head that they might die for this country at 18 or 19, cut ’em some slack and let them smoke some herb, at least past the draft years. That weighs on a lot of people. With the trillion dollars that funded the tobacco industry, we could have had sacred herb all that time and paid the tobacco industry to grow it. Then we’d have a world that didn’t want war.

“It’s the three I’s: imagination, inspiration, and intuition. People should drink champagne, women especially, and they should be allowed to smoke herb ’cause nobody knows how long we’re going to be here.” 

Mr. Farmer 

The life of Sky Saxon is purposely shrouded in vague mystique. He was born Richard Elvern Marsh in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 20, though the exact year remains unknown, the dates given in various interviews ranging from 1937 to 1946. In the early Sixties, he began his career under the moniker Little Richie Marsh, issuing a handful of sugary doo-wop singles before morphing into Sky Saxon on Conquest Records, where he led the Soul Rockers and the Electra Fires.

Led by his proto-punk sneer, the Seeds, who formed and signed to GNP Crescendo in 1965, encapsulated the heathen magic of the Los Angeles scene leading up to the original Summer of Love. The band’s eponymous debut and follow-up A Web of Sound, both released in 1966, are pure shamanic mischief, a mesmerizing amalgam of primitive psychedelia formed by Jan Savage’s crude-fuzz guitar, the organ haze of Daryl Hooper, and Rick Andridge’s infectious, rock-steady percussion.

At once heralded by Muddy Waters in the liner notes to 1967’s A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues – originally issued under the name the Sky Saxon Blues Band – as the American Rolling Stones and dismissed by famed rock critic and brief Austinite Lester Bangs on the same accord, the Seeds’ legacy has largely been reduced to two incendiary singles, “Pushin’ Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” Both are preserved on Rhino’s essential box set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.

The Seeds broke up officially in 1968, following the departure of Savage and Andridge, though Saxon sporadically released new material under the name. That’s when the facts start to blur.

In the early 1970s, Saxon joined the Source Family, perhaps the quintessential hippie commune, in Hollywood Hills. Founded by Jim Baker, the magnetic owner of L.A. vegetarian restaurant the Source, who christened himself Father Yod and then Ya Ho Wha, the Source Family blessed Saxon with the names Sunlight and Arlick and informed his spiritual philosophies. In 1998, he curated God and Hair, a confounding, 13-disc collection of tribal meditations and improvised electric freak-outs from Ya Ho Wa 13, the Source Family’s musical offspring, which featured one of his many spoken-word dialogues.

All the while, Saxon amassed an aberrant solo career, dropping several albums of pastoral acid-pop in the tradition of the Seeds’ 1967 LP, Future, each one credited to a different incarnation: Sky Sunlight, Sunlight & the New Seeds, Sunstar, Star’s New Seeds Band, and the Universal Stars Band.

Upon his arrival in Austin last month, Saxon seemed poised for a second coming on par with that of local contemporary Roky Erickson. Following last year’s King of Garage Rock on Cleopatra Records, a selection of covers and greatest hits, Saxon recorded a duet with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, “Choose to Choose Love,” that recently cropped up online. Billed as World Spirits, he headlined the Black Angels’ Texas Psych Fest No. 2 in March and was scheduled to take part in the California ’66 Revue Tour this summer with members of the Electric Prunes and Love. A reissue campaign of the Seeds’ core catalog, along with a corresponding documentary, is slated for release next year through Ace Records UK.

“The Seeds had a singular sound and were a crack rock & roll band, with an edge, in both look and sound, that few bands had in the mid-1960s,” writes Ace’s Alec Palao. “Once the band had their initial success, the hipsters deserted the Seeds because they perceived the band’s music as ‘simple.’ Ironically, it’s that very element that’s given the group an enduring appeal to the post-punk generations.”

Try to Understand

Sabrina Sherry Smith Saxon, the singer’s wife of two years, exudes the aura of the newly converted. A generation his junior, she’s clearly fascinated by his story and utterly devoted to his career, serving as his manager, booking agent, and publicist.

“The big thing for people to realize is that he’s a master lyricist and a master spontaneous lyricist,” she smiles as she enters the room, bearing cups of freshly brewed coffee in both hands.

“Thank you,” summons Saxon in response and then, with the wave of his right hand, adds: “I channel. I channel. I’ve been rehearsing for a thousand years.”

At the Psych Fest in March, you kept chanting, “Acid is in the air.”

“What I meant by that is for anyone that’s ever taken acid, it’s all an imaginary thing. I believe that as sick as a person gets, they should never go to the hospital. They should smoke some sacred herb and go within themselves and try to pinpoint what’s wrong, what they ate that’s causing the problem. Ninety-five percent of people that are sick are sick because they went to the hospital and all of the negativity that goes along with it.

“What I didn’t know, and what I’d like to share with the people, is that just because someone calls an ambulance, that doesn’t mean you have to go. You can wave them off and say: ‘I’m sorry, I feel better. I don’t want to go.’ But, you can only do it once. The second time they’ll come get you for real. How safe is anyone?”

Saxon pauses momentarily for an answer that doesn’t come.

“Roky Erickson was a pure genius, a gift to Austin, Texas,” he continues, “but he got ran through the system. The system misunderstood him and took his genius away ’cause they thought he was crazy. He actually opened for me twice. I thought that 13th [Floor Elevators] was a really good name.

“Here’s what’s up. I used to think that [the Source Family] was the only one that’s saved. There’s about 150 of us. We were the ones that were going to open the doors for everyone else to come whenever we leave. My thinking’s still about the same. We developed a deep consciousness through ancient teachings, and because of that, we are special people.”

A plate of sliced cantaloupe arrives next.

“You can quote me on this,” states Saxon with a sudden change in tone. “I’m a vegetarian, of course, but I think that the music industry is far bigger than all the meat industries of the world. If we went back to music and vegetarianism, we could have way past 2012, but if people keep eating meat, God’s going to view it like the T. rex. The T. rex lasted for like 70 million years, and the herbivorous dinosaur lasted for like 900 million years. In 70 million years, the T. rex almost wiped out the herb-eating dinosaur. If man keeps eating meat like they’re doing, God has no choice but to send the comet. It’s the same comet that took out the dinosaurs. It would take out two-thirds of the earth and two-thirds of the people. I also believe that a lot of gods are invisible. They’re counseling mortals to do good things.”

Going back to Roky Erickson, did his recent personal and professional resurrection inspire your relocation to Austin?

“I have to think that Roky’s resurrection was when he sent me a song and asked me if I wanted to do it,” responds Saxon without hesitation. “The song was called ‘Don’t Slander Me.’ It became famous in an underground way because it had Mitch Mitchell on it, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. I rewrote it, but I didn’t take credit on it. Instead of ‘Don’t slander me,’ I put, ‘Don’t slander me and my dog.’ I brought the dog into it. Because I did that record [1988’s World Fantastic], it made a resurrection for him. I actually like to use the word returning. He’s returning; I’m returning, like we’ve always been here.

“I listen to my own records. No one’s going to make records like that anymore unless they use the same procedures. All of the Seeds’ records were made on 2-inch tape with 16-track analog. That’s how you make the hit records.”

There’s a momentary break in Saxon’s streaming narrative as Sabrina brings in a loaf of fresh baked bread and sliced cheddar cheese.

“I’d like to do a 78 vinyl just to be collectable.”

What’s the Seeds’ legacy?

“Their legacy would be flower power. It’ll never go away. Flower power is here to stay. It made the earth better. My objection to rock and roll was that Alan Freed named it, and at the time, rock and roll was under payola. I didn’t want to be a part of it, so I had to come up with something. I thought, ‘flower people, flower rock, flower power’; that was my genre. It was a whole different thing. It was the words I put into it, like ‘March of the Flower Children.’

“When I think of all the songs I’ve written, maybe 10,000, most of them are lost. The ones that stayed are classics. If I were born in England, I could have been the Beatles. And had the Beatles been born in America, they could’ve been the Seeds. … I would disqualify every band if they didn’t bring in a movement. The Grateful Dead’s movement was drugs. They made everyone drug-dependent without trying to get them to God.”

A Faded Picture

Two days after the interview, no one expects Saxon to show up at Antone’s, where he’s booked to headline as World Spirits with Shapes Have Fangs. In fact, those closest to him discourage the notion. His health has taken a sudden, drastic turn for the worse, and his self-medicating isn’t working this time. He feels weak and is having difficulty breathing, which has prevented him from attending any of the band’s rehearsals.

Sets from the Tunnels and Christian Bland’s Revelators seem to drag on through the evening, as if attempting to buy more time. There’s still no consensus as to Saxon’s whereabouts. Alex Maas and Bland of the Black Angels attempt to stall the crowd, improvising a series of dark, Texas drones.

When Saxon finally appears at the club’s front doors close to midnight, he does so unannounced and unassuming, appearing frail and grizzled in his usual garb and skullcap. Onstage he sits down at the front facing the audience and waits for Shapes Have Fangs – guitarist/singer Dustin Coffey, guitarist/keyboardist Skyler McGlothlin, drummer Evan McGlothlin, and bassist Josh Willis – to reposition its gear, still set up from the band’s performance earlier in the evening.

What transpires is nothing short of a miracle. With studied enthusiasm, Shapes Have Fangs lock into a hard groove behind “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” each band member bobbing to the beat. Saxon’s raspy voice comes through in colors for the closing refrain, repeating the words like a personal prayer.

I can’t seem to make you mine.
I can’t seem to make you mine.
I can’t seem to make you mine.

World Spirits manage four more Seeds’ staples – “Pushin’ Too Hard,” “Evil Hoodoo,” “Just Let Go,” and “Girl I Want You” – that bottle the group’s timeless appeal and playful psychedelia. Then it just ends. Having summoned the last of his strength, Saxon receives help back to his van.

“I know Sky was pleased,” relays Coffey later. “He said he felt like it was a great show. It was a nice way to say goodbye together.”

Travel With Your Mind

After a brief intermission, Saxon returns to his living room draped in a pale blue scarf, encrusted with small plastic diamonds.

“He’s famous for his scarves,” Sabrina enthuses.

“From this interview on, you should be Austin Powers Powell, APP,” instructs Saxon. “Austin Powers is a copy of the Seeds. The logo and everything, it was the same thing we were doing with the Seeds back then. Look it up. You’ll find out it’s true. The point is when someone uses three names, you get their attention. Mine is like three lightning bolts: Sky Sunlight Saxon.

“I think everyone should get struck by lightning at least once,” he continues almost tauntingly. “How about that? I would rather get struck by lightning than tazed by the police. If I got struck by lightning, I’d be a new person. Something new would happen to me. I would chance it. Why not? You’d come out a superhuman.”

He fumbles with his laptop, attempting to play the music he recorded with Yesterday’s Thoughts, a retro-psych outfit from Athens, Greece, for 2004’s Let’s Take a Ride With … (Sound Effect).

“So anyway, I think all the computers are going to go down,” prophesizes the host out of mild frustration. “I give them to 2012. By that time a third of the people using them will be sort of blind. Life will be altered. I’m sure if Elvis were alive today, he’d be shooting computers not TVs. He’d shoot a few TVs, too.”

With assistance from Sabrina, he pulls up his own MySpace page, on which both the names Sky Sunlight Saxon and the Seeds are trademarked, and streams all six of the floral relics from 2008’s Back to the Garden. Forming a cone out of newspaper, he illustrates the way he achieved the echo-laden effect in “Mystery Man” and is particularly roused by “Halt.” He repeats each lyric – apocalyptic visions of war and the redemptive power of Ya Ho Wha – with added emphasis and explanation. He acts out the music with both hands.

“Here’s my far-range vision,” Saxon offers upon the song’s conclusion. “Ninety-seven people onstage all representing different countries, and they’re all in the Seeds band. Ninety-seven people bringing peace to the earth. The reason I say 97 is nine and seven is 16. One and six is seven, and seven is the number that rules the power of the whole universe. Maybe I would come out with seven Seeds and then 16 Seeds. Just say my vision is 16 Seeds onstage. That’s realistic.”

I nod and begin making my way toward the dining room, which is barren save for a beat-up, old piano.

“I was signed by Fred Astaire,” Saxon blurts out, as if trying to stop me in my tracks. He takes a seat at the piano and tinkers with a few chord progressions. “I was the reason he got into the music business.”

He continues playing, forming a series of circular trills. “Everyone needs to do acid once – especially if you’re going to play with me,” he cracks. “Then you’ll wake up and realize we’re all just characters in the Bible.”

His hands slowly come to a rest, and he gazes toward the ceiling in the far right corner of the room.

“I don’t believe in death; there is no death,” Sky Sunlight Saxon reiterates. “In a higher understanding, none of us die; we leave our body. We’re going from one room to another room. Once you realize there’s no death, then you’ll live forever. I believe that going to church is good if you want it to be good, but the greatest church is within. You’re the church. The resurrection is living within you.”

Austin Powell

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The Mothers of Invention – “Anyway the Wind Blows” (Demo – 1965)

October 31, 2009 at 9:22 am (Frank Zappa, Music)

Taken from a recent compilation of early demos & unreleased ephemera, comes this 1965 version of “Anyway the Wind Blows” featuring future Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine. (Ignore the credits given on youtube for this song).

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (Oct. 31, 2009)

October 31, 2009 at 9:15 am (Life & Politics)

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Matthew Weiner – “Brian Eno and the Ambient Series: 1978-1982” (2004)

October 27, 2009 at 9:27 pm (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from Stylus magazine, Sept. 27, 2004, this article explores in depth Brian Eno’s Ambient recordins from the late-70s, early-80s. Interesting article although I disagree strongly with his assessment of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (yes, it was controversial but it was still an amazing recording, and very much ahead of its time). I also disagree with views on Bill Laswell and his Celluloid imprint. Other than that, a very good article…


Much has been written about Eno’s pioneering Ambient Music—music “as ignorable as it is interesting.” But what was the pop egghead going for with his four-record ambient series? And was its legacy anything more than wanker chill-out records? More than a quarter-century since Music for Airports’ release, Matthew Weiner and Todd Burns put on their headphones and try to find out…

Question: What is a boring question?
Eno: One to which you know the answer.
Paul Morley’s liner notes to Eno Box II, 1993

For Brian Eno, the easy route simply couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t so much that he was a masochist who liked to make things hard on himself as it was a mistrust, disdain even, for the obvious—according to his own mother, young Brian was “always looking for something different,” bored silly by everything else. And from hours spent as a young man messing with recordings of static on cassette players to his tenure with the willfully-amateur Portsmouth Sinfonia to his first gig as a feather boa-clad synthesizer provocateur with proto-glam outfit Roxy Music, the waifish, prematurely balding former art student relished the different, letting it guide his professional career.

Leaving Roxy after only two albums in the early 1970s, Eno proclaimed himself a “non-musician,” releasing a pair of quirky pop records on his own before unleashing Another Green World in 1975, a mysterious and ethereal long-player that arrived just as the music industry was collapsing in on itself—a victim of its own corporate bloat. Ironically, the record’s buzz transformed Eno into the industry’s hottest commodity, leading to production and collaborative offers from pop’s leading luminaries, with David Bowie only the most famous.

Logging an ever-increasing number of hours in the studio as he produced, wrote and experimented with recorded sound, Eno would devise ways to inspire himself and his collaborators. He found ways to “treat” acoustic sounds electronically, to give them a distinctive sheen. He devised the Oblique Strategies card set, a series of I Ching-derived aphorisms that guided the musician through the doldrums of the recording process. And he started the Obscure label, for which he could release and produce works by non-pop experimental artists like Gavin Bryars and Harold Budd. In almost every respect—whether it was his creative methods, his attitudes about marketing or his business practices—Eno was subverting the music industry—challenging it to be more interesting, stimulating and provocative.

For all his innovations and contributions to the working methods of pop, it was a series of four, coffee table-like records with which Eno would make his most profound mark. Over a period of three years, his once-frantic music had grown progressively quieter, more textural and somnolent, as if the compositional process had become one of elimination—a highly unconventional precept for pop in the Seventies. But the moment “1/1”’s round electric piano tones opened 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Eno introduced to pop listeners an idea even more radical: that background music could not only be challenging if one so chose to listen to it, but it could also be of serious artistic consequence. To differentiate his work from Muzak, he called it, simply: “Ambient Music.”

In championing music you didn’t even need to pay much attention to—that was, as he famously put it in Airports’ liner notes, “as ignorable as it is interesting”—Eno was laying down a gauntlet of sorts by challenging the one thing The Beatles, Motown and the rest of the Sixties pop royalty had agreed upon: that music mattered—that they were aspiring to something important. In western music, such aspirations went back as far as Bach, who composed for the glory of God Himself—a pretension, of course, that Cage had punctured with his infamous ode to nothingness, “4’33.” But by proposing this notion not to academic eggheads but a pop audience in 1978 (then infatuated with the likes of Debbie Boone) that music was no more important than its surrounding environment—well, that was crazy talk.

As if to prove his point, Eno would undertake a similarly designed, sequentially-numbered, four record Ambient Series that studied the concept intensely—Music for Airports, Plateaux of Mirror (1980, with Harold Budd), Day of Radiance (1981, with Laraaji) and On Land (1982). While Airports’ may have sold nearly a quarter-million copies, with his findings on those records ultimately forming a critical template for much of today’s modern pop (his work with Bowie and U2 being but the most obvious), Eno himself rarely speaks about the Budd and Laraaji records in any detail, much less of his specific intentions for the series itself. As such, Ambient’s legacy remains largely misrepresented, leaving the series that started it all remarkably, if you’ll pardon the expression, obscure.

More than twenty-five years later, myths persist and questions remain—and they’re by no means boring.

Airport Access-Roads: Frippery, Discreet Music, and Another Green World

Like everything with Eno, it began with collaboration. Roxy honcho Bryan Ferry had introduced his foil to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp sometime in the early 1970s, and in 1972, the pair undertook their first effort together. Eno was anxious to use the collaboration to tap into his fascination with technology, in particular, how it could create things that did not exist in nature. For the recording that would later be released as No Pussyfooting, Eno would devise a system of two interlocking Revox tape decks that could repeat the incoming signal almost indefinitely; on tracks such as “The Heavenly Music Corporation,” Fripp spun sometimes-dazzling improvisations that lasted upwards near 20 minutes, ebbing and flowing as the pair built up layers of guitars, resulting in an impressive wash of electronic sound. Though perhaps a bit unaffecting, Pussyfooting was, by Eno’s measure anyway, a success.

But it was another three years and one infamous hospital visit later before the experiment began to pay dividends artistically for Eno. The story of Eno being struck by a cab in 1975, lying bedridden and immobile as a record of harp music played at barely-audible levels has been recounted several times over the years. The experience of listening to music as background created for Eno, “a new way of hearing music.”

And the results were immediate. By year’s end, Eno had released two records that would form two distinct components of the Ambient template. The first was Another Green World, ten tracks that were closer to brief instrumental sketches than the pop songs on which had made his name to that point. Not only was the self-proclaimed “sub-Bowie” leaving behind vocals for much of Green World, even more radically, there was little-to-no sense of linear development in many of the tracks; in fact, several sounded as if their length was arbitrary, or, as he put it, “just a chunk out of a larger continuum.”

Discreet Music (released a month after Green World on Obscure) was an altogether different beast, though it did share its predecessor’s somnambulant tones. Employing the Revox tape system he’d devised with Fripp, the 31-minute title track (“the longest I could get on record at the time”) created the illusion of direction, with gentle, synthesized flute loops piling on top of one another. But where Pussyfooting created a sense of (somewhat muted) harmonic development, on “Discreet Music,” that development begins from nothing but leads to nowhere. This was partly due to Eno’s limited choice in notes; where Fripp shifted modes during the songs’ duration by one writer’s account three times, often venturing outside those even, here Eno employs but six notes, chosen and positioned carefully so as not to create any sense of “groundedness.” Combined with Eno’s emphasis on equalization to subtly adjust the sonic timbre, the result is a sustained mood, but one that never quite resolves itself.

Both records advanced the idea of Ambient considerably. Eno would call a few of his later ambient records “the purest expressions of what I thought ambient music should be: endless, relatively unchanging moods.” A couple years and one last pop record later, he would pursue that ideal with a radical, unflinching vengeance.

Transit Soundtracks and “Serious Music: Music for Airports

In retrospect, Discreet Music and the Another Green World had made it increasingly clear that Eno was falling out of love with the song as a means of expression. Not that he’d abandoned pop; over the next 36 months, Eno would collaborate with German group Cluster; produced albums for Ultravox, Devo, the Talking Heads and David Bowie as well as recording his fourth and final pop album, the masterful (and not a little ambient) Before and After Science. But with the release of 1978’s entirely instrumental Music for Films (assembled largely out of Science outtakes), his interest in pop, insofar that it was anything more than a reliable paycheck that kept him constantly in the studio, was in obvious decline.

When Eno wasn’t in the studio, he could often be found flying to one, often across the Atlantic. Languishing one day in a Cologne airport in 1978, Eno found himself appalled by the “nervous” and “tingly” music being piped in through the PA. Doing little to put him at ease, he wondered what music might best replace it, realizing it would have to be something that could withstand constant interruption and mishearing. For the increasingly frazzled producer, preferably something calm and uplifting.

The Cologne episode arrived at a time when Eno was becoming increasingly aware of the effects music had on an audience’s mood. He was fascinated with how people in the Seventies were beginning to make choices about what they played in their homes and places of business based on “stillness, homogeneity [and] lack of variety.” To that point, such music had been the dreaded Muzak—as he put it in his next release’s sleeve notes: “familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner.” But what Eno was envisioning wouldn’t be finding its way into dentists’ offices, not anytime soon anyway. Rather, he hoped to placate the potential airport dweller into a calm state that would accurately represent the wonderment of being propelled into flight—an antidote to the disturbing, intrusive noise he endured in the Cologne airport. Music for Airports—it virtually titled itself.

Instead of “regulating” environments, as Muzak did by conforming them to one particular standard, Ambient music could enhance them, weaving in and out of the listener’s consciousness, as suitable for close examination as it was unconscious listening. Discreet Music had, by and large, functioned this way. But where that record had used equalization to draw out hidden melodies and textures, on Music for Airports, the technique was also used to enhance the low bass and high treble frequencies to allow airport patrons to carry on their conversations at normal volumes. This new music would be customized.

The idea of stretching music’s purpose beyond pure “enlightenment” had been kicking around for years in Eno’s head, as had different methods of creating it. Such notions had begun when he was still in school; where his pop music had been most obviously influenced by Sixties royalty—The Velvet Underground, The Beatles and so forth—Eno had long drawn on his years in art-school for many of his ideas. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the future “non-musician” had, in fact, studied avant-garde composition. It was in college that Eno was first exposed to “serious” composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose minimalist tape-loop piece, “It’s Gonna Rain,” showed the young student that “variety [could] be generated by very, very simple systems.” There, he had performed La Monte Young’s “X for Henry Flynt,” where the performer is instructed to produce an “unspecified sound over and over for an unspecified interval of time.” In fact, in his very first public performance in 1967, Eno performed the “Flynt” for an hour, pounding piano clusters with his elbow, realizing how the slightest variance was magnified by reiteration. It would later inform one of the most cherished axioms in his Oblique Strategies set: “Repetition is a form of change.”

Though the ideas of Young, Reich and Riley had certainly contributed to No Pussyfooting and Discreet Music, it was Music for Airports on which Eno would debut a systematic approach to composition that consciously mimicked the composers’ methods. One track, “1/2,” was composed of 22 tape loops of varying lengths, set to run in the studio for the duration of the piece. The tape loops, each of a length between 50 and 70 feet, essentially composed the track for Eno as he stood by and recorded the results. By virtue of constructing the tape loops beforehand, he had a general idea of what the result would ultimately sound like, at the same time allowing chance to enter into the picture as well. Though the academic establishment might not have approved of Eno deleting one stray piano note which didn’t quite sound right (he was a pop musician, after all), it didn’t change the fact that “1/2” and the rest of Airports were easily among the most avant-garde creations in pop to date—and barring perhaps only The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” probably its most widely disseminated, ultimately selling a quarter-million copies.

Despite its commercial success, five years of near- unanimous critical adulation came to a crashing end with Music for Airports, with more than one past champion calling his new ideas “unoriginal” and the resultant music “a bore.” In fairness, they weren’t wrong on either count; for the first time, Eno was wearing his pretensions on his sleeve (literally, considering Airport’s dry liner essay). Musically, the record was equally arid—overlong, brutally repetitive, much of it sounding like the cutting-room floor scraps from a rejected Paul Bley ECM release. Only album-closer “2/2,” with its synthesized saw wave trumpets lapping at one another, did Eno achieve his goal of creating music as interesting as it was ignorable.

Still, possibly for the novelty of it all, Music for Airports was ultimately piped into New York’s LaGuardia airport for a spell during 1980. And the record’s real achievement was considerable. For all its theoretical unoriginality, Airports represented the most fully realized appropriation yet of avant-garde sensibilities and methods by a pop musician—a fact that did not go unnoticed (consciously or otherwise) by other pop musicians, particularly those looking to make their own mark in punk’s wake during 1978.

In any event, Ambient 1: Music for Airports was but the first in a series. “My intention,” Eno wrote in the record’s liner notes, his nose presumably facing north, “is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.” He would soon discover prescribed forums for listening were somewhat impractical to the casual listener who, it should be remembered, remained his target audience. And so Eno’s idea of Ambient would transform once again, this time from soundtracks for specific places to imagined ones—inarguably, a much better fit for his conception of the genre. Once more, he realized that being a pop musician traveling in academic circles had its advantages.

The Plateaux of Mirror / Day of Radiance: “Eternally Pretty Music,” New Age, and Imprints

Having established the Ambient genre with Music for Airports, Eno quickly set about the task of establishing its custom record label. Airports had not only been Eno’s first “true” ambient record, it was also the inaugural release for his Ambient Records imprint. He would later dismiss his second experience as a label chief in less than five years, saying “Obscure [Records] was a label I formed with a set objective, i.e. to release records that would not otherwise have been released in the pre-indie climate of 1975. Ambient was not so much a label as a term I coined for my exploring music that was as ‘ignorable as it was interesting’.” But it was undeniable that Eno had real aspirations for the label, however minor, securing distribution through PVC Records.

In any event, Eno took the opportunity with his new label to work with an artist from his last one. Harold Budd and Eno shared an art school pedigree, with Budd having studied music theory at Los Angeles Community College following stints in jazz bands throughout his teens. But as Budd’s musical palette began to expand, he, too, became fascinated by visual art—taking a particular shine to the paintings of 20th Century abstract impressionist, Mark Rothko. Budd was mesmerized by the trance-like qualities in Rothko’s color field paintings—qualities he began to approximate musically, much as composer Morton Feldman had done.

Composer Gavin Bryars introduced Budd to Eno after the latter had heard a tape of the sketches that would eventually become Budd’s first album, Pavilion of Dreams. Eno agreed to produce the record, releasing it on Obscure. It would be one of the only pieces of Western music that he took on a four-month trip to Thailand in 1979.

He described his fascination with Budd to Mojo in 1998. “[H]is way of composing was to write a piece of music, then take out all the notes you didn’t like!” What intrigued him about Budd was how even though he had started in “hardcore” classical minimalism, the composer’s career trajectory was moving away from “the standard NEA minimalism, that style of music guaranteed to get you a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, because it’s totally respectable, modern, defensible and unobjectionable.” Having flirted with such dogma himself on Airports, Eno was determined to explore a new area of interest on his next ambient record.

By the time he returned from Thailand, Eno had a pretty clear idea about what form his second Ambient Records release would take. To start with, he wouldn’t be playing much on The Plateaux of Mirror; barring a synthesizer pad here and there, it was by and large Budd’s piano that would be front and center.

For another, Budd’s playing would be largely improvised. The hitherto studio-bound Eno told Sound-on-Sound: “I was never interested in improvisation really before [working with Budd], but I liked very much his approach to starting with a very small set of possibilities and then improvising around them.” What appealed to the studio colorist most was the idea of working within a “restricted palette” and exploring all its combinations.

Eno described the working situation thusly: “By and large he made the music, I the sound. There was a little bit of overlap: sometimes I would suggest editing something or repeating a passage, and sometimes he would suggest some aspect of sound.” And the process was equally unfamiliar to both of them. “I used to set up quite complicated treatments and then he would go out and play the piano,” Eno later said. “And you would hear him discovering, as he played, how to manipulate this treatment. How to make it ring and resonate. Which notes work particularly well on it. Which register of the piano. What speed to play at, of course, because some treatments just cloud out if they have too much information in them.”

The result contrasted sharply from Pavilion of Dreams. Where that record had indulged in an excess of sleigh-bells and piano trills, on Plateaux, Eno and Budd stripped away the extraneous elements, reducing the compositions to their essential elements, which was generally Budd’s heavily-treated piano.

Perhaps more importantly, the tracks’ development was neither harmonic nor melodic, but timbral. It was in the tone color and treatment of the melodies themselves where Eno sought the most variation—in some ways a return to his equalization work on Discreet Music. The difference in this case was that the instrument being treated was by and large acoustic, which appealed to the sound-sculptor in Eno. With free rein to construct far ranging melodic lines on electric and acoustic pianos, Budd explored his full range of interests on the record as well, inserting Feldman-esque punctums here, Satie-esque tinkles there—even sounding a hint like ECM’s Pat Metheny Group on the record’s title track, with its Rhodes piano, chromatic major-9 harmonies and pseudo-Brazilian percussion.

But for all its variety and glacially descriptive titles (such as “Wind in Lonely Fences,” and “Among Fields of Crystal”), there’s a sense with The Plateaux of Mirror that the pair couldn’t quite settle on what it was they wanted stylistically. While “First Light” and “An Arc of Doves” are lovely evocations of solace, others tracks plod rather than glide, while the wordless vocals on “Not Yet Remembered” serve to interrupt, rather than enhance, the overall mood.

Plateaux wouldn’t be Eno and Budd’s last collaboration, however. From his work with German keyboard duo Cluster, Eno had learned one of his most treasured axioms: “If at first you don’t succeed…” It may not have wound up in his Oblique Strategies set, but if 1977’s aimless Cluster and Eno and the following year’s remarkable “By This River (The Son’s Room),” were any indication, persistence paid off for Eno when it came to having difficulty playing with others—sometimes it was just a matter of trying again.

Similarly, Eno’s second collaboration with Budd, 1984’s The Pearl, sounds more uniform stylistically and, as such, more fully realized. It is today regarded quite correctly as one of Eno’s best works.

And then, there was this—performed solely by nomadic zitherist/comedian Edward Larry Gordon (“Lar-ah-jee” – getit?). Before Eno came upon him one day busking in New York City’s Washington Square Park, the native Philadelphian had tried a bit of everything in his 38 years—having acted and studied music, leading him to perform in amateur orchestras and choirs, playing everything from classical music to show tunes to jazz fusion. For all his experience, it was the zither in which he found a quasi-spiritual outlet for his music proclivities, releasing his first LP, the groovily-named Celestial Vibration, as he played for dollars on the streets of New York.

Laraaji was not the only unknown to Eno that day; in the zither—a broadly-used term which encompasses 30- or 40-stringed instruments like the dulcimer and the autoharp—Eno had found an instrument that offered both an exotic flavor and a harmonic richness ripe for electronic alteration; one can easily imagine Eno leaning over to drop a dollar in Laraaji’s open instrument case while dreaming of what his EMS suitcase synthesizer could do with those endlessly ringing overtones. As such, he reportedly offered to produce the musician on the spot.

The result would be without question the most unique release in Eno’s catalogue. Like the Budd collaboration, Eno’s role on Day of Radiance was more akin to that of a producer—albeit one closely involved in creative decisions. The album is divided into variations on two themes: “Dance” and “Meditation.” The first two variations of “Dance” feature Laraaji playing rapid and hypnotic rhythmic patterns on the dulcimer only slightly affected by Eno’s treatments. But by “The Dance #3,” the producer’s sensibility begins to creep into the proceedings. Where the earlier tracks added phasing and echo delay effects to the zither, spreading the hammered instrument’s sharp attacks wide across the stereo spectrum, here the tape is slowed down significantly, resulting in resonances that are deep and in some places harsh and distorted, constituting what are probably the least “ignorable” moments of the Ambient Series. The two pieces of the flip side (“Meditation”) continue in this more consciously electronic vein, focusing on the somnolent drift of the zither as Eno electronically alters the instrument’s long decays—not unlike the experiments jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was conducting around the same time with his custom-made 15-string harp guitar. The ethereal sound that resulted would soon be referred to under a moniker that Eno would come to take as an insult when used to describe his own music: “New Age.”

Of the genre, he would later tell Mark Prendergast: “I find it spineless and too ‘secure.’ There is no thrill for the listener.” The synthesizer pioneer was offended by the “mindless use of electronics that current technology has given birth to—it has become very easy for anyone to produce a tape of blurring noises mixed with ‘pretty’ sounds and call it New Age.”

However much disdain he expressed for New Age, however, in this case of Day of Radiance, the label was not entirely unwarranted. Until this point, Eno’s work had always made a point of challenging the natural sound world—his treatments emphasizing artificial shapes and colors in otherwise unremarkable instrumental textures. Whether it was treating a Robert Fripp guitar solo with digital feedback, muting the upper frequencies of a bass drum on a Talking Heads album, or altering the vocal line in Music for Airports to give it an unnatural hiss, the idea of treating a sound electronically was to reshuffle the sonic deck a bit, giving the final product a distinct, unique sound. New Age, by contrast, had no such ambitions; almost willfully anti-intellectual, New Age artists made listless, unobtrusive music, emphasizing homogeneity but also a particularly empty form of spirituality. It created not a space to think, but space out. In other words, Muzak for hippies.

Despite Eno’s best efforts, Day of Radiance would prove to be just that. Here, the otherworldly treatments that gave Music for Airports and The Plateaux of Mirror both a tension and alien quality are buried amidst the relentless prettiness of the lapping major chords. As such, while not entirely devoid of charms, the record exposed the limits of surface attraction in Ambient. The Laraaji collaboration may have been a minor failure, but it was a mistake Eno was determined to learn from.

On Land, Fourth World, and Imagination on Tape

“We were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.”

At the dawn of the Eighties, Brian Eno’s prevailing interests were no longer western, much less pop. Ironically, 1980 had been the high-water mark of Eno’s pop production career to that point; the year had seen the release of such exotic masterpieces as Talking Heads’ seminal Afro-funk appropriation, Remain in Light, and the producer’s critically hailed “Fourth World” collaboration with avant trumpeter, Jon Hassell, which presented an imaginary electro-acoustic landscape suggestive of foreign cultures unknown to western ears. The hard work paid off; although utterly bored by pop’s “progressively insular” tendencies, Eno found himself the toast of the critical cognoscenti.

Such recognition did not come without its price, however. A year before the success of Remain in Light would elevate Talking Heads to a place among pop’s elite, Hassell (then a struggling composer in Soho’s ultra-hip loft scene) had turned Eno and head Head David Byrne on to African and world musics with recordings from the French Ocara label. They inspired an idea: “fake ethnic music.” That it might already have been explored by The Residents’ on their Eskimo and on Can’s Ethnological Forgery Series didn’t seem to faze them; as such, the project went ahead as planned and plans were drawn up for the trio to record somewhere out in the California desert. But while Hassell was waiting back in New York for the call to fly out and add his parts, little did he know that Eno and Byrne had gone ahead with the project without him. When he eventually heard the results, the trumpeter was aghast at what he perceived to be an obvious theft of his Fourth World concept: “found sounds” like tapes of evangelists, radio call-in shows and Lebanese mountain singers—worst of all—set to a chattering funk beat. He dismissed the whole matter as two egos out of control, saying “I imagine it went something like, ‘We’re rich and famous…we can get away with it, so we’ll do it.”

And Hassell wasn’t alone in his disgust. The estate of evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman forbade Eno and Byrne from using her voice, forcing them to re-record one track; the pair’s English distributor insisted the pair drop another from the record’s UK release due to the inclusion of a potentially blasphemous recording of Muslims chanting the Koran. Though in truth a prescient example of hip-hop sound splicing, all the legal scrambling (and perhaps a bit of karma) forced the release of the record, by now titled My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, back almost two years to 1981.

All was not lost, however. In preparing the record, Eno had traveled to Ghana with a stereo microphone and tape recorder in tow, with the intention to record indigenous music and speech patterns. Eno would later write, in a moment of clarity that recalls the hospital visit in 1975 that produced Discreet Music:

What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame; they became music.

Of course, the context for those sounds in the final product was important. “If you take a photograph of something, you don’t take a photograph of everything you can see,” he would later tell Modern Recording & Music. “You make a selection and you put a frame on it. When you frame something, you do something very distinct to it—you separate it from the rest of the world and you say, ‘This deserves special attention.’” Listening to the wide stereo spectrum of nature recordings also encouraged his efforts to create what he would later call “virtual spaces.” Where the trend in pop recordings in the late-1970s had been towards producing artists in audio verité—that is, exactly as they would sound in person—Eno was taking exactly the opposite tack, fashioning sound spaces that did not, and sometimes simply could not, exist in nature.

And perhaps the charges of cultural imperialism directed at Byrne and him over Bush of Ghosts weren’t so draining after all. In weathering them, Eno came to recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that regardless of the enormous power the recording studio offered, the issue wasn’t so much whether it was “right” or “wrong” to separate sounds from their natural contexts—rather, it was that separating the two just wasn’t always possible. Armed with those twin notions—that one could “listen to the world in a musical way” and that sounds were imbued with innate meaning—Eno would set about working on the fourth and final in the Ambient Series proper, Ambient 4: On Land.

The result sounded nothing like its predecessors in the series. Gone were the glacial piano melodies of Music for Airports and Plateaux of Mirror; in their place were virtual ecosystems: murky drones and ambient noises like frog croaks, rattling chains and bells. Spurts of melody would bubble to the surface but only occasionally – and then usually courtesy of bassist (and future Ambient impresario) Bill Laswell and Jon Hassell, whose whirring, buzzing trumpet makes a delightfully creepy guest appearance on “Shadow.” Laswell would later tell writer/composer David Toop of the experience helping Eno in the studio one summer in New York: “We would go to Canal Street and we’d buy junk—those hoses you twirl around—and gravel, put it in a box and put reverb on it. All these weird things to make sounds. We’d be in this bathroom with these overhead mikes, making sounds for days.”

By immersing himself in sound, he was also abandoning the last links to linearity in his music – in truth, one of Eno’s goals for Ambient at least as far back as Discreet Music. But Music for Airports had proven how difficult that was to achieve. Melody was a horizontal creation—one note following another. And regardless of how many times a melody was repeated (and Airports’ “1/1” certainly repeated its melody many, many times), its essential horizontality would never change—Oblique Strategies axioms be damned.

Harmony, of course, was another story—though in the case of On Land, Eno wasn’t so much stacking harmonic intervals as he was sounds. By weaving dense sonic tapestries that appeared static from afar but upon closer inspection were in a constant state of microscopic transformation, Eno was essentially forcing the audience to examine the broader soundscape—to pay attention not to horizontal development (one moment to the next) but to what writer Eric Tamm would refer to as the “vertical color of sound.”

Such intricate and sophisticated sound environments also allowed Eno to create an unprecedented sense of place in his music. Since 1978’s Music for Films, he had been naming compositions after locales recalled from his youth in England, often set to poignant, bittersweet music on piano and synthesizer. But with tracks like “Lizard Point,” “Lantern Marsh” and the languid “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960,” the music itself began to specifically reproduce the sound and feel of their titular inspirations—or so Eno imagined. In the pamphlet that accompanied the 1986 reissue of On Land, Eno recalled the effect Fellini’s 1974 film, Amarcord had on his thinking—how he was inspired by the film’s unfaithful reconstruction of childhood moments to embark on an exploration of the “inaccuracies of memory,” creating what he told Musician was a “slightly thrilling sense that you’re almost in some other time, not quite in touch with the present.” And so while places like the real Lantern Marsh could be found near his childhood home, their musical renditions derived not from visiting them but rather spotting them on a map and “imagining where and what [they] might be.”

It was a bold idea. Running musical interpretations of half-memories and associations through echo effects, synthesizers and 70-second reverbs, Eno was turning the Bush of Ghosts controversy regarding the propriety of sound on its head, in essence, committing his memory of childhood to tape. It amounted to what Mark Richardson would later call “an exploration of a psychic landscape”—the sound of nighttime as a child “with the covers pulled over [your] head.”

On Land would prove one of Eno’s most sophisticated and mature releases—and a tidy summary of everything he had been working towards for half a decade. As such, it would also prove an ending of sorts for him and his Ambient Records series—if not his commitment to Ambient music. Given that he would release more than a dozen records that could be classified as ambient over the next two decades, Eno’s interest in Ambient as a genre was far from on the wane—if anything, it was just taking hold. The public? Well, that was another matter.

An Ending: Ambient, Pop, and Eno After the Ambient Series

“I like having ideas but I’m not particularly keen on flogging them to death.”
With On Land quickly (and somewhat obviously) regarded as the highlight of the Ambient Series, Eno saw little reason to continue it as such. In the years immediately following, though, he would release a steady stream of Ambient records before dipping his toe delicately back into pop with 1990’s Wrong Way Up. In that time he would release: 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and Music for Films Vol. 2 (released as part of the Working Backwards 1983-1973 box), 1984’s The Pearl, 1985’s Thursday Afternoon, and Music for Films Vol. 3.

It was easy to see why Eno had called the series to an end. Where each series record proper had staked out utterly new ground musically, compositionally and stylistically, much of his subsequent output was less concerned with innovation than it was refinement. The Pearl, in particular, proved a significant improvement over his previous collaboration with Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror. Apollo conjured the appropriate level of drift in Ambient, though it was perhaps a touch too melodic in the wake of the hyper-alien worlds of On Land. And the two Music for Films records were, like the first volume, Ambient-ish, if perhaps a touch too teleological (and again, melodic) to be considered the real McCoy. In any event, there’s a sense with Eno that film music doesn’t quite qualify as “Ambient” per se, dependent as it is on its sister medium to grasp fully.

In many respects, the sixty-one minute Thursday Afternoon rolled the entire Ambient Series into one. As Mark Richardson pointed out, he returned (and not for the last time) to the tape-loop process music that spawned Discreet Music and Music for Airports. The soundworlds of Plateaux and Radiance are conjured with the track’s aimless piano chords, synth pads, organ swells, and relentlessly pleasant G-major pedal. Yet with bits of white noise weaving in and out of the mix and Eno’s constant manipulation of the piano in the stereo soundfield, there is little doubt that he could have made Thursday Afternoon prior to On Land.

Eno had said everything about his musical heritage on Music for Airports and his personal heritage with On Land, with the intervening records providing something of a gateway between the two. With the series, he created a template for others—what Paul Morley called “a platform upon which fantastic lies can grow.” For the time being, however, such lies would be of the “white” variety—that is to say, pleasant but not all that extraordinary.

Dance, Drugs, and the “Godfather” of Ambient

Leave it to the club-goers to bring a good idea to the masses. In the late 1980’s, Paul Oakenfold recruited former Killing Joke roadie Alex Patterson to DJ at his London club, Heaven. There, the one-time A&R man for Eno’s EG label quickly made his reputation in the club’s “chill-out room,” layering the likes of Eno and early Tangerine Dream records with samples of other songs and NASA recordings—all underpinned by thick and soft beats. It was a mind-numbingly simple formula, but for “Dr.” Alex Patterson, as he came to call himself, it was all about providing a soothing agent to ravers slowly coming down off their ecstasy-induced highs. Spawning a partnership with KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu star, Jimy Cauty as The Orb, Patterson would fashion what the press release for their debut billed as “ambient house for the E Generation.”

And like that, the ultra-modern genre was off and running—for about five years. Bringing along prog rock refuge, Steve Hillage, and the dub-wise Jah Wobble, The Orb’s “Blue Room” represented the apex of ambient house in 1992. And for all its musical and aesthetic crudeness, Eno himself must have approved: at 40-minutes, the song was the longest track in British chart history to enter the Top Ten. Further, it spawned a legendary avant-garde Top of the Pops performance where Patterson and Hillage played 3D chess while video footage of dolphins and an edit of the track was projected in the background. Alas, two years and umpteen Orb collaborators later, Patterson’s innovations had run their course, ending in a haze of marijuana smoke and discarded instructional records. But they had certainly made a mark.

One person who was keeping an eye on Patterson was former Eno collaborator and super-producer, Bill Laswell. Like Eno, he had started his own label in the 80’s, Celluloid, on which he recorded Fourth World-inspired super-jams that fused everything from early hip hop, electro and world music to jazz, funk and spoken word. An attractive idea on paper, the reality was that most of Laswell’s experiments were disastrous exercises in bad taste. To make matters worse, Celluloid lay in ashes.

Not that Laswell cared. With a Rolodex that read like a who’s who of critical favorites—P-Funk alumnus, Middle Eastern violinists, reggae rhythmitists, classic rock heroes, and heavy metal showstoppers—the producer Simon Reynolds would later call “leftfield music’s most assiduous networker” had a new idea in mind. Forming the newly- (and pointedly-) christened Axiom Records in 1990, he seized on the recent innovations of ambient house, believing it the ideal broth into which he could stir his fusion experiments.

In truth, Axiom was every bit the train wreck his already-dated Celluloid work had been. The compilation Axiom Ambient (1994) showed in the starkest of terms the fallacy of Laswell’s conception, its liner notes an almost laughable excursion into new age exotic fetishism. Eno had understood that one of the keys to making Ambient as interesting as it was ignorable was maintaining a sense of unresolved tension—be it in the harmony (“Discreet Music,” “Thursday Afternoon”), the arrangement (On Land’s virtual environments, the subtle instrumental touches on Plateaux), or sometimes even the melody (Apollo’s quivering and brilliant exercise in varispeed, “Stars”). For Laswell, Ambient was no more complicated than in smothering utterly disparate musics in reverbs and dropping a beat and a bassline under it.

Laswell wasn’t the only one taken in by ambient house’s promise of tearing down decades-old stylistic and cultural boundaries. Legions of ambient house acts burst onto the scene in the early 90s: Ultramarine, Future Sound of London, System 7—even Paul McCartney got into the act with his collaboration with Orb-sideman Youth on his Fireman project. Slowly the genre began to mutate into a sort of armchair techno produced by the likes of Aphex Twin, Seefeel and Boards of Canada, where the music itself was that much more sophisticated—its rhythms programmed and textures more detailed and refined.

And electronica exploded. Germany’s Oval churned out records that consisted of samples made from skipping CD’s. Artists such as Christian Fennesz created dense tapestries of electronic texture that could go on infinitely. The German Kompakt and French Perlon labels released record after record of the newly-minted microhouse genre, where variation is created in the subtle sonic mutation of oft-repeated samples. The former even had a so-called Pop Ambient series. Based appropriately in Cologne, the label featured artists like Olaf Dettinger and Ulf Lohmann creating prickly and uncomfortable ambient pieces that evoke not uplifting themes and solace, but dread.

Electronica artists were exploring the most intricate components of sound itself—and influencing others higher up in the pop food chain—David Sylvian, Bjork and countless others. By crossing over into the college market, electronica firmly established what Ambient had posited two decades earlier—that music didn’t need to “develop” along traditional lines to be engaging. The idea was out at last, the theory proven.

Ironic then, that the man who started it all—possibly the ultimate painter in sound—has displayed an almost comical aversion to texture in his own music in recent years. Perhaps not coincidentally, Eno has fostered a rekindled interest in the compositional process. On records such as 1997’s seemingly listless The Drop, he returns to the irregular looping system that produced Music for Airports, but this time looping not the melody but the rhythms. The result was what Ian MacDonald deemed “thunderingly boring,” “virtually devoid of harmonic life” and, perhaps more importantly, missing “his water-colourist sensitivity to atmosphere, landscape and mood.” But perhaps it was merely his way of responding to those who had found his earlier music so texturally fascinating while ignoring the other lessons of Ambient entirely.

But one supposes that Eno would have it no other way. Far from being protective of the genre that he single-handedly created with the Ambient series, Eno always knew and was excited about the possibilities that existed for future investigation: “I was always very confident this is one of the ways music would go,” said Eno in 1995. Of course, he was right. We’re just busy catching up.  

Matthew Weiner

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Al Green – “Lay It Down” (2008)

October 26, 2009 at 5:35 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Another review taken from the Black Grooves website. This time written by Craig Werner, dated July 18, 2008. This is probably Al Green’s best album in 30 years and one of the great soul albums of the ’00s…


Al Green’s status in the pantheon of African American music is beyond question. The albums Green released in the 1970s – Let’s Stay Together, Call Me, Al Green Explores Your Mind and Al Green Is Love – stand beside the classics of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aretha Franklin as the sounds that defined a musical era. With the release of The Belle Album in 1977, Green turned away from secular stardom and devoted the next two decades to his spiritual calling, pastoring the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green continued to make good music, earning eight Grammy awards for his gospel performances, but only hard core gospel fans would dispute the notion that Green’s most important work is 30 years in the past. His two “comeback” albums, I Can’t Stop (2003) and Everything’s OK (2005) had the feel of more-than-competent exercises in nostalgia rather than music that had to be heard.

In an interview with Wax Poetics (no. 28, 2008), hip-hop drum legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson states that, when he entered the studio to begin work on Green’s new album, Lay It Down, his intention was to make ” the thirty-year follow-up to the Belle record.” Sharing production duties with Green and virtuoso R&B keyboardist/producer James Poyser, Thompson at least came close to realizing his goal. Where most cross-generational collaborations between hip hop and soul artists have suffered from their obvious, and doomed, desire to make the elders sound hip, Lay It Down contents itself with the classic soul virtues of emotional and musical depth. “The thing that I find missing from music today,” Questlove observed, “is the feeling. That, to me, is the most important ingredient missing from the soul-food platter today.”

To capture that feeling, Questlove and Poyser (best known for his work with Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mariah Carey) convinced Green to explore a more improvisatory process than the one he developed with long-time producer Willie Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s. Working with a first-rate band including guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and bassist Adam Blackstone, Questlove and Poyser organized free-form sessions, letting the tape run no matter what was going on. Where in the past Green had worked mostly from composed charts, the songs on Lay It Down emerged from the give-and-take between the musicians. “Al Green could give most freestyle rappers a run for their money,” Questlove observed. “The energy and excitement that you hear in his voice, him ad-libbing to himself, talking to us, laughing, that’s just genuine excitement of what he never knew was still around, which was the feeling of the music.”

Here is a a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lay It Down:

You can hear the excitement from the first bars of the title cut, which opens the album. The sound is classic soul: simple guitar line, bass and drums hitting the rhythms with unforced precision, the Dap-King horn section smoothing the way for Green’s vocal entry. Anthony Hamilton, one of three young R&B artists who makes a guest appearance on the album, provides perfect harmonic and emotional counterpoint. The best thing you can say about “Lay It Down” is that you could put it on The Belle Album and no one would notice the change. That’s not to say it’s derivative. Nothing on Green’s classic albums felt like it was copying anything else. The highlights include both ballads-the title song and “Take Your Time” (featuring Corrine Bailey Rae)-and funky up-tempo cuts “I’m Wild About You” and “Standing in the Rain,” both powered by Questlove’s virtuoso drumming.

Lay It Down won’t replace Al Green Explores Your Mind on anyone’s heavy-listening rotation, but, unlike the vast majority of new releases by the singers of Green’s generation, it won’t gather dust on the shelf.

Craig Werner

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Jeff E. Winner & Irwin D. Chusid – “Circle Machines and Sequencers: The Untold History of Raymond Scott’s Pioneering Instruments”

October 25, 2009 at 12:03 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article about electronic pioneer, commercial jingle writer and (originally) swing band leader Raymond Scott comes from Electronic Musician magazine. Not sure of the date on this piece…but definitely from early in this decade.
Scott did some truly amazing things with electronic sound back in a time when recording techniques were absolutely primitive. This stuff sounds like it was recorded next week. A true pioneer, he was a huge influence on Devo, Bob Moog, John Williams, Holger Czukay, Andy Partridge and many others…especially in the world of electronica. Author Steve Schneider once said, “Raymond Scott is arguably the most well-known and influential unknown composer since the 16th century”… 


A case of mistaken identity has emerged. Was Raymond Scott a quasi-jazz alchemist from the late ’30s Swing Era whose melodies later underscored Bugs Bunny and Ren & Stimpy cartoons? Or was he the unsuspecting godfather of the modern genres of techno, electronica, and ambient music? These two historical roles might seem incompatible, yet they co-exist within the same enigmatic figure. The two roles aren’t paradoxical; instead, they exhibit an idiosyncratic continuity…

Scott’s Secret Science

Many of Raymond Scott’s playful riffs – originally recorded from 1937 to 1939 by the Raymond Scott Quintette – are genetically encoded in almost every human being, thanks to their use by Warner Bros. music director Carl Stalling in 120 episodes of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated classics. More recently, these and other themes were featured in a dozen episodes of Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy Show. The popular rediscovery of Scott’s original novelty jazz recordings (which began with the 1992 Columbia CD release Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights) led to a belated reappraisal of Scott’s timeless – and long forgotten – genius…

Raymond Scott’s music has been covered by the Kronos Quartet, Rush, They Might Be Giants, Don Byron, Louis Armstrong, Gwar, Benny Goodman, Foetus, Devo, Holland’s Metropole Orchestra, the Beau Hunks, and countless other admirers. David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet said his first introduction to Scott’s music in 1992 “was like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless. Clearly he is a major American composer.”

Awareness of the other side of Raymond Scott’s career, as an electronic music pioneer, began in 1997 with the reissue of Scott’s 1963 Soothing Sounds for Baby trilogy. These albums, largely overlooked upon their original release, contained gentle – and all-electronic – works meant to calm and delight infants. Scott’s pioneering and little-heard explorations of synthesized rhythmic minimalism and low-key ambience foreshadowed the subsequent conjurings of Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, Kraftwerk, and Brian Eno. That most of Scott’s ethereal music was performed on vacuum tube and transistor-rigged music machines – ones he designed and built – made the re-emergence of these recordings seem like the Dead Sea Scrolls of electronica.

But Soothing Sounds for Baby couldn’t possibly prepare the world for the exotic artifacts found on the recent two-CD set, Manhattan Research Inc. The 69 tracks on Manhattan Research Inc. cover Raymond Scott’s groundbreaking electronic work from 1953 to 1969. Forays into abstract musique concrete can be heard alongside decidedly nonkiddie collaborations with a young, pre-Muppet Jim Henson.

In addition, Manhattan Research Inc. presents some of the first TV and radio commercials to employ electronic music soundtracks. The package moved Can’s Holger Czukay to disbelief. “This is from the fifties and sixties? Raymond Scott belongs to the phalanx of unique people like Les Paul, Oscar Sala, and Leon Theremin, to whom we owe so much in developing our own musical identity today,” Czukay says.

Electrified Swing

Before Scott embarked on a professional music career in 1931 – at his older brother’s insistence – he intended to pursue engineering. As a result of his fascination with technology, Scott’s knowledge of radio and recording studios showed a sophistication rarely seen among composers and bandleaders. Throughout his life, Scott explored music technology with a Nobel laureate’s dedication. He revolutionized the art of microphone placement, and spent many of his band’s recording sessions in the control room, monitoring the mix.

A June 1937 article in Down Beat, titled “Engineer-Musician Electrifies Swing World With Ideas,” described Scott’s New York City apartment as “divided into two parts: in one the dominant note was the piano and phonograph; and in the other was all sorts of recording equipment, with microphones all over the place and long wires trailing across the floor.” The feature explored Scott’s science of “creative acoustics,” which involved using a mic to manipulate and capture sounds that differ from those heard by the naked ear. A November 1937 Popular Mechanics feature, “Radio Music of the Future,” described Scott “placing a `dead` microphone beside the piano and then turning it on only after the keys have been struck [to] catch the ghostlike effect” of aftertones that are “ethereal, disembodied, [and have] a sense of great space.”‘

Manhattan R&D

As a composer, Scott was a strict perfectionist with little tolerance for improvisation, which triggered the ire of many jazz purists. He earned notoriety as a session tyrant and was commonly criticized for treating his sidemen and vocalists as hardware. “All he ever had was machines – only we had names,” said drummer Johnny Williams. Singer Anita O’Day, who worked briefly with Scott’s early 1940s big band, called him “a martinet” who “reduced [musicians] to something like wind-up toys.”‘

In 1946 – the same year he composed the score for the Mary Martin/Yul Brynner Broadway production Lute Song – Scott established Manhattan Research Inc. to expand the horizons of electronic sound generation. From 1950 to 1957, Scott financed his technological excursions by conducting the orchestra on NBC’s cornball, but highly rated, chart-countdown show, Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade (a gig he allegedly despised for its banality). Raymond and his second wife, singer Dorothy Collins, were seen on the little screen in millions of American households every week. However, few suspected the alter ego lurking behind the conductor’s forced stage smile.

Scott advertised Manhattan Research Inc. as “the world’s most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete.” A slogan for his venture was “more than a think factory – a dream center where the excitement of tomorrow is made available today.”‘

By spending more of his time soldering circuits and less with union-scale sidemen, Scott eventually dispensed with the human element altogether. He was more comfortable around machines; Scott spoke their language – or taught them to speak his. As Electronic Music Foundation president Joel Chadabe says, “Scott’s music is so perfectly crafted, so lyrical and easy, so completely charming and good-natured, that it seems all the more wonderful, even mysterious, that much of it was created with the sophisticated and complex technology he invented. Scott developed his instruments to make his music and did it so well that what you hear is the music.”

The inventions evolved according to the whims of Scott’s boundless curiosity. In March 1946, he patented an electromechanical synthesizer called the Orchestra Machine. An obscure ancestor of the tape loop-based Mellotron, it featured a keyboard that could simulate an ensemble of traditional musicians. “This machine is a device incorporating a number of multiple soundtrack units, that may be selected as would the musical instruments in an orchestra,” Scott wrote in the patent disclosure. “The entire mechanical driving system’s speed may be varied in order to select any particular musical pitch.”

Two years later, he began a decade of work on a behemoth sound-effects generator that he eventually christened Karloff (after horror-film legend Boris Karloff). Scott demonstrated the unit to columnist Joseph Kaselow of the New York Herald-Tribune.

“The heart of the unit is a control panel with some hundred or so buttons and dials from which Scott can get an infinite number of rhythms and sound combinations – treble, bass, beeping, swishing, honking – you name it,” Kaselow said. “Scott’s machine, actually a control console which selects, modifies, and combines sounds produced by electronic means, has 200 sound sources and is capable of quickly producing infinite and varied musical and electronic effects. The machine uses several electronic tone generators, and others can be added. The control panel directs pitch, timbre, intensity, tempo, accent, and repetition. It can sound like a group of bongo drums. It can give impressions which suggest common noises. It can create the mood of musical tone-poems. And it can also produce limitless emotional variations to suit a variety of musical styles. All, of course, if Scott is at the controls.”‘

Wall of Sound

A 20-year-old Columbia University student named Bob Moog and his father were among the privileged few who witnessed Scott’s obsessions in action. At the time, the Moogs were building theremins in their basement. Scott wanted to obtain the instrument’s electronic subassembly, and so he invited the Moogs to tour his facility in Manhasset, New York.

“First, Raymond showed us his recording studio. Then a very large room with a cutting lathe and all sorts of monitoring and mixing equipment,” Moog says. “The entire downstairs was a dream workshop consisting of a large room with machine tools of the highest quality; a woodworking shop; an electronics assembly room; and a large, thoroughly equipped stockroom of electronic parts. My father and I were there with our mouths hanging open.”

This encounter commenced a social and professional relationship between Moog and Scott that lasted for nearly two decades. “When I first worked for Scott in the early 1950s, he had a very large laboratory,” Moog says. “One room was completely filled with rack upon rack of relays, motors, steppers, and electronic circuits. Raymond would go around and adjust various things to change the sound patterns. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a huge, electromechanical `sequencer.`” Scott called it his Wall of Sound.

Scott used the Moogs’ theremin module in the first prototype of his keyboard synthesizer, the Clavivox, which he patented in 1956. A few years before meeting the Moogs, Scott fashioned a toy theremin for his daughter Carrie. “I must have been 11 or 12, which would be around 1950 or 1951,” says Carrie Makover. “I had seen a Broadway play called Mrs. McThing which used a theremin, and I loved the way it sounded. But after my dad built it, I discovered I couldn’t play it. So he took it back and made it into something else.”

The resulting synthesizer allowed a player to glide smoothly from one note to another without a break over a 3-octave keyboard. It could be played with an expressive portamento rather than with discrete pitches only. Subsequent improvements allowed staccato attacks, on/off vibrato toggling, and many other effects. It could also simulate many traditional instruments.

“This was not a theremin anymore,” Moog says. “Raymond quickly realized there were more elegant ways of controlling an electronic circuit.” In subsequent models, Scott used photocells and a steady light source beamed through photographic film graded from opaque to transparent. This varied the voltage, which changed the pitch of the tone generator. The waveform of the sound determined the tone color, and the methods of altering the waveform were similar to modern analog synths. “A lot of the sound-producing circuitry of the Clavivox resembled very closely the first analog synthesizer my company made in the mid-’60s,” Moog says. “Some of the sounds are not the same, but they’re close.”

Rage Against the Clock

The discipline Scott, a relentless workaholic, imposed on his musicians came naturally to himself. In 1957, at age 50, he endured his first encounter with serious heart trouble. “I had many dead spots around my body,” Scott wrote in his journal. “Cardiac specialists gave me one year to live.” Instead of slowing, Scott’s pace increased. Perhaps Scott realized that, besides outmaneuvering competitors, he was also pitted against the undertaker’s pocket watch.

Around 1959, Scott designed and built the Circle Machine, a more compact electronic sequencer. Dr. Thomas Rhea, music synthesis professor at the Berklee College of Music, visited Scott many times in the early ’70s and remembers the Circle Machine as “an analog waveform generator that was this crazy, whirling-dervish thing. It had a ring of incandescent lamps, each with its own rheostat, and a photo-electric cell on a spindle that twirled in a circle above the lights.” Each bulb’s intensity was individually adjustable, as was the rotation speed of the photocell. As the lights brightened, the pitch ascended. Arm rotation speed governed the rhythm. The lights could be staggered in brightness, and depending on the pattern, the tone sequence generated would change. The Circle Machine was capable of a wide range of unearthly sounds, as heard in numerous commercial jingles Scott recorded during the late 1950s and early 1960s (many of them are included on Manhattan Research Inc.).’

Building on the foundations of, and cannibalizing components from, his Karloff generator and Wall of Sound sequencer, Scott developed the first version of his “instantaneous composition/performance machine” in the late 1950s. He named it the Raymond Scott Electronium (no relation to the German Hohner electronium), and it became the most ambitious and resource-consuming project of his life. Laboring for decades, Scott developed it in many different incarnations, all of which shared his artificial intelligence technology. “The entire system is based on the concept of Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine,” Scott wrote in a patent disclosure. “The new structures being directed into the machine are unpredictable in their details, and hence the results are a kind of duet between the composer and the machine.”

Instead of a traditional, piano-style keyboard, the Electronium was “guided” by a complex series of buttons and switches, arranged in orderly rows. The system was capable of “instantaneous composition and performance” of polyphonic rhythmic structures, as well as tasking preset programs. With Scott controlling the sonorities, tempos, and timbres, he and his machine could compose, perform, and record all at once. The parts weren’t multitracked; rather, voices, rhythms, and melodies originated simultaneously in real time.

“A composer `asks` the Electronium to `suggest` an idea, theme, or motive,” Scott wrote in the user manual. “To repeat it, but in a higher key, he pushes the appropriate button. Whatever the composer needs: faster, slower, a new rhythm design, a hold, a pause, a second theme, variation, an extension, elongation, diminution, counterpoint, a change of phrasing, an ornament, ad infinitum. It is capable of a seemingly inexhaustible palette of musical sounds and colors, rhythms, and harmonies. Whatever the composer requests, the Electronium accepts and acts out his directions. The Electronium adds to the composer’s thoughts, and a duet relationship is set up.”

“It was always this kind of metaphysical, almost magical thing, about literally thinking things to the point where they would happen,” says Herb Deutsch, a Hofstra University music professor who worked with Moog to develop the first Moog synthesizer in 1964. Deutsch, who also worked for Scott, remembered one of his colleague’s visionary objectives. “He wanted to take the work out of being a musician,” Deutsch says. “That used to really get me upset. He said, `Look, I just want to sit here, and I’d like to turn this machine on, and whenever it does something good, I just want to record it at that point.’ It was not that he was a lazy guy – far from it. He worked incredibly hard to take the work out of being a composer.”

Circuitry expert Alan Entenman assisted Scott. “What Ray did was to recognize that music has repetitions and patterns, and he envisioned a machine that would incorporate those patterns,” Entenman says. “He thought of it as `an orchestra with a thousand voices.’ It had plug-in modules, and each module was a synthesizer of his own design that was capable of making a wide variety of sounds. Each one he would give a different voice, and what he kept telling me was, that if you listen to music, it’s repetition. You could repeat notes in a different tone. What made his Electronium successful was his knowledge of composition. Being a composer, he knew how to construct music from these things – and it really worked. “This thing could make any kind of music you could imagine,” Entenman says. “One time he had [what] he described as this real sexy, `raunchy jazz` coming out of this thing.

“I understand the secret, to some extent,” Entenman says. “The harmonics are precise mathematical multiples, and when something vibrates, there are overtones. The way you blend these overtones, and the amount of offset they have with one another, gives it warmth. That’s what he would do to get it to sound rich. He’d couple that with the melodious, rhythmic patterns he built into it. He would program how it was repeated, and in what key it would be repeated, so it was like gears within gears.”

Motown Maestro

Refining the Electronium was Scott’s primary focus throughout the 1960s, when integrated circuits made smaller and more efficient designs possible. Scott asked Moog to “sophisticate my equipment. The concept is the same as I’ve had for many years now. And you’re the scientist who will make these things small, more compact, and with fewer parts.” Moog replaced Scott’s 8-stage “sequential timer” relays with electronic stepping switches.

Despite another bout of heart trouble in 1967, Scott continued to focus full-time on his Electronium. By the end of the 1960s, he had invested more than a decade – and more than a million dollars – in refining his brainchild. But Scott’s health was failing, and his once-substantial royalties were dwindling.

In August 1970, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy read an article in Variety about Scott’s work. The Los Angeles-based music mogul immediately phoned Scott and asked to see – and hear – this miraculous invention. Soon, a sizable Motown entourage arrived at Scott’s Farmingdale, New York, facility in a fleet of limos. “It was genius meeting genius,” Motown executive Guy Costa said in 1997. “Berry certainly respected Ray and his knowledge, and Ray admired Berry.”

Gordy was impressed by Scott’s Beethoven-in-a-box. “Berry felt that the power of the Electronium, the ability to numeralize the music process, was important,” Costa said. “Berry was always a formula man; he’d find a rhythm or a progression and build on that. The Electronium gave you the ability to play a chord, and the ability to store rhythms, and resequence those things. To have all these new effects was a turn-on.”

One month later, Gordy placed an order for an Electronium. The initial down payment was $10,000, but it would eventually cost Motown millions. Costa arranged for shipment of the device from New York to Gordy’s home in Los Angeles. Scott planned to spend six weeks tutoring the Motown chief on the device. When Gordy asked Scott to make further modifications, the inventor was happy to comply and continued working in Southern California, with his client involved in the progress.

Eventually, Gordy offered Scott a position as head of Motown’s Electronic Research and Development department. Scott accepted, and in 1972 he relocated to the West Coast with his third wife, Mitzi. Equipped with his own research studio facility, Scott continued to develop the Electronium and other technologies. “Berry was looking at the Electronium as a source of inspiration and new ideas, and as a methodology – as a sophisticated programmable sequencer,” Costa said. “It was an idea stimulator, a creative thought processor. Maybe [they would] find combinations that hadn’t been tried. It could have done anything he wanted it to do.”

Following a serious heart attack in 1977, Scott retired at age 69. “Ray was a wonderful guy,” Costa said. “I can’t tell you how much fun we had together. He was the experimenter; the mad professor.” What Motown had to show commercially for its investment remains a mystery, as no tapes have yet surfaced from the company’s vaults.

The Clock Runs Out

After continued heart problems in the late 1970s, Scott was no longer on music technology’s cutting edge. He tried to upgrade his devices with microprocessors but lost valuable research time due to illness. “By then, he had destroyed the Electronium by vandalizing it for parts for other things he was working on,” Costa said. “And new electronics had come so far, that they could do with one little chip what he had tons of wiring doing on the Electronium. It didn’t pay to keep working on it.”

But Scott didn’t give up. Despite deteriorating health (including heart bypass surgery), he continued to work, even while bedridden. In the mid-1980s, he modified a Yamaha DX-7 and used MIDI to connect the keyboard to his Electronium through a PC purchased in 1981. “I got involved in an exciting project,” the 75-year-old wrote in his journal in June 1983. “For three months I slept an average of about 50 hours weekly. Then I folded.

Symptoms of folding: extreme fatigue, wobbly walking, accumulation of chest pains, zero energy output capability.” A major stroke in 1987 closed down the shop completely. Even more tragic, Scott could barely speak, rendering him unable to answer questions when interest in his work revived in 1992. He died in February 1994 at age 85.

Visionary Outlook

“I understand his ideas about the collaboration between man and machine, which to me is the most important thing he did, in terms of electronics and music,” says Berklee professor Dr. Thomas Rhea. “He anticipated some artificial intelligence concepts and some compositional concepts that people believe somebody else did. The idea of collaborating with a machine, and allowing the machine to make certain decisions, was pretty avant-garde.

“I appreciate everything Cage did, and Stockhausen,” Rhea says. “But there’s a whole tradition here that’s being ignored, and Raymond Scott is one of those people.” Moog recently spoke to the BBC about his old colleague. “Raymond was the first,” Moog said. “He foresaw the use of sequencers, and the use of electronic oscillators, to make sounds. These were the watershed uses of electronic circuitry.”

Jeff E. Winner & Irwin D. Chusid

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (Oct. 24, 2009)

October 24, 2009 at 10:15 am (Life & Politics)

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The Flaming Lips – “Embryonic” (2009)

October 22, 2009 at 9:28 am (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Flaming Lips)

Another recent review of The Lips’ new psych opus….this time from Nick Annan, on the Clash Music website (Sept. 25, 2009)…


More widely of late known as that band with the crazy stage show, inflatable globe, Teletubbies and all, The Flaming Lips have been busy in the lab and have returned with an altogether more intriguing studio album, Embryonic.

Of course, for those coming late to the party, experimental is what The Flaming Lips do – 1997’s Zaireeka album came on four discs to be played on four stereo systems simultaneously, nevermind the eight years in the making Christmas on Mars film. So now, Wayne Coyne and his outlandish Flaming Lips have unveiled their first double album, the afore-mentioned Embryonic.

Traditionally the format where serious rock bands spread their wings – see The Beatles’ White Album or Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde – head Lip Wayne Coyne states that they sometimes “would have made a better single album if only the artist would have focused themselves, edited themselves, and got down to work and trimmed the fat.” He even goes on to agree that Embryonic may indeed be guilty of just that adding, “Either way it’s too late… the damage has been done.”

Embryonic is all about the band’s more impulsive, spontaneous side, common sense be damned. Maybe their recent mainstream success – their songs have even appeared on television adverts in the US – has fueled a need to cut loose, and Embryonic is certainly a return to their leftfield roots. Recent fans may be sorely tested by the developments herein. Equally, any self respecting music fan will be more than prepared for the going-ons (think a post rock Bitches Brew).

All this talk of excess and experimentation might lead you to assume I’m setting you up for bad news of a self-indulgent mess of an album, and while there certainly are some non-essential tracks here, there is a wealth of killer material, however obtusely the Lips choose to deliver it.

Recording on equipment set up in drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s vacant house clearly gave the band time to play, with those sessions informing the mood of the album as a whole, a group of arty, very talented, friends jamming in someone’s front room.

“Convinced of the Hex” kicks things off in fine style, its “Tomorrow Never Knows” drums startling the listener to attention. Edited down from a ten-minute jam, it sets a suitable mood for things to come, a loped bass-heavy groove and electronic squalls. Already a highlight from the digital EP is “Silver Trembling Hands,” one of the more cohesive offerings here alongside “See the Leaves,” “Worm Mountains” and album closer “Watching the Planets.”

There is a surplus of material with excess minutes spent on song fragments and periods of noodling, “Powerless” being the chief culprit. Coyne’s words come back to haunt him in these, thankfully few, moments.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O appears as a guest “vocalist” on three tracks, “Gemini Syringes,” “Watching the Planets” and “I Can Be a Frog,” providing the requisite animal noises in accompaniment to the main lyrics’ roll call of furry friends. Notable as an example of the band’s sense of fun and childlike approach to creativity, the unique element to their ambitious, high concept, bizarrely titled material rescues and elevates the band from po-faced prog hell.

The gossamer ballads “If” and “The Impulse” are welcome havens from the weirdness, while AWOL – or at least neglected – is their knack for effortless pop nuggets as heard on tracks like the now classic “Do You Realize??” or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 1.” Clearly those kind of songs require more spit and polish than the Embryonic sessions manifesto allowed. A return to their earlier head music roots is definitely apparent, and not just in that cover art.

I’ve always seen The Flaming Lips as a band above criticism. Whatever they involve themselves in, you can’t fault their motives or the sheer joie de vivre with which they operate. Embryonic doesn’t change that opinion of them and further scores points for the head-strong manner with which they have assembled, driven and released this double album.

So, yeah, being facetious, it’d be better as a single album, maybe their best album yet, but that would miss the point of who The Flaming Lips are. A group of friends who’ve been a band for a little over twenty-five years. A quarter century years into their career, those by whom we measure longevity in rock, The Rolling Stones, released the career nadir Dirty Work album. Says it all really.

Always the outsiders, even as they headlined festivals and topped charts, The Flaming Lips have returned with a truly great piece of work, flawed though it may be. Fearless Freaks indeed.

Nick Annan

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