The MFTBC Interview with Ivan Rosenberg
Conducted by Matt Allair via E-mail between 5/23/2013 / 6/27/2013
Page Editor: XScribe
The following is indeed a digression from the usual format of this blog thus far, but when the opportunity presented itself to interview my very old friend, Ivan Rosenberg, currently a highly esteemed Dobro and Clawhammer Banjo player within the field of bluegrass, it seemed apt, as the intent within this blog deals with personal connections in relation to music. For myself, the arc of Ivan’s musical career has been pleasantly surprising on one level, and on another level it shouldn’t have been. I’ve known Ivan since I was a sophomore in high school, Marin County, CA from the mid and late 80s. I was already playing guitar back then, and like many other peers at the time, acoustic jams became of rite of passage, a place to trade ideas, and socially interact, and a way to develop a silent vocabulary if your social skills weren’t fully refined.
Photo by Patrick Shatterfield
Once high school finished and most friends went off to college, a fairly sizable percentage of these friends stayed connected during the summer seasons or holidays. I remember having a jam with Ivan at his parent’s home, and this was the time I had learned how to play The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and showed him the riff. I also remember that the first time I was exposed to Ziggy Marley it was through a cassette Ivan had lent me. I remember a massive guitar jam at a friend’s place where Ivan participated, a combination of acoustic and electric players that dueled over a vamp based on the chords to “Hotel California”--not really a straight read, more of a rambling, loose jam. What also comes to mind was visiting Ivan in Arcata, CA at the start of the 90s, at an “A” frame apartment where Ivan lived with a friend while attending Humboldt University, and watching him learn the rudiments of the banjo, and demonstrating his more adept skills with an acoustic; juxtaposed by watching his athletic skills at Ultimate Frisbee on the Humboldt campus field.
One of my underlying impressions of Ivan from back in the day was that he was restless: that creatively he was on a righteous path for something authentic in a superficial and plastic world, yet that path wasn’t easily seen or defined.
As the 90s began to progress, Ivan drifted off to a graduate program at Sonoma State University, and we wandered onto separate paths, so it was interesting to hear back from friends in the late 90s that Ivan had gone professional as a Bluegrass player, and had begun to carve a niche for himself. That included the release of his first solo CD in 2001, his music being used in the background of television programs such as The Daily Show and Oprah, an IBMA award for co-writing the 2009 Song of the Year, and playing on the Jerry Douglas-produced CD Southern Filibuster. So, it is interesting to be in a position to see these accomplishments from a distance. It also makes this interview unusual for me, after the roster of talent I have interviewed for The X-Files Lexicon, to interview someone with such a direct connection and without the usual detachment that one falls back on.
Ivan is the person I remember -- gracious, candid, authentic, with a healthy humility, and an ability to relate that I hope others will see. The interview proceeded as follows...
Matt Allair: How far back does your interest in acoustic music extend? You were first exposed to it as a child?
Ivan Rosenberg: My parents are both musicians. They had some records of the late Doc Watson, whose guitar style is the origin of bluegrass lead guitar. Doc's version of "Muskrat" was the first song I tried to flatpick when I started playing guitar towards the end of high school.
Matt: I understand that the era of Bluegrass you’re a real advocate for is the 60s and 70s, and that you’re also an advocate for vintage vinyl. Was working with the Foggy Hogtown Boys been an attempt to re-connect contemporary audiences with the past?
Ivan: Yes, it was. I like the original first-generation bluegrass—and some more recent bluegrass—just as much, but there's a huge repertoire of great bluegrass from the late-60s through the late-70s that's mostly lost on today's up-and-coming bluegrass pickers because most of it isn't available digitally. You need records and a record player if you really want to understand how bluegrass has transformed over the years. This was a great era for bluegrass; first and second generation players were just pushing the boundaries of bluegrass by adding more varied chord progressions and melodies while incorporating songs from pop, rock, and "protest folk" genres. But it still sounded like real bluegrass. I think bluegrass as a whole may have taken a turn for the worse over the past several years, so I wanted to go back in time and imagine what might have been if bluegrass had never been influenced by the worst of modern popular country music.
Hogtown Sessions Cover, photo by Andrew Johnson, graphic design by Chris Coole 2011
Old time (an older, more "ensemble-style" of fiddle-centric string band music) has had a recent surge in popularity, and I think part of the reason is that old time musicians are comparatively more interested in unearthing great old songs and giving them a new life for a new generation of players/listeners. That's what I wanted to do for bluegrass with The Hogtown Sessions, albeit with songs from the more-recent past than old time musicians are dealing with. Anyway, I wish more bluegrass musicians treated the genre like traditional folk music that should be preserved and studied.
Matt: I want to ask about following your muse. You’ve traveled and lived in several states as a musician; was it about going to where the Bluegrass scene was most vibrant? How would you describe some of your favorite bluegrass communities?
Ivan: I was definitely following the bluegrass for a few of those moves. My first exposure to live bluegrass was in Arcata, CA in 1990. The band to see there was the Compost Mountain Boys (who are still going today), and a couple of them, Tim Wilson and Sean Bohannon, were especially encouraging to me when I started out playing bluegrass guitar. By the way, Arcata is also where I first saw a Dobro being played at the Masters of the Steel String Guitar show. Jerry Douglas—who I tend to think is best Dobro player who ever was or will be—was there, and after seeing him play, I bought a Dobro at Wildwood Music the next morning when they opened the doors. But I really learned how to play bluegrass in Missoula, Montana, which has always had an extraordinary and talented bluegrass community: pickers all over the place, lots of bluegrass jams, great festivals, friendly people. I lived there three different times, mostly for the bluegrass, but also for the ultimate Frisbee scene (which occupied my weekends before I discovered bluegrass festivals).
I also spent a year (plus several visits before and after) near Asheville, NC, and that area has an abundance of world-class acoustic musicians, many of whom just play for fun but play circles around most pros. I went to Asheville purely for the music. I'd previously met the hotshot Dobro player in the area (Billy Cardine) at a bluegrass conference, and I emailed him to see if he knew anyone with a room for rent. His answer was that it'd be great to have a Dobro buddy in town, and that I should just move into his new house with him and his fiancée and their two dogs. I wound up doing just that and had an unforgettable year of Dobro-geeking in the mountains, and making great music friends in western North Carolina.
I know the music scene in Toronto, Ontario very well, too—it's outstanding. Great bluegrass and old time, and really every other genre, too. It's a very healthy, friendly, and noncompetitive acoustic music community—when you go to a show, half the crowd is comprised of the performer's musical peers, most of whom bought tickets even though they could have gotten on the guest list.
Matt: In terms of instruments, a lot of people hear the phrase ‘resonator guitar’, and probably don’t know how a Dobro works. How would you describe it compared to a conventional acoustic?
Ivan: The Dobro® was invented by the Dopera brothers (Do + bro), immigrants to the U.S. from Slovakia. The Dobro has a resonator system that was originally intended to make for a louder guitar, but the resonator also creates the Dobro's distinct tone. Later, the instrument was adapted by Hawaiian-style slide players. They raised the action off the fingerboard and played notes with a metal tone bar instead of fretting notes with their fingers as you would with a regular guitar. So, in a nutshell, the Dobro as it's used in bluegrass is a guitar that 1) has a metal resonator system, 2) has a high nut so the strings are maybe 3/8 of an inch off the fingerboard, 3) is fretted with a metal bar instead of fingers, and 4) is played facing upwards ("lap style"). In bluegrass it's usually tuned, low to high, GBDGBD, though of course you can tune it however you want.
Matt: Was there a certain point when you felt you had arrived in terms of acceptance and respect in the bluegrass field? Was that point something you only realized after the fact in hindsight?
Ivan: That's an interesting question. Since I'm mostly self-taught and have pursued a lot of other interests along the way, I never expected or sought out respect in the music field. Frankly, I've never cared much if anyone likes my music, which is why I make music that's so commercially unappealing. But to pick one occasion, it was a real honor when Jerry Douglas invited me to be a part of a CD he produced called Southern Filibuster: a Tribute to Tut Taylor. The project was something of a follow-up to The Great Dobro Sessions, a Grammy-winning Dobro album from 1994 that featured the best Dobro players in the business. For Southern Filibuster, Jerry wanted to get some new players involved, and I was fortunate to be one of them. Each Dobro picker selected a Tut Taylor tune to play with one of a few all-star studio bands Jerry had lined up, and we convened in Nashville for a few days to record. Parenthetically, I opted to play my Tut tune, "Stevens Steel," as a duet with Chris Jones on guitar instead of with the studio band, since Tut recorded so many of his tunes with just guitar accompaniment. Anyway, it was an incredible event that I'll never forget, and it meant the world to me that Jerry included me. This was also a surprise project for Tut Taylor, one of the original masters of the Dobro, and he couldn't have been happier when he found out that we'd done this tribute for him. So, long story short, when my favorite musician/Dobro player—whose music I've spent thousands of hours listening to—invited me to play on an album he was producing as a tribute to one of the original Dobro greats, that was all the acceptance I'll ever need.
Matt: Are there certain keys or tunings that you prefer to use when composing?
Ivan: When I write on Dobro, it's generally in standard G tuning. Clawhammer banjo players, however, change tunings all the time. Certain tunings suggest certain kinds of melodies, so the tuning does wind up being an important precursor to the composition. For what it's worth, I really like F tuning on banjo, and I like to use lower-than-standard varieties of that and other common banjo tunings; I find the banjo to be more serene when it's tuned lower, and it also matches my vocal range in lower tunings.
Matt: When you’re composing music, will you visualize an arrangement in your mind? Or leave things more open-ended for other players?
Ivan: If the song is intended to be played with a band, I do some loose arranging, but mostly I try to round up musicians whom I know will come up with something better than I would on my own. Pick the right musicians, and the arrangements largely take care of themselves -- at least with the kind of music I write. I've come to believe that bluegrass is best when it's at least somewhat spontaneous, when people are playing in the moment instead of solely performing notes they've rehearsed. So I like to leave room for improvisation and interaction among musicians.
Matt: Do personal experiences influence your original writing?
Ivan: Indirectly, yes, but since I mostly write instrumental music, the influence has more to do with mood.
Matt: I understand that most of your tunes on Back To The Pasture were written on the mandolin, and not the banjo or dobro. Have you written anything on the piano to further stretch out your playing?
Ivan: Nope; I don’t know how to read music and can barely find a C note on piano with both hands.
Pasture cover by Patrick Shatterfield 2002
Matt: Prior to working on tunes, do you listen to genres outside of your comfort zone, for example jazz or world music, to inspire riffs that aren’t typical to the Dobro or banjo?
Ivan: Yes, especially with my new album, Oldies and Old Time. I put a lot of effort into finding ways to adapt the clawhammer banjo style to blues, R&B, doo-wop, and classic country music.
Matt: The new album, Oldies and Old Time, has an interesting selection of songs from Walter McGhee, Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Rose, Cindy Walker / Eddie Arnold, Mel Torme / Robert Wells, and Frederic Weatherly; were these songs selected for melodic reasons or because they connected to your past?
Ivan: Part of the attraction of the classic pop hits--the ones that have endured--is that they tend to speak to the general human condition. So, in that sense, I think most of us could find an emotional connection to a song like "You Don't Know Me" or "Don't Pity Me." But they were primarily chosen for the "golden" melodies and chord progressions you're not likely to hear in solo clawhammer banjo or Dobro arrangements. They were also used as a means of stretching out on banjo and Dobro, while still keeping an overall folky mood. I wanted the solo acoustic instrumentation to be the "glue" that made these songs work alongside new and traditional old time or folk songs.
Old Times cover sleeve by Pharis Romero 2013
Of the ones you mentioned, "Don't Pity Me" by Walter Brownie McGhee was the trickiest to pull off on the banjo. I came up with a tuning that, on the fretted banjo strings, is equivalent to the inside 4 strings on guitar, which allows for guitar-style chord shapes. The next challenge was to adapt the clawhammer style to convey the mood of blues guitar. In clawhammer playing, you're limited to downstrokes with your fingernail as well as notes played with the thumb, and after some experimentation, I found ways to play some classic blues licks using "drop thumb" clawhammer technique.
For an effective solo Dobro arrangement, you need to convey the chord changes and the melody, but you're limited to what you can play with the bar (which I like to call my "one stupid metal finger") in conjunction with open strings. "Georgia on My Mind" and "The Christmas Song" were good exercises in finding non-standard ways of playing full or partial chords while never losing track of the melody.
Matt: How long did the new record take to complete?
Ivan: I recorded most of these songs in the fall of 2011 during a rare couple of weeks when I had nothing do to but work up banjo tunes and record them. I didn't touch it again until winter 2013. I finally finished recording the album an hour or two at a time during month 9 of my wife's pregnancy, and then I mixed and mastered it on headphones in the wee hours while looking after our new baby this April. So it did take a while to complete.
Matt: Some of the cuts from Clawhammer and Dobro reminded me of the feel of David Grisman. Which musicians influenced you during that period?
Ivan: The music I've listened to the most over the years is the bluegrass-influenced new-acoustic stuff from the 70s through the 90s by greats such as Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, Todd Phillips, John Resichman, Scott Nygaard, David Grisman, and so on. The tunes on Clawhammer and Dobro, listening back, probably show the influence of John Reischman the most, while some of the Dobro lines are influenced by the riffs I heard Billy Cardine playing upstairs in my North Carolina days. I've never listened to much clawhammer banjo music, and my banjo style is mostly adapted from my approach to the Dobro.
Matt: A lot of your work with Aaron Parrett was a real surprise as far as the introspective feeling, and the Bee Gee’s cover on Back to the Pasture was another surprise. “Chatuvondoo” from The Donkeys seemed like another departure. Have there been cuts you’ve worked on where you’ve surprised yourself?
Ivan: Aaron and I used to play pretty regularly when I lived in Missoula and he lived in Great Falls, and then we met up years later to record that album when he was in Portland for a short time. Aaron is one of the best Americana songwriters anywhere, though unfortunately not enough people outside of Western Montana or Georgia know that to be the case. I knew most of his songs inside and out when we recorded that CD. The surprising part of that project for me was that I worked up all the harmony vocal parts, which was new to me at the time. Billy Cardine wrote “Chatuvondoo” and some other complicated tunes on The Donkeys, and it took me days to devise means of playing those “Chatuvondoo” lines on the clawhammer banjo. Figuring out how to play Billy's songs in general was a big stretch, in part because he grew up learning and understanding how music works, while I spent my free childhood time watching crappy TV and eating Doritos.
Matt: Your use of the internet was been very interesting in terms of marketing, and very open; do you think the internet can substitute for grass roots footwork? Do you feel that touring city by city is the best option? How do you balance the on-line world with regular gigging?
Ivan: I actually don't gig that much (just a few tours, some local gigs, and a couple of workshops per year is plenty for me), and I don't really know what to make of internet marketing these days. It seems like Facebook is awash with musicians self-promoting to other musicians, and it's unclear how much good that does for most folks. However, the internet is great for getting the attention of bloggers such as yourself, and it's great for staying in touch with radio DJs. I did more promotion on the internet when I released my first CD. At that time, just 12 years ago, only a handful of Dobro players were making CDs, and there was a dearth of original Dobro tunes. Also, most of the bluegrass world was just starting to figure out the internet. So I got ahead of the internet game with my first album, and that really helped me establish a name among bluegrass Dobro fans. Over the past few years, I've steadily trailed off from using the internet actively.
Matt: You have gone the route of releasing a lot of independent albums without the need of a major distributor. Has it been liberating? What pitfalls have you encountered?
Ivan: There's not much of a market for CDs of mostly instrumental, mostly medium-tempo bluegrass/old time tunes, so there's never been a good reason to seek a distributor. On the other hand, I own 100% of my original music, which has enabled me to get placements in hundreds of TV shows. It turns out that my songs are perfect as background music precisely because they're laid back, melodic, and not flashy—they don't demand your attention, so they can be used effectively to support something that's happening visually.
Matt: The roster of film and TV licensing that has featured your work has been impressive. How did that come about?
Ivan: Having total ownership of my music and total decision-making power has made this possible. I got in early with several companies that do synch licensing, and I was fortunate to become a favorite among many music supervisors from various cable television networks. Also, I had songs from my first CD on many websites, and I was lucky that Luke Eddins from LukeHits.com happened by one of them on Garageband.com. He asked if he could pitch it for a Hollywood movie called Kangaroo Jack, and that was my first film placement. Years later, I started working with my friend Doug Hawes-Davis at High Plains Films in Missoula, Montana. He used a tune of mine for his Emmy-nominated documentary, Libby, Montana, and with subsequent films, I recorded new score music specifically for HPF documentaries such as Facing the Storm: The Story of the American Bison, which recently won a regional Emmy award.
Matt: Chris Coole has been a really important figure in your career; what set him apart from other musicians?
Ivan: Chris is a shockingly good clawhammer banjo player as well as an excellent guitarist and songwriter—and his singing has an authenticity to it that's hard to describe. He and I have very compatible approaches to music: melody-based, lots of space, similar taste in what constitutes a good song and a good arrangement. We play a lot of unison and harmony lines in our duo act, and since I also play clawhammer banjo, I have an easier time than most Dobro players would matching his banjo phrasing. We each have an easy time doing roughly 50% of the work associated with performing music without any badgering required, we both fit in one small car with all of our stuff, and I can't recall us ever having an interpersonal issue of any kind. All of that is worth its weight in gold when it comes to recording, touring, and promoting a musical act.
Matt: Other musicians that you’ve followed and worked with include John Reischman and Chris Jones. What impact have they had on your work?
Ivan: I've been a John Reischman fan for years, and I think my favorite CD ever is The Singing Moon, which he recorded with guitarist John Miller. John is among the very best tune-writers in the business, and his approach to the mandolin is unmatched in terms of being melodic, intricate, emotive, tasteful, and toneful—and he'll knock the ass right off a blazing fast bluegrass song. He played in a band called the Good Ol' Persons with Sally Van Meter, a Dobro legend, and he often had Sally or Dobro maestro Rob Ickes on his instrumental albums. Over the years, John and I started crossing paths more often, and I had the good fortune of filling in with his band, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, on a couple of tours. I was really happy when he asked if I'd do some of the engineering/mixing on his latest solo album, Walk Along John, and as the project developed, I even got to play on one of the tunes. That was a real milestone for me.
I've been listening to Chris Jones ever since I started trying to play the Dobro seriously. Chris has put out several outstanding bluegrass CDs, and he typically had Rob Ickes playing Dobro on them. I spent so much time with those Chris Jones albums, trying my best to pick apart what Rob was doing, that Chris's songs became deeply engrained—I know them inside and out. And bands I've been in over the years have covered his songs. I should mention that Chris was always really nice to me when I was learning to play, and he even had me come up onstage at a couple of festivals in the late 90s/early 2000s, a bit before I was able to play at a stage-worthy level. Years later, Chris and I had the chance to play when we were both teaching at bluegrass music workshops, and at one of them, the idea came up to play a few shows as a duo. We wound up doing a couple of small tours and playing a couple of festivals, and I've also had the opportunity to fill in a couple of time with Chris Jones & The Night Drivers. I'm happy to report that I got to add some Dobro to a couple of songs on the next Night Drivers CD, too.
Matt: Do you view every album as a musical diary? Was the material from Oldies and Old Time a reaction to things you wanted to do differently on previous albums?
Ivan: I've never thought of it quite that way, but a "musical diary" is a nice way to look at it. The albums certainly reflect my musical interests at any given time. I've never recorded much of my own lead singing prior to Oldies and Old Time, and when I have, it's been overdubbed, so I could take as many shots at the vocal as I wanted. Oldies and Old Time was tracked live, instrument and vocal together. Though there are some mistakes here and there that I would have fixed in an overdub situation, overall I like the live feel--you play differently when singing along, and there's just no way to replicate that interaction with overdubs.
Matt: What Bluegrass musicians are you currently listening to? What musicians outside of your field are you listening to?
Ivan: I mostly listen to records still, and Larry Sparks probably gets the most spins. I've also been getting more into the music of Jim and Jesse. One new band I just heard who's playing my kind of bluegrass is Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, based in Lyons, CO, who just released a very cool CD called Western Branches. My favorite recent recording in another genre is Billy Cardine's Django jazz Dobro album, Six String Swing. His new "global Americana" album with The Billy Sea is just as good—that band would be wildly famous and successful if there was any justice in the music world.
Matt: As a musician, where do you see yourself headed in the next five years?
Ivan: Probably doing roughly the same kind of music. I'd love to have more time to practice, and hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities to play with my wife, Kristin Cavoukian—she's a great singer and guitarist. With any luck, I'll still be playing with Chris Coole, too, and still producing music in my recording studio, The Schtood.
Single-mindedness and certainty are difficult traits for musicians to arrive at. There’s a common denominator I have found with musicians that make the most difference–a passion and belief in what they are doing–a focus that tells them others will follow in time. It does no good to waver and second guess as a songwriter, you have to create music you are into. Second guessing the audience is a death knell, and often leads to no good results. Also, allowing your fans define you, and attempting to meet their expectations of what they believe they want to hear leads to nothing positive. Bob Dylan, circa 1966, is a great example of that problem. Once you find your voice, then you have to stick to it and let the marketplace find you.
Ivan has found his voice within the wide pantheon known as Bluegrass, and I wish him the very best with all of his future efforts.
You can check out his work, order on CD or download all of his music on his website: Ivan Rosenberg
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Queen, like Led Zeppelin, is another band that has become synonymous with my past, and the impact of Queen crept up on me after not really knowing what to make of them at first listen. I suspect that’s the case for a lot of rock fans. I remember that my first exposure came out of picking up the Elektra Records American edition of “Greatest Hits (1981)” around early 1983, while still living in Rohnert Park. I had heard “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” which was ubiquitously on the radio at the time. Following “Dust,” I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the first time, sandwiched between “Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and I didn’t really know what to make of this cod-opera, or other tracks like “Somebody To Love,” nor “Fat-Bottomed Girls.” I just found it fascinating that a band could embody all forms of music, and at such extremes. I kept picking up vinyl editions of the mid–period records, and I remember all too well that Queen became extremely unfashionable in the States by the mid-eighties, to such a degree I assumed most of my high school friends weren’t into them.
Of course, with their catalogue out of print in the states, I couldn’t pick up the CDs until I found the UK CD imports around 1989 or 1990. It was at this point I discovered Queen II. Being familiar with their mid-seventies period, the guitars and vocals were familiar territory, but I was astonished by the rich details to be found on Queen II. It is an album that is hard to digest at first listen because there is so much going on. Most hard core Queen fans will cite Sheer Heart Attack as an all time favorite, and rightly so, but I do feel an argument could be made for a tie between these albums. I have read a great number of accounts of musicians from 70s punk bands that closely listened to Queen, and harbored a lot of respect for them. This factor might surprise some, while it could be easier to digest the idea of Metal and Thrash Metal players that cite Brian May as an influence, than to think that Steve Jones could be influenced by Queen. Yet one simple explanation could be a certain DIY – Do It Yourself spirit that embodied the band, as well as the Outré gay connotation.
So, what do I mean by the term DYI in relation to Queen? Simply that Queen II was a revelation through the means of which certain tonal colors were suggested by May’s guitar, or Freddie’s, Brian’s, and Roger’s vocals. The fact that they could mimic the feeling of a horn section, string quartet, or various choirs while remaining self-contained. Notwithstanding their willingness to not depend on managers or promoters, controlling their publishing, owning the rights to their recordings, and skirting around the music press to find their own following.
Historically, in the 50s with Buddy Holly opening up his songwriting palate with using strings, or the bulk of the bands by the mid 60s using outside musicians and orchestras to texture their recordings, the medium of guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards didn’t suffice for the songwriter and listener. The Beatles and the Stones had taken the use of outside orchestral musicians to the next level, while retaining the musical edge, so much so that the vast majority of bands would imitate them through the late 60s and the start of the 70s. While the use of a Synthesizer, upon its advent, was one alternative, such technology was crude and limited in emotion. Queen found ways to create new tonal colors that still felt fairly organic. They proved an idea that a self-contained unit could be all that was needed. The critics, when they complained about the band being self-indulgent, completely missed the point; there was a means to an end.
Queen’s origin could be traced to the late 60s, when Brian May and drummer Roger Meadows Taylor fronted a power trio with bassist and vocalist Tim Staffell called Smile. Staffell introduced May to his college flatmate Fred Bulsara in 1969. Staffell has commented: “Freddie was the most reasonable, decent, accepting guy, but when he saw Smile in action, it turned out that he had many flamboyant ideas on how we should look, act, and play – and no qualms about telling us in detail.” Freddie was already in the midst of playing or having played in several bands at this early stage, Wreckage, Ibex, and Sour Milk Sea. Tim Staffell would throw in the towel by 1970 and disband Smile, commenting in 2005, “I was not happy with our more contrived rhythms. We did a version of ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ [in a fractured rhythm] a bit like Vanilla Fudge. It didn’t swing.” In spite of the fact that Smile had managed to record a single for Mercury records, “Earth,” as well an early version of “Doin’ All Right” that would appear on the Queen album. May and Bulsara bonded on their mutual love for Jimi Hendrix, and Freddie and Roger discovering they shared a entrepreneurial streak, rented a Kensington Market stall, which they would continue until the band began to break. When Smile disbanded, as Brian had observed, “Roger and I gave up completely, and that was when Freddie became the driving force. He told us we could do it.”
Freddie suggested the name Queen, changed his name from Bulsara to Mercury, and they began getting gigs, going through three bass players before finding John Deacon in 1971. The band managed in autumn of 1971 an arrangement for free studio time at De Lane Studios. Outside Producer John Anthony and Trident Productions staffer Roy Thomas Baker dropped by the studio, heard some tracks, and set the band up with their bosses Norman and Barry Sheffield, who signed exclusive contracts with Queen in November of 1972 with Trident. But getting the band a major label deal wasn’t as easy as the music press would have you believe. Brian May saw David Bowie at the Rainbow during this period, and he felt his band had missed their moment: “I thought he’s done it. He’s made his mark, and we’re still struggling. It was incredibly frustrating.”
To digress, something should be said about the comparisons between Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and May. While the use of guitar harmonies was nothing new, and while Ronson had a similar warm tone, and employed the use of guitar harmonies, especially on Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970), May took the use of multi-tracked guitar harmonization to a sophisticated level with three and four part harmonies, counterpoint, call and response, and stacked harmony techniques, at best described as falling dominoes--notes that overlap. Of course, we should also note the fact that May custom built his Red Special guitar as a teen. While commonplace today for guitarists, it was unheard of at the time. His choice of amps added to the distinct sound, his use of the Vox AC-30 amp delivered a rounder and warm tone, and furthermore the added use of the Deaky Amp, a transistor amp with a modified treble booster, would give an extra bite to his harmonies, as well as a horn-like quality. As a result, May’s sound was warmer and less grating to the listener.
Jack Nelson, who had been working with the Sheffields and Trident Productions to land Queen a recording contract recalled: “It took me over a year to get Queen a deal, and everybody turned them down, I mean everyone. I won’t name names as some of those people turned out to be my best friends and I don’t want to tarnish their reputations! But they know who they are, every one of them.” During the down period, Producer Robin Cable was experimenting with an old Beach Boy’s song, “I Can Hear Music,” in which Freddie sang lead, and Brian contributed a guitar break. The track eventually was released under the name Larry Lurex. It went nowhere, but became highly sought after once Queen broke. The band developed their vocal harmonies during this period, which Brian described thus: “Freddie has this sharp, crystal, incisive tone. Roger is husky and raw and I have a sort of roundness. Put them together and it sounds…big.” Queen signed with EMI in April 1973, and their first album was released in July.
While fans tend to rave about Queen, I tend to find it a little bit uneven. It sounds like a band full of promise that hasn’t been fully realized yet. While there’s no doubt that the first half of the album features some great tracks – “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Doin’ All Right,” “Great King Rat,” “My Fairy King,” “Liar,” and “The Night Comes Down,” the album sort of falls apart with sub par material with the final grouping. Roger’s “Modern Times Rock N’ Roll,” while a prototype for the fast tempos of Punk and speed metal, is merely a commendable first-time song writing effort. Brian’s “Son and Daughter” feels too self consciously like a Black Sabbath nod. Freddie’s “Jesus” is probably one of the weakest songs in the Queen catalogue; it is too generically imitative of other songs that were following the ‘Jesus rock’ bandwagon of the early seventies. Ironically, the unreleased track, “Mad The Swine”, touches on similar territory and is move inventive and imaginative take on the Christian theme. The closing instrumental, “Seven Seas of Rhye” is really nothing more than a musical vignette. The album at the time hardly got much notice, and the band faced accusations of hype in the pages of Creem and NME.
Yet surprisingly, EMI and Trident decided to put the band back into the studio by August to record the follow-up. Some examples of the band’s dilemma could been seen, while Queen were asked to open for Mott The Hoople in October 1973 to great reaction. Their first tour of Australia in January 1974 was a disaster, when the band insisted on bringing their own lighting rig. Local Australian bands and promoters resented losing work, and refused to co-operate. A DJ hosting the open-air festival in Sunbury actually talked the audience out of Queen’s encore. In spite of this, Queen was about to release their second album and a real benchmark in establishing many aspects of their sound. Ian Hunter, whose band Mott The Hoople toured with Queen in 1974 observed:
“Freddie attracted characters. He was probably a little needy but he always gave the appearance of sheer confidence, and the band needed that. Fred, though, couldn’t understand why Queen weren’t huge immediately. When Queen toured with us in America, I remember Fred marching up and down, saying ‘Why don’t these silly bastards get it?’ America wasn’t like England, you had to tour there a few times.”
The band presented themselves almost from the outset as a stadium or Arena band, even when they were playing theatres, and almost through sheer force of will became a Stadium band in a short space of time, and this self-belief was bound to create misunderstanding. While Led Zeppelin used the idiom of American blues as a template to reinvent and move that idiom forward, by contrast, Queen were using the idiom of Classical European to move rock forward while offering many of the same theatrical elements used by many prior bands. The Queen album had hinted at this, but Queen II made it more explicit.
Roy Thomas Baker had recalled about the making of the album:
“We decided Queen II was the kitchen-sink album. They were coming up with millions of ideas, the White and Black side, the magic aspect – Freddie took me to Tate to see the Richard Dadd painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke which one of the songs was based on...Freddie told me, ‘Anything you want to try, throw it in.’”
Brain May had further acknowledged: “We went to town, We said, ‘Right, we’re going to paint our pictures now. We got the overdriven guitars, we built textures.’ Queen II was the emotional music we always wanted to play. It fulfilled all of our dreams.” The album did demonstrate an astonishing and sophisticated range for the theatrical rock record. Side one, the white side, featured songs written by May and Taylor, and side two, the black side, featured songs exclusively penned by Mercury. But bear in mind that the writing collaboration might have over-lapped. While Mercury had argued that ‘whoever wrote the lyrics had effectively written the song,’ May and Taylor probably had a hand in developing and refining some of Mercury’s tracks.
This startling musical development could be heard in the first track, “Procession,” a layered guitar piece that demonstrated May’s sound classical composing skill, with guitars that approximated horns, flugelhorns, and strings, aided by the clever use of a volume pedal, and driven by a propulsive heart beat tempo. A descending keyboard line segues into the heavy anthem “Father to Son,” whose bombast in the opening chords announced a fuller sound, featured some astonishing lead guitar work by May in the middle breakdown, followed by a great loud to quiet contrast with Freddie’s vocal and piano. A clever sliding harmony eases into “White Queen (As It Began).”
This is probably one of the most self-conscious tracks that seems to imitate the feel of Zeppelin’s "Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You," yet redeems through Brian’s strong classically influenced composing choices, again demonstrating some wonderful quiet to loud dynamics. The next two tracks are probably the weakest on the album. Brian’s "Some Day One Day" begins with a lot of promise, but ends up feeling like half a song, saved through clever productions textures. Roger’s “The Loser In The End,” a plea for parental understanding, shows Roger’s promise as a writer, and is redeemed again by its clever production. Following in the tradition of the drum opening of “Liar” from the first album, the track opens with an impressive drum pattern. It’s possible that Roger contributed some guitar on the track, as he is an adept multi-instrumentalist in his own right with guitar, bass, and keyboards on future tracks. The nasal guitar featured on the center stereo field might have been Roger. Of course, Roger would soon go on offer to such great tracks like “Tenement Funster, I’m In Love With My Car,” and “Sheer Heart Attack” and he would eventually pen such eighties hits as “Radio Ga Ga,” and “A Kind of Magic”.
Freddie’s “Ogre Battle” opens the black side. White noise pulls the listener into the inventive use of backwards rhythm tracks that surge into some spry guitar, bass, and drum work by the band. The track is a precursor to riff-based speed metal, and something not out of place in early Metallica. A fast click tempo and harpsichord riff segues into one of the most fascinating tracks, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” Mercury in a mid seventies interview made an interesting observation:
“The whole band is very particular. We don’t go in for half measures and I’m very hard with myself. There’re no compromises. If I thought a song wasn’t quite right, I’d discard it. I’m very intricate and delicate. You can see that in my paintings. I love painters like Richard Dadd, Mucha and Dali, and I love Arthur Rackman.”
The inspiration behind the Richard Dadd painting is revealing. For anyone who had bought into the late seventies image that Mercury had cultivated for himself, as a flamboyant and shallow figure, his interests demonstrated a far more intelligent person, and in spite of Mercury’s insistence in future interviews, that his songs were frivolous, fun and had no meaning, this off-handedness seemed like a disarming mechanism. The one thing that remained true was a tongue-in-check humor that seemed intended to keep things in perspective. Mercury always understood the importance of mystique, and how critics could cultivate, in musicians, a kind of self-importance and unhealthy deification. The Dadd painting itself is rather fascinating to explore. Mercury himself was an adept sketch artist in his own right.
The image has been altered to highlight the details of this work.
A Mercury sketch of another icon, under his non-de-plume Ponce.
The track smoothly transitions into the lovely piano ballad, “Nevermore” which is demonstrated in this BBC session:
In a lot of respects, “March of the Black Queen” is the most fascinating and slightly problematic of the tracks. “March” acts as the precursor to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and shares several structural similarities. Both are long, episodic, with great emotional shifts; both feature ensemble characters that comment on the main character. Both tracks seem to be frivolous, but in fact may be more profound than assumed. The opening line seems to be directed at a person, which could be a lover, or perhaps it could be a more veiled comment. The second verse after the first chorus has always been a little problematic:
Put them in the cellar with the naughty boys / A little nigger sugar then a rub-a-dub-a baby oil
Black on, black off every finger nail and toe / We’ve only begun – begun
Make this, make that, keep making all that noise / March of the black queen
Now I’ve got a belly full / You can be my sugar-baby, You can be my honey-chile, yes
The word ‘Nigger’ is problematic, but it could be referring to ‘black sugar.’ The lines are probably in character of the Queen, a tyrant who controls Nubian slaves. Freddie might have seen himself in the role as the Queen. The ‘black on every finger nail and toe’ might have been directed at early fans who were already imitating the visual style of the band. I’m not really convinced there was a racist intent. Randy Newman would often write ‘in character’ and would be largely misunderstood when he was commenting on bigotry.
During the more reflective verse is an interesting set of lines:
Everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore / A little bit of love and joy
In each and every soul lies a man and very soon / He’ll deceive and discover
But even til the end of his life / he’ll bring a little love.
The queen continues to be boastful while her subjects plead. Then follows these lines
Walking true to style / She’s vulgar, ‘buse and vile
Fie-fo the Black Queen tattoos all her pies / She boils and she bakes,
and she never dots her “I’s”
This could be a reference to the wicked witch of Hansel and Gretel as a device to reveal the character. The song could be a jumble of references; in part it could be a veiled comment on manager Norman Sheffield who would soon plague the band with royalty problems. Perhaps even at this early stage, Mercury has already growing mistrustful of their management. There was already evidence that band wasn’t happy with the poor promotion of their first album. Another theory is that this song, along with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was an elaborate ruse in lyric to deal with Freddie’s budding bisexuality / homosexuality, and that Freddie’s relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin was doomed to fail. The Zoroastrian faith seems to frown on homosexual behavior, yet is indifferent about the issue. Freddie’s parents were devout Zoroastrians and he probably was careful around discussing his private life with them. Such conflicting emotions might have played themselves out in his songs.
The interplay between Brain’s lead and Freddie’s piano often felt symbiotic. One classic move could be found with Brian’s dueling wah guitars (2:09-2:44), and then some very sympathetic interplay between the piano and guitar that harkens to the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (5:30-6:04). The piano and guitar often complimented themselves very well on numerous Queen tracks throughout their career. This shifts to the euphoric final section that segues into the next track. Is this last verse in character with the Black Queen? Or a catharsis to escape reality?
Forget your singalongs and your lullabies / Surrender to the city of the fireflies
Dance with the devil in beat with the band / To hell with all of you hand-in-hand
But now it’s time to be gone – forever
This surges into the most overt Phil Spector influenced track, “Funny How Love Is,” with its dense sea of delay, and modulating keys, even featuring castanets by Roy Thomas Baker. Then we close with the album’s perennial single “Seven Seas of Rhye,” a track that plays with the mythological / magic aspect. Mercury, already having donned the name of the Greek deity, played the role of a boastful God. One of the criticisms behind “Keep Yourself Alive” was that the guitar intro took long. An octave piano riff is met with a guitar fanfare and we surge into the track which runs a concise 2:50 and fades out with the English music hall song, “I do like to be beside the seaside,” originally written in 1907. The origin of Rhye is interesting as it is referenced in a number of Mercury songs, “My Fairy King” and “Lily Of The Valley.” Mercury claimed Rhye was a fantasy world he created as a child, and would invent tales he’d tell to his sister when they were young.
Something should be said about Mick Rock’s cover, the image ended up being as iconic as Robert Freeman’s Beatles shoot for With The Beatles.
Mick has commented that Bowie’s co-producer Ken Scott, had set up a meeting with the band: “I’d not heard of this band Ken was talking about but he said they had heard of me through my pictures of Bowie and Lou Reed. It would have been rude of me not to check them out. They were garrulous, so very sure of themselves, like a swarm of bees around me. They played me Queen II, and from then on I knew they were something special.” Rock has described designing the cover in January 1974. “I had this picture of Marlene Dietrich on the Shanghai Express movie set. It was fabulous and it was the first time I’d ever been inspired by another photo. Freddie got it immediately and jumped at the chance of playing Marlene.”
The story of the album isn’t complete without citing the ‘B’ side – “See What A Fool I’ve Been.” There was a more straight read of this blues number during a BBC radio session from 1973. The studio track from 1974 seems to be more of a campy piss take on the British blues that was prevalent in the 60s, and Mercury almost seems to be channeling Tim Curry in his read. Rocky Horror had already debuted in the UK at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Hypothetically, Mercury and the band might have already been aware of the show when this was cut. The “B” side is indeed unique as the band usually eschewed the blues genre, and even when the band dabbled in this direction, they would cleverly play around with the structure.
Nineteen seventy-four would be a highly productive year for the band. In-between a tour, the band would record and release their third album, Sheer Heart Attack by the end of the year. Amazing when you consider the medical setbacks that faced Brian May in mid ‘74. That album was the harbinger for two precedents; the “Killer Queen” single would begin a streak of hits for the band, and John Deacon would begin to contribute songs, which would lead to each member contributing hit singles for the band, another rare feat on par with The Beatles.
While Queen, like many progressive bands, would continue to craft cohesive albums, they excelled as a great singles band, with a mastery of the 3-minute single format, a skill that isn’t as easy to acquire, as it requires real restraint. Often musicians will create a favorite section and will want to repeat it. The fact was, Queen was willing to shift extreme gears in the space of a song, always keep it interesting, and show real discipline on their part. The impact of Queen’s music and their influence can still be felt when you consider the following bands: Def Leppard, Anthrax, Ben Folds Five, Kurt Cobain, The Darkness, Extreme, The Killers, My Chemical Romance, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Muse, Radiohead, Mika, Yngwie Malmsteen, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Franz Ferdinand. That’s quite a range of bands to cite Queen as an influence.
Queen simply opened doors; they showed what was possible, that you didn’t have to adhere to one stylistic format and yet retain a continuity with the vocal and guitar sound. Of course, they would go on to write a staggering number of great songs that got released as singles, and the slow burn influence of Queen might have been on par with The Beatles, yet it just wasn’t readily apparent until one stepped back to see that collective impact.
Queen II was the template for what was to follow; their like might not be seen again.
Producers: Roy Thomas Baker and Queen, Robin Geoffrey Cable
Arrangers and Composers: Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor
Engineer: Mike Stone
Cover: Mick Rock and Queen
Side One: (White Side)
Father To Son
White Queen (As It Began)
Some Day One Day
Loser In The End
Side Two: (Black Side)
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
The March Of The Black Queen
Funny How Love Is
Seven Seas Of Rhye
You can download this album on iTunes, or order it from Barnes and Nobel
The Bulk of the information comes from articles by Phil Sutclife, Martin Aston, Mark Blake, Jacky Gunn & Jim Jenkins. Thanks to Christopher Knowles. Special thanks to XScribe for editorial assistance.
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