Brian Priestley celebrates Bud Powell’s place at the forefront of modern jazz, revisits his achievements alongside Charlie Parker at the birth of bebop, and explores the darker side of Powell’s exceptional abilities, which saw him endure spells in psychiatric hospitals and periods taking hard drugs
You have to wonder why it is that Bud Powell only gets lip-service from most fans and even historians. Especially when fellow pianists all acknowledge how important he was. Not only did he have a host of contemporary imitators, but there’s copious evidence that he was much admired by his seniors – Monk, Hank Jones, even Art Tatum – and by younger pianists such as Evans, Tyner, Hancock and Corea. The last-named did a whole album dedicated to Bud two decades ago and, now that Keith Jarrett has released a version of his tune ‘Dance Of The Infidels’, it’s official that jazz pianists idolise and emulate Powell.
Maybe we should also be listening to the non-pianists who worked with him, and observed him at his best. As Sonny Rollins put it recently, “I think he was a genius. When I was coming up, our prophet was Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker was the guy. But Bud Powell, his improvisations were definitely on a par with Charlie Parker. If you’re thinking of the bebop style, Bud Powell was supreme. In fact, some people put him above Charlie Parker.” According to Jackie McLean (interviewed for Peter Pullman’s exhaustive Powell biography, Wail: The Life Of Bud Powell), in the late 1940s Sonny was one who held that point of view.
You only have to listen to a couple of live broadcasts where Powell and Parker played together – Complete Live At Birdland with Fats Navarro (RLR, 1950), or Summit Meeting At Birdland with Dizzy Gillespie (CBS, 1951) – to feel the force of the argument. Perhaps the competitive edge temporarily left both Bird and Bud on Jazz At Massey Hall, but the demonic drive and diamond-hard precision of his playing a couple of months earlier on the opening trio tracks of Powell’s Birdland1953 reissue (ESP-Disk) is a startling reminder of his abilities. And it was an up-tempo solo version of ‘Just One Of Those Things’ (Verve, 1951) that inspired drummer John Stevens to compare Bud with Albert Ayler and state that “He almost plays off the end of the piano.”
When you hear the fantastic intensity as well as the accuracy from this early period, it’s perhaps not surprising that he had a troubled history. Born the middle of three brothers in 1924 (the younger Richie played with – and died in the same road accident – as Clifford Brown), he was initially taught by his amateur pianist father. Bud’s tremendous facility inspired the father’s ‘classical’ ambitions and, along with his indulgent mother, created a teenager who believed he could do no wrong. After being taken under the wing of the more senior Thelonious Monk, Bud was soon into the world of alcohol and drugs and, according to bassist Curly Russell (quoted by Pullman), “Bud used drugs, but he had himself under control. But the minute he drank alcohol… he became belligerent.”
The first Verve session, which yielded four brilliant originals and two standards including a coruscating ‘Cherokee’, was made during a one-day release from the psychiatric hospital
The problem of the first drink being one too many persisted throughout his life, and may have been a factor when he was arrested and brutally beaten about the head by cops in 1945, while touring with the Cootie Williams band. This led to a spell in the notorious Bellevue Hospital, but worse followed when, after a couple of years of normal functioning back on the bebop scene, he was committed (following a bar-room fight) to an institution that, among other things, gave him electro-shock treatments. Powell then re-emerged on the scene for another couple of years, until the 1951 arrest alongside Monk on a possibly ‘planted’ drugs charge led to further institutionalisation. (A gruesome ‘first’, in Pullman’s book, is the detailed documentation of these events from police and hospital records.)
The publicity description of ‘The Amazing Bud Powell’ was never more justified than in the music made between these various confinements. Sideman dates for Savoy with Parker, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon, his own trio dates for Clef/Verve, and the trios and quintets (with Fats Navarro and the young Sonny Rollins) for Blue Note and Roost are unfailingly impressive. Yet we’re lucky that some of these recordings were made at all. Pullman’s research reveals the first Verve session, which yielded four brilliant originals and two standards including a coruscating ‘Cherokee’, was made during a one-day release from the psychiatric hospital. And Rollins recounts the following incident:
“He was a very volatile person and, as you know, he had some mental problems. But unfortunately, back in those days, we used to use narcotics. I did have an experience with Bud, but he and I went to a place to use narcotics. It was up on the top floor of a tenement building in Harlem, with the needles and all of this paraphernalia. I was younger than Bud, so I was OK but, after Bud took his, he passed out. I ended up cradling his head and trying to get him to revive. My whole life came before me and, God, ‘if Bud Powell dies and he and I are together using drugs’ – it was just a nightmare scenario. It might have been after he was away for a while so, when he came back on the jazz scene, his body wasn’t used to the drugs, you know. You’re not healthy enough to get to do drugs – a funny turn of phrase. Anyway, as providence would have it, he came back to consciousness.”
The extraordinary composition ‘Glass Enclosure’ goes through four different emotional areas within 140 seconds – and with no improvisation whatsoever
As well as the tumultuous improvisations on standards which have come down to us from this period of Powell’s life, there should be far more attention paid to his original pieces (one of the positive points about the more recent book, The Amazing Bud Powell, by Guthrie Ramsey). There are numerous distinctive versions of the traditional AABA 32-bar song-form, such as ‘Wail’ (aka ‘Fool’s Fancy’), ‘Bouncing With Bud’ (aka ‘Bebop In Pastel’) or ‘Parisian Thoroughfare’, one of his few tunes to be covered by others – in this case, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. All are on Blue Note, as are the far more unusual ‘Glass Enclosure’ and the 1951 mambo ‘Un Poco Loco’, its theme employing polytonality and using voicings no one else used then, while its extended solo (like most latin montunos) is entirely modal. The extraordinary composition, ‘Glass Enclosure’ from 1953, not only has ‘slash-chords’ before slash-chords were invented but goes through four different emotional areas within 140 seconds – and with no improvisation whatsoever.
Listening to this piece brings to mind a phrase from the blog of pianist Liam Noble, concerning “the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy.” If Powell’s playing became less intense and often less accurate after 1953, this may be related to the exclusive management of his career by the owners of Birdland, which included fixing him up with a female minder (his common-law wife Buttercup). Two brief forays to Europe in 1956-57 led to what seemed a new start involving residence in Paris, and a similar exclusive contract with the Blue Note club starting in 1959. It transpires that Val Wilmer, fellow photographer Tim Motion and I all made separate pilgrimages to see him there in the winter of 1960-61. My own recollection of nursing a drink through his three sets (opposite Kenny Clarke’s trio) was that the approximate, rather non-committal playing of the early evening became gradually more focussed as the night wore on. But the recollection of the distant, lost figure sitting at a table between sets is more indelible.
This Paris period, of course, was the inspiration for the movie Round Midnight, wherein Dexter Gordon re-enacts Powell’s life-story but with a saxophone. The film also has some fine music, including Bud’s tune ‘Una Noche Con Francis’, and walk-on parts for both Michael Cuscuna and the real-life Francis Paudras, the French artist who tried to rehabilitate Powell through love and empathy. That hope was crushed by the pianist’s acceptance of a return season at Birdland, which proved far less successful than in the movie, and his death less than two years later at the age of 41. Listening to the records from the second half of his career is rather like the experience of listening to him live, and holding your breath for some semblance of the earlier fire, or at least the melodic cogency and the brilliant execution. But there are sessions where he almost pulls it off, including Our Man In Paris (Blue Note) with Dexter and Essen Jazz Festival (Black Lion, aka Hawk In Germany) with Coleman Hawkins in 1960.
“By the way, did you know that Duke Ellington was a big fan of Bud Powell?” says Sonny Rollins, and thanks to Val Wilmer we have confirmation of this. Apparently while recording with Mingus and Roach, Ellington told them: “Just think of me as a second-rate Bud Powell” and, though talking tongue-in-cheek, only five months later he chose to produce a Powell album while in Paris. The Duke was clearly aware that, despite the legions of imitators and disciples, there was only one first-hand Bud Powell.
More than four decades after his death, the music of Wes Montgomery continues to illuminate the jazz guitar world like a beacon. Jack Massarik reappraises the Indiana superstar’s life and work
He never used a pick, only the fleshy part of his right thumb. He never stood up but sat back, holding his guitar at a semi-horizontal angle, 45 degrees from his lap. His solos would swell into octaves and block chords, driven more swiftly and cleanly than most players can articulate single-string notes. There never was another guitarist quite like Wes Montgomery, and the appearance of a newly-discovered masterpiece by him just proves it.
His basic stats were simple. John Leslie ‘Wes’ Montgomery was a devoted family man born in Indianapolis on March 6 1925, which astrologically makes him a Piscean Ox, the sign of the contented family man with a hearty mealtime appetite. He raised seven children there and took up guitar relatively late. After an early taste of the road with the Lionel Hampton band he returned home to feed his growing family. On a typical day this would involve an eight-hour shift in a radio-parts factory, from 7am until 3pm. Then he would dash home for a late lunch, some practice and a nap before gigging at the Turf Bar between 9pm and 2am, followed by an all-night session at the Missile Room from 2.30 to 5am. This just left time for breakfast and a shower before returning to the electronics factory. Wes maintained this gruelling schedule for several years, during which the following remarkable album was recorded.
Echoes of Indiana Avenue, released on Resonance Records, reveals the blossoming of a jazz maestro. Originally taped as studio demos and private recordings from live gigs at Indianapolis bars and nightclubs, it comes down to us in nine heavyweight tracks. Witnesses with long memories date them back to 1957-58, some time before Wes was plucked from midwestern obscurity and whisked to international stardom. Digitally remastered by Fran Gala and produced in Los Angeles by Zev Feldman, a keen jazz archeologist currently processing some equally rare Bill Evans tapes, the sound quality is remarkably good. Better still are the performances by Wes and his brothers, pianist Buddy and bassist Monk, alongside other Indianapolis musicians, some of them uncredited.
The opening track, ‘Diablo’s Dance’, is not the kind of theme associated with the Montgomeries. It’s a precise original by Los Angeles trumpeter Shorty Rogers, whom they met during a California sojourn. Wes’ classic waltz, ‘West Coast Blues’, though not included here, also dates from that visit. Other tracks, like ‘’Round Midnight’, ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Nica’s Dream’, reflect close study of cutting-edge New York albums of this period by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and the first Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane. Clearly the Indianapolis jazz scene, where the 17-year-old Freddie Hubbard was also taking his first steps, was strong enough to handle this music with real conviction, and closer investigation is due. Every major city has its forgotten venues and unsung local heroes, and Indianapolis probably had as many as Chicago (Von Freeman, Clifford Jordan), Detroit (Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef), Washington (Shirley Horn, Buck Hlll), San Francisco (Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson) or Los Angeles (Hampton Hawes, Buddy Collette and many more). These cities deserve their own Bill Birch, the intrepid archivist who gave Manchester its wonderful jazz history, Keeper of the Flame. For historians this Indianapolis recording is an important document, and the first fact it establishes is that even at this stage Wes’ work was the technical and creative equal of anything he would perform in later years.
His ideas are as mature, as personal and distinctive as ever, owing no debt to any other guitarist. Something of Milt Jackson’s funky phrasing and Clifford Brown’s joyful attack are the only discernible influences. And his sumptuous tone, so lustrous on ‘‘Round Midnight’, is fully developed, as is his mellow yet commanding presence and amazing all-round facility. There’s less octave and chordal work than listeners would later come to expect, but it’s all there when he needs it. Contemporary snapshots show that he was already the proud owner of a top-of-the-range Gibson L5 deep-bodied semi-acoustic guitar. His amplifier, too, sounds as good as anything he would use later, though Wes was famous not only for rejecting a plectrum but also for achieving his warm tone without help from the guitar’s tone dial, which he kept on zero.
The only exception to this rule is the final track on the album, a raunchy slow blues which has the feel of a request number ordered at the end of a very long night. Here Wes ramps up the amp to produce a T-Bone Walker-meets-Muddy Waters kind of edge. And why not? Indianapolis, after all, is less than 300 miles south of Chicago. “You can see where he’s goin’!” shouts a happy ringsider at one point. “He sounds like Steve Green!” (No, I don’t know who he is either. Answers on a postcard please.)
‘You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play’ – Wes Montgomery
In later life one of Wes’ most intriguing quotes was: “You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play.” Fans took this with a pinch of salt, yet his remarkable self-deprecation was probably genuine and rooted in the fact that he was an ear player, entirely self-taught and unable to sight-read music. Many great musicians have found it necessary to conceal this fact, because learning by ear instead of learning by eye remains the last taboo.
When asked if he could read, the great pianist Erroll Garner once replied: “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Django Reinhardt (in his way every bit as distinctive a guitarist as Wes) did not read music either. All are or were not only wonderful ear players but also magnificent individualists whose recorded work, unlike that of so many conservatory graduates, can be recognised instantly. Guitarist Martin Taylor, who learned to read only after learning to play, once defined jazz as a process of elimination, involving the acceptance of attractive ideas and the rejection of unattractive ones. “In that sense all jazz musicians are self-taught,” he concluded. “Particularly the best ones.”
So while the Montgomery brothers may not have written down their arrangements, the lines were always performed in perfect unison and based on agreed harmonies which were hip, accurate and often complex. Make no mistake, theirs was one of the finest family groups in jazz, ranking right up there with the Jones brothers Hank, Thad and Elvin, and the Heaths, Jimmy, Tootie and Percy, not to mention the trumpet-playing Candolis, Pete and Conte. And Wes’ repertoire reflected a particularly sophisticated grasp of chord theory. Consider his material. Many of his themes were cleverly disguised standards. ‘Four on Six’, for example, is ‘Summertime’, ‘Doujie’ is ‘Confirmation’ and one of his best lines, ‘Twisted Blues’, features an unusual turnaround reminiscent of ‘Limehouse Blues’.
Furthermore some of his original compositions contain passing cadences, such as the bridge on ‘Jingles’, that occur only in Montgomeryland. When soloing on a blues or modular theme such as ‘Impressions’, Wes also used a distinctive minor-to-relative-major transposition, analysed in detail in guitarist-educator Adrian Ingram’s tuition books and videos. Wes’ superb solos on ‘Darn that Dream’ and ‘Body and Soul’ on this newfound album offer further conclusive evidence that he could negotiate the most complex chord progressions with ease. ‘Con Alma’ and ‘Born to be Blue’ on later recordings are other examples of fiendish progressions resolved by a beautiful mind.
Wes liked to tease journalists, however. He told some that playing octaves always gave him headaches, and claimed that he never practised at all, adding: “Occasionally I throw a piece of meat into my guitar case.” In a later interview he explained that this merely meant working on actual tunes and new material rather than practising scales and other dreary drills. Of course a technique as awesome as his had to be earned somehow, and no doubt it was gained during those crazy wood-shedding years when he was holding down three jobs a day and practising with his thumb to avoid waking his children or annoying the neighbours. Certainly all the hard work had been done before Cannonball Adderley’s quintet blew into Indianapolis one night in 1960 and changed Wes’ life.
The great altoist was so taken with the bearlike guitar-man of Indiana Avenue that he called Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews in New York and implored him to check Wes out in person without delay. The rest, as they say, was hysteria. Wes’ first albums for Riverside, which bore unbridled titles like So Much Guitar! and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, hit the jazz public like a guided missile. Fellow stars immediately accepted Wes as the finished article and embraced him like a long-lost brother.
Soon he was gigging and recording everywhere from New York to San Francisco, where he had earlier remained for a year, this time playing the Monterey festival as part of John Coltrane’s group. He also recorded with Cannonball and others [The Poll Winners] in Los Angeles, with Johnny Griffin [Full House] and Miles Davis’ rhythm section, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb [Smokin’ at the Half Note] and rejoining his faithful brothers, who had been travelling as The Mastersounds, for Grooveyard and other fine sessions.
Europe was also clamouring for him, but Wes had an oxlike fear of flying and refused all offers until a 1965 tour was put together involving two-way travel by ocean liner. In London he played a week at Ronnie Scott’s old club in Gerrard Street, whose small room was tightly packed nightly, mainly by guitarists for whom seeing was not quite believing. Wes also hopped a cross-Channel ferry for a live date in Paris with Harold Mabern, Arthur Harper and Jimmy Lovelace, with Johnny Griffin sitting in. Other after-hours bootlegs from this trip are still occasionally surfacing.
Having known real economic hardship, Wes turned no decent offer down after returning to the States. When not touring and recording with a straight ahead trio featuring two hometown buddies, organist Mel Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker, he was developing a lucrative sideline in seductive guitar for lovers. “Make me sound like Frank Sinatra,” he told record producers, who responded by hiring the likes of Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky to craft sexy settings for Wes’ mellow octave sound and rich chord voicings.
Well-packaged albums of ballads and latin standards aimed at the sophisticated adult market, they sold very well, irritating certain critics but charming others. Even at his most mellow, as in Tequila, Bumpin’, Goin’ Out of My Head, and California Dreaming, there was always a strand of soulful righteousness to savour. US critic Ralph Gleason nailed it when he wrote of “beautifully melodic solos that border on schmaltz but are so deeply rooted in jazz and blues that they are valid.”
Many more studio and in-person masterpieces were envisaged from Wes when a massive heart attack struck him down in the summer of 1968. He was then only 43, but those hard times back in Indiana would have taken chunks off anybody’s life. A great pity, though, because Wes was otherwise a clean-living, sensible and easygoing individual who had never messed with booze, hard drugs, fast women or slow racehorses. His solitary vice was cigarettes, which were then of course marketed without health warnings. But thankfully his music will never die. New generations of music lovers out there will have so much to enjoy, particularly those who play guitar.
Thumb-driven operators remain extremely rare, but another who has always worked without a pick is the wondrous Jim Mullen, who had never heard of Wes until the age of 17. “I was only eight when I got started and I had no technique at all,” he explains. “When I tried to play, the pick kept flying around the room so I stopped using it. Somehow I also taught myself to play right-handed even though I’m left-handed. I wouldn’t change back now, it’s fine, but unlike Wes I only play downstrokes, whereas it’s clear from his records that he played downstrokes and up-strokes. I read somewhere that he could do this because he had a doublejointed thumb. Apparently he could bend it forwards and backwards.”
Another prominent player proud to admit his debt to Wes is Nigel Price. “If swing, tone, melodic ideas and full involvement in the music matter to you then Wes should matter to you too,” he declares. “Listening to Wes in full flight you always get a sense of good feeling among all the players. He swept them along with those melodic cascades, plus octaves and chunky chordal passages that rhythm sections could really get their teeth into.” No doubt many players will get their teeth into Wes Montgomery’s last-known album, particularly those who never saw or heard him live. For older musicians and fans already familiar with his work, it will just make us miss him a little bit more.
Five must-have Montgomery discs
The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery
The shot heard around the guitar world. Wes meets Tommy Flanagan and the Heath brothers, Percy and Albert, with all the panache of someone who has all his stuff together and knows it.
So Much Guitar!
Different rhythm section, same amazing chordal, octavian brilliance. By now ashen- faced fellow guitarists like Kenny Burrell are fantasising about catching his right thumb in a taxi door.
Wes cooking live in a smart Californian club with impish tenorman Johnny Griffin and MIles Davis’ then-current rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.
First of his “make me sound sexy” albums and one of the funkiest. This and Bumpin’ (1965) are acceptable examples of jazz meeting pop, or the gentle art of swinging over silken strings. Nobody did it better.
Smokin’ At The Half Note
All that studio smooching was fine, but straight-ahead neo-bop grooving was always Wes’ game, and never more so that live in New York with Kelly, Chambers and Cobb.
Billie Holiday was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century and left an extraordinary legacy of recordings behind when she died at the age of 44 in 1959. The recordings below reveal Lady Day at her very best...
Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia 1933-1944
This is one of the cornerstones of recorded jazz. Capturing the singer at the height of her powers, with a roster of sidemen that includes Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster and Lester Young, the 10CD box set presents the songs – all 153 of them - in chronological order. Beginning with ‘Your Mother’s Son-In-Law’ recorded with Benny Goodman And His Orchestra in 1933 and concluding with ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’ accompanied by Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra, the final 78 Holiday recorded for Columbia in 1942, the breathtaking scope of Holiday’s artistry is laid bare. CDs seven to 10 feature an additional 77 tracks consisting of alternate takes, broadcast and film soundtracks, plus two concert performances from 1944. The 40-page CD booklet (previously a whopping 116 pages) includes photos, song list and an insightful essay by Gary Giddins. File under: essential. – Peter Quinn
Billie Holiday: The Complete 1952-1957 Small Group Studio Sessions
Featuring over six hours of music, this 5-CD retrospective from Masterworks collects together material from 10 albums recorded by the singer for the Clef and Verve labels. While the results are uneven, there are some bona fide classics such as Music For Torching, All Or Nothing At All and Songs For Distingué Lovers, all of which contain some of the greatest jazz singing of the twentieth century. With material culled from the Great American Songbook, and stellar accompaniment from the likes of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Ben Webster and Jimmy Rowles, Billie’s interpretations of ‘Moonglow’, ‘Tenderly’, ‘Autumn in New York’, ‘Lover Come Back To Me’ and more detonate a huge emotional charge. The extensive 40-page booklet includes a fine introductory essay by Arthur Morton, original liner notes, LP covers and Downbeat reviews (by Nat Hentoff and others), plus photos and complete track listings. Bonus material on CD5 includes an instrumental version of ‘Just Friends’ (recorded prior to Billie arriving at the studio), the three complete alternate takes from these sessions, a wondrous all-star version of Holiday’s self-penned blues ‘Fine and Mellow’, plus two songs (‘When Your Lover Has Gone’ and ‘Don’t Explain’) recorded at the Plaza Hotel with Buck Clayton on trumpet and Mal Waldron on piano. – Peter Quinn
Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes
For many this is Billieʼs classic period. Her lifeʼs experiences gave her a different perspective from which to sing that contrasts the Columbia sides as the reckless vitality of her youth gives way to a melancholy spirit trapped within the infinite loops of alcohol and drug addiction.
Billie Holiday: The Complete Original American Decca Recordings
Holiday was at her peak when these songs were recorded. The fidelity is excellent, and surely these songs from her “cabaret chanteuse” period are the finest representation of Holidayʼs art at its best.
Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings
Includes the seminal Billie Holiday side ʻStrange Fruit,ʼ but also evidence on the later tracks that her lifestyle is catching up with her.
Lady In Satin
Billieʼs physical decline is very much in evidence on this profoundly moving record, indeed, some fans have actually claimed they can hear her dying. Yet many also hear on this and the Verve recordings a maturity of interpretation beyond anything the young Holiday was able to achieve.
Billie Holiday: The Lady Sings
Wonderful overview of Billieʼs career at a price you can easily afford. Four CDs that chart the best of her Columbia years (Brunswick and Vocalion sides) and some classic Decca hits.
When Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Billie Holiday was published in the USA it was nominated a “Notable Book of the Year” by The New York Times Review of Books. Here, Nicholson reflects on the enduring artistry of the singer they called Lady Day, talks about how he discovered some of the previously unknown facts he discovered researching her life and discusses the sensational conclusion he came to after his book was published
The polarities of art and life, once carefully separated by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, collided with such violence during the 44 years of singer Billie Holiday’s life they became bonded into one immutable whole. Together they give force to the Billie Holiday legend, a legend that has grown with increasing definition since her death in 1959. Although a sense of sadness and waste provide the backdrop for her troubled yet colourful life, that life is ultimately redeemed by the joy, the passion and, in her final years, the pathos of her music.
Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, it is impossible not to reflect that it is not so much what happens to us, as how we handle what happens us, that decides our fortune. Billie’s great rival, Ella Fitzgerald, had to endure a family background and social conditions not greatly different from Holiday’s; two years younger, Fitzgerald was almost certainly sexually abused as a child – as was Holiday – and both hung around whorehouses in early adolescence. Each was the product of a broken home, each suffered years of poverty and each stared racism square in the face in 1930s, 1940s and 1950s apartheid America. Yet Fitzgerald worked her way to Beverly Hills luxury and was still singing into the 1990s, while Holiday, who was never able to come to terms with her personal demons, died in poverty in 1959.
From her early teens Billie Holiday associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance. Yet she found it within herself to create a series of enduring jazz classics during the 1930s in the company of pianist Teddy Wilson and some of the finest jazz musicians of the day for the Brunswick label including, ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do,’ ‘I Cried for You’ and ‘This Years Kisses.’
Both with Teddy Wilson and under her own name for the Vocalion label she also created a series of recordings with Lester Young on tenor saxophone that see a degree of mutual inspiration that epitomizes jazz at its highest level of creativity – ‘Sun Showers,’ ‘I’ll Get By,’ ‘Me Myself and I,’ ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight,’ ‘He’s Funny That Way,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ ‘Back In Your Own Backyard’ and ‘All of Me.’ These recordings, together with the Brunswick recordings with Wilson, available on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, reveal a singer of broad emotional range able to narrow her focus at will, able to seize the pressure points of a song to reshape it so profoundly that once heard, it goes on to enjoy a second life, a life within memory; indeed many songs from this period are truly unforgettable.
Although she enjoyed success and admiration for her recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ (Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings) that portrayed a Southern lynching, few listeners realise how Billie Holiday took the tradition of the previous generation of female blues singers and applied it to the American Popular Song. By careful selection of material, she sung these songs in a way the invoked a blues mood on non-blues material. Bessie Smith, a special childhood favourite, sang in the first person about sex, infidelity and broken relationships. Billie carefully chose popular songs with lyric content that dealt with similar issues. In effect, she created a character part for herself that evolved directly out of the blues tradition, without being a blues singer per se herself.
The “character” she chose to portray was a woman unlucky in love and whose life’s experiences appeared to be mirrored in the text of her songs. Even when singing in the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, she refused to sing songs that did not conform to the role she created for herself. Frequently she sang “I” songs, addressed to “you,” but changed the “I” from positive to negative: ‘I Cover the Waterfront,’ ‘The Man I Love,’ ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ ‘My Old Flame,’ ‘I’ll Get By’ and so on. Indeed, Artie Shaw, as he pointed out to me, was well aware of the role Holiday was creating for herself, and wrote ‘Any Old Time’ for her when she joined his band – “Any old time you want me, I’ll be there…” In the 1940s she created a series of enduring classics for the Decca label that included ‘Lover Man,’ ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ and ‘That Old Devil Called Love,’ the latter two also specially written for her to frame her character part (Billie Holiday: The Complete Original Decca Recordings).
Through the mediation of her “character” part with the songs she sang, audiences gradually began to read her real-life history into her performances. In the late-1940s when she never seemed far from the clamour of the tabloid headlines, she chose songs that interacted with her real-life image, such as “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Recorded a year after she was released from prison for a drugs conviction, it triumphantly reinforced her “notoriety” while defiantly justifying her indulgence of the self. As her voice deteriorated in the 1950s, it paradoxically became the source of her authenticity on albums for Norman Granz’s Clef and Verve labels (Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes), and on the album Lady In Satin (Columbia/Legacy), where the dues she had paid, the wrong associations she had made and the collapse of a promising career all seemed to be refracted in the flaws of her latter day voice.
Even today the way her image interacts with her music remains the least understood aspect of her art. When in November 1956 she performed a concert alternating readings from her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, ghost written by William F. Dufty, with songs that had become associated with her, she was consciously erecting the legend into which she would finally step, closing the doors behind her, on 15 July, 1959. Yet the essential truth about Billie Holiday is that she was a great artist, not because of her hedonistic and much publicised lifestyle, but in spite of it.
Because the image of Billie Holiday-as-all-purpose-victim, part romantic martyr and part heroine of excess has gradually tended to overwhelm her artistry, in 1992 I set out on a two year odyssey to try and discover the real Billie Holiday. As a member of a deprived minority of American society struggling to make ends meet during the formative years of the twentieth century, tracking her down her early years proved a challenge. Even so, everybody, at some point, comes in touch with the system, and in the 1920 US census the five year-old Billie, then known as Eleanora Harris, was with her mother Sadie (or Sarah) in the household of Robert Miller and Eva Miller.
The relationship of Sadie to the head of the household, a standard census requirement, showed her to be a sister-in-law, which meant Robert and Eva’s children, Charlie and Dorothy, were Eleanora’s cousins. This was confirmed in a TV interview Billie gave in 1956, where she refers by name to Charlie and Dorothy in an anecdote about growing up. The Baltimore City Schools Record Retrieval Office gave me the dates when she started her education and where. Then, on checking a 1938 interview Billie gave to Melody Maker’s Leonard Feather, both Billie and Sadie both confirmed she was born in Philadelphia. This corresponded with an interview she gave the following year to New York Amsterdam News, the leading Harlem newspaper.
A copy of Billie’s birth certificate and later her passport details both gave Philadelphia as her place of birth, so there can be no question where Billie was born. Within a few weeks I had discovered that all the history books that gave Baltimore as her place of birth were wrong.
The next problem was Billie’s own assertion she was admitted to The House of Good Shepherd, a Catholic run house of correction for “wayward girls.” After much initial reluctance, they finally faxed me all they had in their file. It confirmed Billie had been admitted to their institution not once, but twice. The first time was on 5 January 1925 for bunking off school. The second time was 24 December 1926 as a state witness for the prosecution in her own rape! The name of the correspondent was given, a Wilbert Rich. A search of the Baltimore archives produced his trial papers – the trial was on 18 January 1927 and he received a three month sentence for the crime.
This was an important find, since most people had written Billie’s autobiography Lady Sings The Blues off as a self serving, grossly exaggerated account of her life. One biographer even dismissed Billie’s claim to have been raped as a child as “a metaphor for her relationship with men.” But here in front of me was the official documentation that proved her claims were right.
At the end of 1928 Sadie and Billie tried her luck in Harlem (Billie says 1927 in Lady Sings The Blues). Billie claims in her autobiography to have been imprisoned for prostitution. Several days research in New York’s City Hall records office yielded the Court Records for the Women’s Night Court of Friday, 3 May 1929 that proved Billie was arrested on a prostitution rap. In the top left hand corner was stamped “Jean H. Norris” the judge presiding – Billie actually refers to her in her autobiography. From there her records were easy to trace confirming her subsequent incarceration on Welfare, or Rikers Island. Billie was just 14-years-old.
Lady Sings the Blues was right again. Yet after this traumatic upbringing, after being raped as an 11 year-old and institutionalised three times, her talent as a singer somehow grew to the extent that just three years later, as a 17-year-old, she was making her recording debut under John Hammond’s supervision with Benny Goodman.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained Billie’s complete prison file from Alderton where she was incarcerated following her infamous drugs bust in 1947. It included a list of people who wrote to her, including her cousins, Charles and Dorothy. Charles was then a sergeant in the army. Anyone in present or past employment of the US Government will, as of right, have any correspondence forwarded on to them. I wrote the usual letter explaining my project, but heard nothing for over a year.
Then, six weeks before my deadline, Charlie’s wife phoned. Charlie had died seven months ago, she said, and she couldn’t remember anything Charlie had told her about Billie, and yes, Charlie was Billie’s cousin, but she was his third wife and hadn’t been around during Billie’s lifetime. It seemed I had drawn a blank.
“Anyway,” she added, “you don’t want to be talking to me, you should be talking to Evelyn, who knew Billie as a child.” She gave me Evelyn Conway’s telephone number. Evelyn (neé Miller) was the only child of Robert Miller’s first marriage. Evelyn was 88, but clear and lucid. When she was 11, she said, Robert Miller went to Philadelphia to pick up the babe-in-arms Eleanora from his sister-in-law Sadie (by his second marriage) and brought her into the household where she was living with her Grandmother (Robert’s mother). This was the household where Evelyn and Billie were brought up.
Since I was the only person who knew Billie was born in Philadelphia at this point, this woman was clearly the real thing. And more to the point, here was further confirmation Billie was born in Philly. This was the older “cousin” referred to as Ida in Lady Sings the Blues. Evelyn explained the whole story as she remembered of Billie’s childhood, and her daughter Janice (whose middle name is Eleanora after Billie), gave me her reminiscences of Billie, so filling in vital, first hand information about Billie’s early years. Both Evelyn and her husband Matthew remembered Clarence Holiday, Billie’s father, for example.
The prison file also included one small document that had a massive bearing on Billie’s career. It was a letter under the signature of E. Fred Sweet, Chief Probation Officer, and Violet A. Jersawit, Probation Officer, both of New York’s Probation Service, who interviewed Joe Glaser, Billie’s (and Louis Armstrong’s) manager, to help compile a profile and social history of Billie at the request of Alderton to aid in her treatment for addiction. In it they wrote, “Mr. Glaser states that he cooperated with the Federal Narcotic Agents as he had no recourse except to have her forced to take proper treatment [for drug addiction].”
Incredibly, Billie’s 1947 drug bust was done with the connivance of Billie’s own manager. I obtained the trial papers for Billie and her then boyfriend and co-addict and trumpeter Joe Guy (two separate trials, by the way). The papers make clear it was at the instigation of Glaser, the one person she thought she could trust in her plight, that Billie waived her legal defence.
“Any half competent lawyer could have got her off the charge, but she was not given the opportunity because Glaser had told her to plead guilty”
After performing at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, Billie had been driven back to the Attucks Hotel. According to the testimony of Agent Roter, Billie dropped off her accompanist and assistant, and with her chauffeur drove off, a statement that is crucial. The agents went to Room 7 that had been occupied by Billie with the accompanist and assistant (who had returned to collect Billie’s luggage) and the agents found drugs and drug impedimenta. Billie was subsequently arrested in New York for possession. The key element here is that there was nothing to connect Billie to the drugs found in her hotel, they may have been hers, but she was not in possession of them, as required by law. Any half competent lawyer could have got her off the charge, but she was not given the opportunity because Glaser had told her to plead guilty.
It is interesting to contrast Billie’s fortunes with that of Joe Guy, who had made his way back to New York from the Attucks earlier that day. He too was arrested, but he was represented in court. Despite confessing to have shot up drugs just before his arrest in New York, his testimony was set aside because it was not relevant to events in Philadelphia. His charges were dropped because, of course, there was nothing to connect him to the drugs in the Attucks Hotel since he, like Billie, was not there at the time.
This episode was crucial in Billie’s career because having served a sentence for a year and a day she was unable to secure a Cabaret Card so vital for playing the New York clubs. She could play Carnegie Hall and the big New York stages, but her day to day living in the New York jazz clubs was shut down. “The Queen of 52nd Street,” as she was known in the 1940s, was no more. She had to find club work outside New York where the Cabaret Card rule did not apply. Like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, she could never return to her home port, and was doomed to playing the smaller clubs outside New York for the rest of her life (she called it “My years of exile” in Lady Sings the Blues). Without a New York profile, her price began to slide, and so did her career, and so too the cycle of drugs and alcohol.
In Billie’s final years, she was married to Louis McKay, who never gave an interview about Billie, even though he acted as consultant for the feature film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. But he did make a court testimony under oath just after Billie’s death. I was able to obtain a transcript of this from New York’s Surrogate’s Court and here we get an insight into his relationship with his former wife. In it he alleged Billie’s then lawyer Earle Zaidins was responsible for putting her back on drugs and claimed to have discovered him in an act of sodomy with Billie when she was high on drugs. The important thing about this interview is that it is one thing to make sensational claims, but it is quite another to do so standing up in open court under oath.
Should we believe this testimony? I had the good fortune to meet with the lawyer representing McKay at the time (and who had also represented Billie from time to time while she was alive), Florence Kennedy. Flo was not just any lawyer. She was a formidable black lady who stood some six foot high, and had an impeccable record in Civil Rights and frequently lectured on the subject in America’s Ivy League Universities. Flo allowed me to go through her old files relating to Billie Holiday, and over lunch said that contrary to how Billie’s other men had been portrayed, McKay worked hard on Billie’s behalf to resurrect her flagging career and keep her off drugs. Billie loved him and he loved her. She said he was “kind of compassionate” to Billie, but conceded he was “streetwise and a pimp.” But she did believe him when he made those remarkable allegations in open court, adding, “What’s more, I still do.”
Billie Holiday’s final years were spent in extreme poverty. She was reduced to going to her manager Joe Glaser for handouts against future earnings. I have a copy of a pathetic IOU, signed in Billie’s very shaky hand, and dated 2 June 1958. It reads: “This will acknowledge the fact that I have received from you [Glaser] the following amount of money – $50 cash, $135 for my rent, $50 for my current necessities amounting to $235 in addition to other monies owed to you per signed receipts.” When she died on 15 July 1959, her manager Joe Glaser made great play of the fact he paid for her funeral and hospital expenses in the press reports of the funeral. What was not known until I pulled file A1859 from New York’s Surrogate’s Court was that Glaser immediately claimed back these expenses from Billie Holiday’s Estate.
“Many of the personality problems she grappled with through her life could indeed have had their roots in her traumatic childhood”
Billie Holiday’s career was not the shooting-star ride to success it is often portrayed. She had a huge talent, but her temperament frequently stood in her way. As Evelyn told me: “Sadie left her all the time and that was the problem, the child had an attitude, I guess from being abandoned.” Many of the personality problems she grappled with through her life could indeed have had their roots in her traumatic childhood. Being constantly abandoned to friends and relations and the emotional havoc wrought by her rape as an 11-year-old could well have contributed to the diminished sense of self that those close to her spoke of. This feeling of rejection would also go some way to explaining her abnormally dependent personality, her desire to attach herself to someone who would love and care for her, and then once in a relationship, do anything and accept anything to maintain it.
Equally, the absence of parental supervision in her formative years might have had a bearing on her moral discipline, expressed at an early age through truancy and lack of interest in academic activities. Yet such calm, after the fact rationalisation can never fully explain the dark and destructive forces that inhabit human nature. Looking back on a life with so many wrong turnings, wrong associations, seemingly inexplicable behaviour and a failure to take responsibility for a career that once showed such great promise, a pattern emerges.
Billie Holiday was a loyal person, but was often highly impulsive. Yet she felt little or no guilt or regret for her actions or their consequences, either to herself or to those associated with her. It is difficult at this distance to determine precisely why she acted as she did; frequently it seemed as the result of some trivial whim. Her outward appearance of loyalty, pride and sincerity seems to have concealed a deficiency that led her to being incapable of remorse or any desire to avoid damaging or destructive behaviour. As her biographer, I have spent considerable time studying the circumstances of this woman’s troubled life.
After my book was published in the UK, the USA and Japan, I looked again at her life as a whole, and the picture that emerged was of someone who may well have suffered from a psychopathic personality disorder. Many of the characteristics of such a disorder are present: irresponsibility when important issues are at stake; the absence of any remorse or shame; an inability to learn from experience or to follow any consistent life plan. When viewed in terms of months and years, these traits reveal themselves as a recurring pattern and, as a layman (albeit guided by some unofficial expert medical help and many discussions with Norman Granz, who founded Verve records and knew her well), I found myself strongly drawn to the conclusion that Billie Holiday’s life may indeed have been cursed by what psychiatrist Robert Lindner has called the “most destructive of all forms of aberrant behaviour.”
This disorder was only beginning to be understood in the late 1940s and was barely recognised during Billie’s lifetime. Therein may possibly lie the greatest tragedy of Billie Holiday, that she may have been struggling with a destructive mental disorder that neither she nor anyone around her could comprehend. Perhaps the extreme contradictions to be found in her character created the tensions that gave rise to her genius. That she was able to achieve so much with the burdens she had to carry must surely be her ultimate triumph.
Matthew Bourne and Franck Vigroux revisit Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity
"When you play electronic music, you have the control of the imagination of the people in the room, and it can get to an extent where it's almost physical." (Ralf Hütter, 1975)
"Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to." (Matthew Bourne, 2015)
First things first. It's to be pointed out that when award-winning pianist Matthew Bourne and composer Franck Vigroux agreed to revisit Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity LP for some live shows early last year, it was only initially that they considered staying faithful to the group's original recording. The Leaf label's press release for what's since become an album, Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited, reveals the idea was soon dismissed due to the unavailability of the (now-outmoded) synths and Moogs employed by the Dusseldorf four.
Released in the winter of 1975, Radio-Activity has been described as "a highly innovative science-fiction movie soundtrack about radio-activity and the activity of the radio" and, as with all of Kraftwerk's catalogue, it's a record that points to the future while encompassing the past. But away from the wires, delays, machinery, buttons and all the underlying themes like motorways, telephones, cycles, calculators and radios, Radio-Activity is more than anything a brilliant, forceful, sinister, intense, precise, crisp celebration of popular music.
A record that inspired a whole new wave of musicians, photographers and artists, it pressed all the right buttons for (radio) stars such as Brian Eno, David Bowie, Björk, O.M.D., The Orb, Frankie Knuckles, The Human League, Derrick May, Aphex Twin, Tuung, Gary Numan, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Iggy Pop, John Foxx's Ultravox, Moby and Heaven 17 to name just seventeen. Bowie even went as far as to air the album in full before taking to the stage during his 1976 Station to Station tour, taking things a stage further by recording three of the most defining (and kraut-inspired) albums of his career (Low, Heroes and Lodger).
Radioland's stunning reading of Radio-Activity is a two-man show. Three counting installation artist Antoine Schmitt whose live visuals have proved integral not only to the live end of this project, but the whole experience. Built on the blueprints of Kraftwerk's original, yet allowing space for stunning improvisation, the Leaf label's press release notes that it "weaves its own, highly individual mesh of electronics, including blizzards of analogue, antique futurist percussive patterns, rewired melodies, processed versions of sounds recently discovered in space by NASA..."
Located on a sofa in his home somewhere near Leeds, Matthew Bourne agreed to talk to Mark Youll about this ambitious project, rewinding back to the beginning of last year and a series of shows that led to the release of an inspired album...
Could you tell me when you first heard Kraftwerk's music?
Matthew Bourne: I'd heard the odd track that people had played to me, or stuff on the radio, but I'd never really heard any of their albums until last year. I called up Franck (Vigroux) and recommended we do some stuff together as we hadn't done anything as a duo for ages. So he picked me up and we drove to his house and he said 'look, we can both improvise, we don't need to rehearse that, we can just turn up at a gig and do it.' He suggested we cover the music of somebody else. He told me about this French band that did a live version of Dark Side of the Moon. They used cash registers, tape loops, the same synths and it looked incredible on stage. Franck asked me if I knew Radio-Activity and I hadn't really. I knew the tune but couldn't say I knew the album. He mentioned it was the album's 40th anniversary and said we could try and look at doing the same kind of thing. So we started to transcribe the record if you like, searching for the same sounds. With the equipment we had between us we got pretty close to replicating the same sounds. Some of the sounds we couldn't, like the Vako Orchestron (synth, of which there are only 75 in the world, costing ten grand each), but we thought maybe we could find decent software samples for that. But then samples don't sound as good.
So did the process of replicating the record sonically prove challenging?
MB: The second time myself and Franck met up we went through the songs but figured the music didn't really do justice to what we were about as musicians. We thought that if we don't have the exact same equipment to reproduce the exact same sound there's going to be a lot of geeks out there that are going to come and see this recreation and comment on how we didn't do this or didn't do that. So we thought let's just kill the idea of making a recreation and just take what we want from the music and put our own mark on it. It was more about using the original themes as a spring board. Of massive importance was the visuals, the gigs were supposed to be a largely visual experience. So having Antoine (Schmitt) in the room with us was very important, it meant that we were always working towards the visual thing.
As well as being sonically striking, Kraftwerk had a real visual thing going on.
MB: Well we went through the tunes for a couple of days and Franck said we can't just go on stage in our normal clothes, he said it would be boring. We really needed something visual to tie this all together because it's not about us. So Franck put a call out on social media and within the hours we had lots of people respond, one of those was Antoine Schmitt who Franck had worked with on other projects. We went with Antoine.
Was Antoine present while you were piecing together the music?
MB: Yes, having a third person in the room is like having another band member. It was a strange thing because we only had four weeks before the first gig and on the day of the first show we couldn't rehearse. We just had a longish sound-check and it was straight into the gig, so I was shitting myself. We were all a bit worried actually because we'd never done it before. I mean, we ran it through maybe twice on the last rehearsal but we had a gap of four weeks. Franck and I sent files backwards and forwards and mapped out the whole show so Antoine could get to work visually. Really four or five days isn't a long time to put something like this together, so we had to get that sound-finding thing out of the way so we could concentrate on how we were going to arrange the running of it live, and in what order to do the tracks.
Much of Kraftwerk's music was recorded to tape; can you hear the difficulty in that process?
MB: I think the process of capturing the sound is certainly different. I don't really know how they put it together, whether they recorded each part separately or tracked the rest in over the top. I don't think it was recorded all at the same time. Recording to tape means you can do less editing. There were obviously not as many editing capabilities as there is now working with digital. I suppose the problem with hindsight is you always look back and think it must have been difficult to make because things are easier now. There are differences definitely, but there are creative arguments for both. I think today it's about combining digital with analogue. Combining the convenience of digital with certain analogue touches to give a certain colour or character to what you're doing. With Kraftwerk, I was always struck by how clean the recording is. The production of that particular album is spotless. It is digital in that there's no hiss, that's amazing really. Once we started the process of looking at all the material I really started to listen more to their work. I thought it was an amazing vision. So, it's been a double journey for me.
Franck is similar to you in that he is a composer that thinks outside of the box and ventures into many music settings and styles. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
MB: We met in 2006 I think; he came to Leeds to play with the LIMA orchestra with Marc Ducret and did some conducting. We got talking and we found out we both love Scott Walker and so we connected and I stayed in touch with him. I think I emailed him and suggested we do something, so we did a duo album. Then he working with turntables, synths, circuit equipment, filter pedals and guitar and I played Rhodes and piano and it was great fun. He wrote a piece for the Ars Nova ensemble called 'Broken Circles'.
Does he also have a background in jazz music?
MB: To a point, yes. He used to have a band called Push the Triangle and he's always been an improviser, but not typically, no. He's been involved in experimental, more rocky bands but they were always pushing for something else. Doing this project has been really interesting because technology the way it is, we've been able to work on this without being in the same room. He will send me his parts and I will add to his parts. Potentially, there's another project next year, something to do with Erik Satie, a show in Paris. Everything we've worked on together is different. I did a project with Franck and Bruno Chevillon and Michel Blanc called Camera and for that he worked with two tape machines and a contact mic. Bruno played bass and pedals, I played piano and string synth and Michel played various bits of percussion. The Ars Nova stuff was all fully notated where this is a reworking of an iconic album, so it's never routine and I always feel I'm being pushed by him.
Of all the Kraftwerk albums, why the Radioactivity record as a subject for this album?
MB: The anniversary really. We were also thinking practically. The 40th anniversary thing would sell the idea. Luckily, there was other Kraftwerk stuff in the air too so it appealed to a lot of people. It was a happy coincidence really. Franck's thing was to do something that would be a real challenge. We can both improvise but that wasn't going to help us get any work, so there was definitely a practical side to it. As soon as we started listen to Radio-Activity, and we were checking out some of the sounds, we were in, we were focused on doing it. It's been brilliant. If somebody had told to me I was going to re-work one of Kraftwerk's albums in the next five years I would have been like 'yeah, whatever'. It's like somebody telling me that when I get to the age of 32 I'd have learnt to ride a motorbike, and I'll ride it to Valencia. I wouldn't have dreamt it but I've done it. For me, this (project) is almost an intrepid thing because essentially, for a lot of people, Kraftwerk is a holy grail.
How did the idea of an album come about and what challenges did recording an album like this throw up?
MB: It was in Brighton that Tony Morley (from the Leaf label) asked if we were going to record it. He said it would be great and that he could do something interesting with it. At the time Franck wasn't interested, he said he was busy with other stuff. But I suggested to Franck that if somebody was offering to release a record of this we should do it. I explained it wouldn't cost us anything and we'd already done all the work, that we'd mopped up the whole show, we'd perfected it. It was just a case of changing a few bits and recording it. Once some time was mapped out to do it the whole thing took less than two weeks to record. I think we'd also then decided to present the album in the same order as the original. The flow of the show was not in the order of the album, so a few sounds had to be changed for the purposes of the album. As much as the show was quite loud and dynamic in parts, we had to make it work as a record. Not as in your face really.
What elements of the original album did you feel you had to keep in place and what have you changed?
MB: For example, there are no lyrics in our reading of 'Radio-Activity'. There's no call-and-response sung melody but we kept the same beat and same bass part. The same with something like 'Airwaves', there's no vocals. For us to get away with that we had to stick with the mood really. We were originally going to stick with the original demo we'd made but I wasn't very happy with some of the parts, I knew I could do better. I'd recorded this Minimoog solo because on Kraftwerk's original version of 'Airwaves' there's these intertwining minimoogs at the end of the tune. I went a bit overboard and recorded 3 minimoog solos that sounded a bit Stevie Wonder. I thought as it's us playing it, and these are old synths, we can have to have some fun with it. There has to be one tiny corner of this record where a bit of zaniness comes out. Franck at first was like 'if you listen to the original I think the solos you've done are a bit over the top' but I was like 'oh come on, let's stick it in and listen to it' and he agreed to go with that version. The other one I feel really proud of is the version of 'Transistor'. That was a series of overdubbed Minimoogs put through a tape delay which I had to then replicate live. I thought I could replicate the same Minimoog sound and put that through a delay, but then I needed to generate other rhythmic things so I searched around on the Memorymoog and found a sound that wasn't the same but created the same momentum. That track is a lot darker and bears very little resemblance to Kraftwerk's original. Apart from maybe the Minimoog sound and some little melodic hooks I tried to work into our version from the original, so that it still has that identity. But it became its own thing, and took on a life of its own the more I played it. This is what we wanted to achieve revisiting this album. There are certain tunes on there that we completely inhabit. Therefore we used the original as a springboard for something new. It is testament to the fact that the original music, you could argue, is quite minimal. But actually, there's nothing wasted in the musical material. No wastes gestures or notes.
Does improvising around something minimal give you more leeway, more space to paint?
MB: I think because its minimal it makes it harder. Their statement on that music is kind of quite final, it's total. It's the economy of it, and the equality of the economy means you listen to it now and it only sounds dated because you know when it was recorded. There is a kind of charm to it, but I can't help but think that is constructed because of our sense of history. When you listen to Radio-Activity nothing gives away when it was made. If you'd never heard it before and you had no idea where that music came from you wouldn't know that it was recorded in the 1970s. That in a way makes revisiting this music more difficult. It is really easy take this and fill it with loads of sound or extra parts. With our album we tried to go the other way. We were trying to look for sounds that weren't obvious or that different to the originals that related to our own equipment and way of working. Franck was using a lot of equipment he's been using on other projects and for me I'm using a couple of keyboards that I really love that I've had for ages. We have very different roles and how we use that equipment. I'm actually playing the notes and Franck is using the sequencer and Vocoders and stuff. Everything is played, there's nothing pre-recorded. It's not a case of plug your computer in and press play!
Have there been any hiccups performing the album live?
MB: There was one gig when something went wrong with the sequencer. Franck didn't come in when he should have and he had to switch everything off and turn it back on again. There was a moment when everything seemed to fail but he managed to get it going and it was fine. Reworking something that is already so complete is really hard. I suppose having a jazz or improvising background means there's always things to respond to. You're more able to adapt or switch and go with difference, as and when it occurs.
Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited is out now on Leaf