My retirement from writing about music becomes increasingly inaccurate: for the past couple of months I’ve been working towards a new book. It will be the story of the second Mahavishnu Orchestra (1974-75). Band leader/visionary John McLaughlin has very generously given me his blessing on the project. John’s history has been explored to date in a number of books and in regular magazine, radio and TV interviews, but the group was a major episode in the lives of all its other musicians and associated individuals. The book will be as much about them as their leader.
While the subject may seem like a niche one, my aim is to create a narrative appealing to anyone who has a fondness and fascination for the ‘classic rock’ era, the ‘70s, ‘60s idealism and so forth. It’s very much a human story set at a time when ‘giants walked the earth’ – a time when it was possible for an 11 piece band to tour the world playing largely instrumental music at high volume in multi-thousand-seater auditoriums, inspiring audiences and intriguing the media with an esoteric message and setting a standard of musicianship for peers to aspire to. It will not be a ‘jazz-rock’ book or a ‘fusion’ book (the F word, not even in general use at the time the story takes place, won’t even appear); it will be a book about music and musicians operating within the music world of the time, which was a world much less constrained by or concerned with categorisation than it later became.
I’ve already accumulated a great deal of primary source material from Britain, America and beyond and spoken at length with several of the musicians, collaborators, producers and promoters involved at the time. I hope to speak to many more in due course. The spirit I’ve encountered from those I’ve spoken with thus far has been overwhelmingly positive – in many ways it’s a labour of love project, but it’s nevertheless so much easier to do in both practical terms and in terms of one’s own morale given the warmth and generosity of the dramatis personae!
I can whole-heartedly recommend Walter Kolosky’s existing Mahavishnu Orchestra book Power, Passion & Beauty (Abstract Logic, 2005). While Walter’s book does cover the second MO, it is principally concerned with the first band (1971-73), covering that period and the previous background of the five members – John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird – brilliantly, with extensive retrospective interview material from all five and their fellow travellers, along with commentary from other fusion musicians.
It’s my sincere hope that my book will complement Walter’s, not compete with it. While there will inevitably, unavoidably, be a certain amount of overlap (the first chapter of my book will deal necessarily with the rise and fall of the first band), the style, approach and resources used will be very different. Likewise, the style, approach and resources used in the main narrative on the adventure of the second band and its members. Hell, if the world can accommodate 1001 books on the Beatles it can deal with two on the Mahavishnu Orchestra(s)!
I envisage work on the book will be completed within this calendar year, circumstances permitting. In a couple of months I’ll pitch the project to a few publishers, though I’m already pondering the advantages of self-publishing a limited edition physical copy and e-book version. We shall see.
Meantime, if anyone knows the whereabouts of/ways to contact former members Steve Francewicz and Marsha Westbrook, please get in touch…
In other news…
I’ve been enjoying working with my regular, long-suffering ‘studio guy’ Cormac O’Kane – truly, a Wizard Of Sound – at odd moments over the past couple of months. At some point this year there’ll be an EP of instrumental music with a mostly mellow, late-night feel. I have in mind three substantial reworkings of existing pieces, one entirely new piece and possibly two original recordings of older pieces in similar vein added as bonus tracks. Australian blues guitar maestro Shane Pacey (of the Bondi Cigars / Shane Pacey Trio) has already recorded parts for two tracks and I’m very much looking forward to former Mahavishnu Orchestra soprano sax wizard Premik Russell Tubbs adding a part to one piece. As ever, Cormac’s schedule means things progress less speedily than one might wish – but I’m always grateful for whatever time he can manage!
Additionally, the long-awaited Duffy Power album True will finally appear at some point this year on the Market Square label, with a sleevenote from myself along with my instrumental involvement on a couple of tracks. I’ve said for years that Duffy remains an underappreciated talent and the quality of the songs and performances on True only underline that view.
Finally, I see that the Kindle edition of my Bert Jansch biography Dazzling Stranger (Bloomsbury) is now available over at Amazon. I understand that the new paperback version also appears this month. Both versions should contain the updated discography plus Pete Paphides’ new Afterword, covering 2006-2011.
Apologies for a lack of new pieces uploaded to the Journalism Archive in the past three or four weeks: webmeister Uncle Spike has been, like Jeffrey Barnard, ‘unwell’ – though, unlike Jeffrey, he actually has been unwell! Five new pieces are added this weekend: 1990s reviews of product/performances from Link Wray, Richard Thompson, Altan and Chris Smither; and an interview with Steve Tilston.
The Word Magazine blog thread on The Mahavishnu Orchestra, mentioned in the October update, rumbles on and now features a very substantial CH review of the newly released ‘Complete Columbia Albums’ box set, including information on the recording dates for the set’s unreleased live tracks (in short: Sony got it wrong… but the tracks sound great!). The thread also contains a very detailed listing of all the known MO live recordings from non-official sources which are available via the web for download or streaming, in many cases for free. It was good fun pulling all the info together – I’m sure it’s not totally complete, but as it stands it would appear that nearly 20% of the Mk 1 Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 535 concerts (1971-73) survive in some form. Amazing…
Finally, I’ve been persuaded to reconsider Bloomsbury’s e-book suggestion for Dazzling Stranger. It will appear in that form in due course, including a discographical update and the new afterword from Pete Paphides.
Just a brief one this time: There’s now around 48,000 words worth of vintage journalism in the Journalism Archive section, with more stuff being added most weekends – this weekend, for instance, pieces on David Gates and Sweeney’s Men. Nothing if not eclectic.
Nothing was added last weekend as I was blissfully distracted by creating a vast discussion/lecture (!) thread on the Mahavishnu Orchestra on Word Magazine’s splendid forum. There’s a fair amount of CH text there, some from previous interview pieces with Duffy Power and John McLaughlin but much of it new. I don’t write much these days, so it’s been a lot of fun and also surprising how much interest there seems to be. Search for it here if you wish: http://www.wordmagazine.co.uk/
Restored graphics, an embedded video clip and several relevant newspaper pieces have been added recently to the Dazzling Stranger page in the Books section. Bloomsbury will be publishing a new imprint of the book soon with a new afterword by Peter Paphides. I turned down an offer for an e-book edition.
Yes, the unprecedented pace of recent updates continues! This one concerns further additions to the Journalism Archive and some new video representations of instrumental recordings.
First the Journalism Archive. As of today, or shortly after, there should be 17 tranches of stuff uploaded there from the late ‘90s/early ‘00s: some, single features; others, themed collections of pieces. Among the mostly previously published pieces are a handful of commissioned but unpublished items. Here’s the list:
- Leafhound – Mojo ‘Buried Treasure’ feature
- Mellow Candle – Mojo ‘Buried Treasure’ feature
- Steve Ashley – Mojo ‘Buried Treasure’ feature
- Henry McCullough (Wings) – Mojo ‘Hello/Goodbye’ feature
- Cropredy Festival 2001 – Mojo review
- Vincent Crane – Mojo feature (unpublished)
- Ashley Hutchings – Record Collector feature
- Martyn Joseph – Record Collector feature (unpublished)
- Duffy Power – Record Collector feature
- Wizz Jones – Record Collector feature
- Roy Harper – various pieces from The Independent and Mojo
- Ralph McTell – various pieces from The Independent and Mojo
- David Gray – various pieces from Folk Roots and elsewhere
- John McLaughlin – Hot Press feature (unpublished)
- Kulashaker – Irish News Feature
- Leo Kottke – Irish News feature
- 14 Irish Times concert reviews (including two unpublished)
That’s roughly 45,000 words of material so far! The process is ongoing, so more will be added as the archaeology progresses. Webmeister Uncle Spike has had his best man working solidly on the formatting/uploading job in recent weeks and while there have been constant delays due to ‘the wrong kind of snow’ on the tracks, half-day closing, implausible gardening incidents and unexpected meteorite events in the Bangor area, we remain confident that progress will not be thwarted indefinitely…
On the music front, Ryan Kane of Whitenoise Studios has edited together visual accompaniments – using fabulous wildlife/nature film and CGI film of Great Auks – for six of my instrumental recordings, as follows:
- The Last Place On Earth
- Titanium Flag (6 minute edit)
- Passing Away
- Six Days North / Years Of Regret
- Blues For A Green Earth
Here’s a direct link to Six Days North/Years Of Regret: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-I4dNIcK8U
And here’s a direct link to Titanium Flag: http://www.vimeo.com/29170261
I’m hopeful that Ryan and myself will be able to create further videos for some of my music, using an ‘animated slide show’ format. Certainly. we plan on creating one soon for the 2009 Field Mouse Conspiracy track ‘Three Syllable Time’, featuring vocalist Sarah McQuaid, using a dozen or so images of Sarah in concert (supplied by Sarah), and I’m hopeful that the FMC track ‘Aztec Energy’, sung by Alison O’Donnell, might lend itself to a similar treatment, using stills of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, subject of the song.
This has to be a record – two updates in one month! Some time ago Judy Dyble told me I should put a load of possibly interesting old journalistic endeavors on the site. I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to this sooner. Anyway, I don’t have too many distractions at the moment so it’s been fun to have just spent a few hours starting the process – first of all locating the stuff, secondly reformatting it from defunct word-processing software and thirdly finding out when and where a given piece was published.
I wrote professionally for various UK and Irish newspapers and magazines from 1994-2001 and then lingered on with a bit of spare-time writing for a couple of magazines up to around 2006. (I still, as anyone reading the infrequent news updates will be aware, enjoy a bit of spare-time CD sleevenote writing if the project interests me.)
I’m hoping to upload pieces pretty regularly over the next few weeks, so keep checking back if it’s in any way interesting. I’ve been lucky enough to have reviewed and/or interviewed some fascinating artists – folk, blues, jazz, rock and beyond – so there’ll be a fair amount of variety. Anything I upload to the site – which we’ll put under a new ‘Journalism Archive’ button on the home page – will be pretty much as-it-was-published, with just a brief introductory note of context if necessary.
It’s proved relatively easy to locate what appears to be the bulk of my writing from 1997 onwards. The 1994-96 stuff might take a bit more archaeology, but I think a fair amount of it should exist in some electronic form. I have physical copies of, I think, all the newspaper stuff – so if there’s anything really interesting that I can’t locate in electronic form, I’ll maybe type it up again from the hard copy. I’ve long since got rid of any magazines I contributed to. Space: it’s not the final frontier, it’s what you need in your living environment!
The first tranche of pieces (available now in the new ‘Journalism Archive’ section) are indicative of the variety:
- A previously unpublished 5,500 word John McLaughlin feature from 1996
- A breezy 800 word review of Fairport Convention’s 2001 Cropredy Festival from Mojo
- A 1300 word Mojo ‘Buried Treasure’ feature on Leafhound
- A selection of 14 concert reviews from the Irish Times 1998-2001 – circa 300 words apiece on Cliff Richard, BB King, Martin Hayes, Divine Comedy, Don McLean, Andy Irvine, Capercaillie, Stereophonics, Hubert Sumlin, Andy Williams, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, the Esbjorn Svenson Trio and a godawful Riverdance cash-in
I’ve enjoyed re-reading this stuff and, with the concert reviews especially, I’ve used Clive James’ maxim (when he was selecting his TV criticism for anthologising in a series of books) and selected stuff that still seems readable to me – maybe it just has a few nice turns of phrase or maybe it says something still valid about the artist in question, some of whom are no longer with us, or maybe it just captures a moment now passed. Thankfully so, if one is talking about Riverdance cash-ins.
A couple of items of interest, perhaps: firstly, I’ve added a brand new Quintessence page (click the ‘CD Reissue Projects’ button on the home page to get to it); secondly, an update on the CH vocal CD Rust as promised.
The Quintessence page is 5000+ words of info on the five Quintessence related CDs, thus far, which I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in with Hux Records over the past couple of years. A couple of these have not had much traditional media coverage, so partly this is a response tyo that information vacuum: I can hardly be an unbiased reviewer of any of the CDs but I can at least provide a load of objective information on the contents, including extracts from the often substantial booklet notes and links to relevant video or audio on youtube. In fact, with the inestimable (he doesn’t provide estimates) help of Uncle Spike’s best man I’ve recently had one or two audio tracks from each of the Shiva’s Quintessence, Kala and Quintessence Rebirth: Live At Glastonbury releases uploaded to youtube with album cover graphics. If anyone out there feels halfway inclined to buy these albums, there’ll at least now be enough info out there to seal the deal one way or the other! Links are on the new Quintessence page.
My 2010 instrumental album Titanium Flag continues to generate quietly remarkable (to me) airplay figures. It’s given me the confidence to think I ought to do more in that vein. Hopefully so. In the meantime, some of the vocal pieces I recorded around the same time as the instrumental works have been collected on a CD entitled Rust. In the year that passed between the first sessions and the last, enough perspective had flowed under the bridge to reshape what might have been a set of songs defined by negativity into a shorter set with a bit more of a glass-half-full vibe about it. My friend Cormac O’Kane, wizard of sound, multi-instrumentalist and producer to the stars (and me) had insisted I cover the vocals myself this time – although the fabulous Carol-Anne Lennie sings lead on opening track ‘Squirrel’ – so I gave it a go. It’s still an album that reflects a lot of troubles I was dealing with at the time, albeit more obliquely than if I’d included three or four other tracks recorded at the same time. Still, it’s an album that contains a couple of the best songs I think I’ve written and hopefully a staging post towards making some more recordings with Carol-Anne in the fullness of time.
Rust is credited to Colin Harper & The Peaceful Minds. The rest of the band are: Karen Smyth (backing vocals); Cormac O’Kane (keyboards, bass, electric guitar); Ali MacKenzie: (bass); ‘Late-Night’ Tony Furnell (drums/percussion).
Plus special guests: Carol-Anne Lennie (vocals); ‘The Legendary’ Andy Roberts (electric guitars); Linley Hamilton (trumpets, flugelhorn )
Two instrumental interludes, ‘A Part Of Eternity’ and ‘The Last Place On Earth’, are new edits/mixes of tracks previously released on Titanium Flag.
Samples of all the tracks are available here:
Forthcoming site improvements!
Without wanting to tempt fate, I think I can say that there’ll be a few enhancements to this website over the next few weeks. Webmaster Uncle Spike has made the cardinal error of casually offering, with witnesses present, to refresh the look of the site, while I’ve also been thinking it’s about time I added a few pages of journalistic blasts from the past – reproductions of CH newspaper/magazine features on various people first published in the 1990s and early 2000s. I’ll see if I can dig up some goodies!
Also, if Uncle Spike continues to be in such a benevolent mood I’ll see if some more relevant CH-related audio and video can be uploaded to youtube with links posted here. We’ve recently uploaded audio of a couple of tracks from Janet Holmes Road To The West sessions (2004) – co-produced by myself – and there’s certainly some BBC NI TV material of both Janet and Tina McSherry which could be uploaded, the latter with myself on guitar.
As promised in the last update, I hope very soon to be creating some video interpretations of instrumental pieces from Titanium Flag and earlier. Links to these as and when. Meanwhile, here’s Janet Holmes’ fabulous interpretation of the Beatles’ ‘Long, Long, Long’:
Nine months since the last update – must do better! A fair amount has happened since then. The vintage Martin Carthy CD The January Man: Live In Belfast 1978’ was released in January on Hux Records, followed a couple of months later by two Quintessence-related CDs – all of which I was proud to have had various levels of involvement with. The Quintessence releases are Rebirth: Live At Glastonbury 2010 (a lavishly produced and packaged record of the one-off reunion of Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones and Dave ‘Maha Dev’ Codling along with original Island Records-era producer John Barham) and Only Love Can Save Us: The Anthology by ‘Shiva’s Quintessence, being a set of recent recordings by Phil ‘Shiva’ Jones and Swiss keyboard/production wizard Ralph ‘Rudra’ Beauvert, including fabulous reinterpretations of vintage Quintessence material. All three are highly recommended, as will be a forthcoming CD of 1970s recordings by the late James Griffin, which I’m also loosely involved with for the same label. Hux can be found here: www.huxrecords.com while a splendid 10 minute feature from BBC Yorkshire on Quintessence at the Glastonbury Festival can be viewed here:
Titanium Flag, my instrumental album released last summer, has enjoyed a quietly remarkable amount of European airplay. It’s really very gratifying indeed, and a very pleasant surprise, to find that people seem to like it. Within the next couple of months I hope to be completing – with the aid of one of ace design maestro Mark Case’s associates at White Noise Communications – video representations of several of my instrumental pieces for uploading to youtube and vimeo. I’ll post links as and when…
In the meantime, an album of vocal pieces which were recorded during the same period as the Titanium Flag material is on the cusp of release (also via CD Baby – link to be posted when ready). My good friend, producer, multi-instrumentalist and all-round wizard of sound Cormac O’Kane (the secret of whose success is baffling*) was adamant that the vocal and instrumental pieces were two separate projects, best heard on two separate pieces of plastic. And he was absolutely right. Having said that, the content and feel of the vocal album, which is entitled Rust, developed significantly over the past few months. Several tracks were ultimately dropped and edits of two of the more winsome pieces from TF were added – the effect being to lighten the overall mood of the record. A small group of musicians were involved – Cormac O’Kane, Ali MacKenzie, Late-Night Tony Furnell, Karen Smyth and myself – with a trio of guests: Carol-Anne Lennie aka ‘Carol From Luton’ on vocals on the lead track, ‘Squirrel’; jazz maestro the one and only Linley Hamilton on trumpets and flugelhorn; and the legendary Andy Roberts on Beatle-esque electric guitar, also on ‘Squirrel’. In fact, a delightful home-made video for ‘Squirrel’ – featuring a bunch of squirrels – can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVsDrfmenus
More news on the Titanium Flag videos and the Rust CD Baby link in due course. Finally, some recordings I was involved in back in 2001 with the fabulous and under-appreciated British jazz/blues vocalist and songwriter Duffy Power are due to appear on Market Square Records fairly soon entitled Tigers. Myself, Janet Holmes, Ali MacKenzie and a few other friends were involved in three or four tracks on the album – which will be the first album of new material Duffy has released since the ‘70s – and here’s hoping it gets the airplay and attention it deserves.
(* he swears it’s all down to the quality of one’s moveable sound-proofing equipment)
Well, it looks like I’ve just released an album.
Titanium Flag is its name and its an all-instrumental album, including the seven-part Ice Museum Suite inspired by two books on Arctic travel and history: Joanna Kavennas The Ice Museum: In Search Of The Lost Land Of Thule (Viking, 2005) and True North: Travels In Arctic Europe (Polygon, 2008) by Gavin Francis. Joanna was kind enough to allow the use of her title, and kind enough to say she liked the music too!
You could describe the album as Mike Oldfield-esque. Mike, though, wasnt an influence on the music. The direct inspirations were Dutch guitarist Jan Akkerman, the Mark 1 Mahavishnu Orchestra, the ambient music of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, British folk icon Martin Carthy and Estonian faith minimalist composer Arvo Part. The American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron was also important in a more general sense during the creative period.
If theres a journey associated with the making of this music, its only a very small one. I was unwell for a long period – not in a life-threatening way, but in a way that put life on hold for a couple of years. At Christmas 2009 I took a friends advice, borrowed some money and bought, for the first time in my life, a really fine instrument: a handmade Avalon acoustic guitar. Its been a revelation and a catalyst. Having created no music – barely picked up an instrument – for two years, the instrumental pieces for Titanium Flag and also a host of vocal pieces (which will appear on CD soon) came really quickly. It was quite a cathartic experience, but thats only on a personal level – the music stands alone, failing or succeeding on its own merits.
In terms of previous instrumental work, Ive recorded duets with Duke Special, Martin Hayes, Brooks Williams, Jan Akkerman and Bert Jansch – although Ive kept my name very low in the credits, and off the sleeves, of the bits of plastic those pieces appeared on. Having been involved in writing about and reviewing music for much of the past 20 years the poacher/gamekeeper paradox held me back in terms of pursuing music-making more fully, and from using my own name when doing so. But, as Im now more or less retired from writing about music – certainly, from reviewing music in any way – and as the landscape and values of the music business have changed so radically in recent years, it really doesnt matter any more! Titanium Flag is consequently the first CD release under my own name.
Titanium Flag will be available physically from mid August 2010 via http://cdbaby.com/cd/ColinHarper where there are audio samples of each of the nine tracks.
Digital downloads are also available from CDBaby – and, I believe, from iTunes, Amazon and other people.
Three tracks can be heard in full at: www.MySpace.com/titaniumflag
Spread the word!
Most of the text for the site has been transferred the new platform and you can read it all here.
However, only a very few of the links work and there are only a smattering of photos and graphics, but we are getting there.