Tuesday 27 December 2016

2016 - a year of loss

After the most recent celebrity deaths, I've been reading quite a few comments on Facebook and elsewhere to the effect of: "Let's get this awful year out of the way - roll on 2017." Don't hold your breath, because the Grim Reaper doesn't operate by the calendar. Having said that, it does seem to have been a particularly bad year. Some deaths are sad but not astonishing: for example, the actress Liz Smith who was 95 after all, but George Michael's death at 53 was completely unexpected. I was never a fan, although I've always acknowledged his talent, but as Billy Bragg has said, "His support for the LGBTQ community, the NHS and the miners marked George Michael out as an activist as well as a great artist."

Here is my own, highly subjective list of musical losses that were particularly significant to me. Not mentioning an artist here should not be taken as a posthumous snub.

  • David Bowie was at his hit-making peak when I was a student, The Jean Genie coming out in my first year. At college discos, friends would sometimes chant "Neville Neville" to another of his hits; it's amazing what can seem funny after a night on the ale. His constantly changing pop persona kept him in the spotlight for decades: Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, the heavy metal of Tin Machine and the white soul of Let's Dance, to mention just a few. His recent songs are certainly no disgrace to his memory.
  • Glen Frey. I always liked the Eagles, particularly Desperado, both the album and title track, which Frey co-wrote. Hotel California, which he also co-wrote, always seemed an especially eerie song, which I occasionally like to bash out on my 12-string guitar. I saw Glen Frey live with the Eagles on the Hell Freezes Over Tour in the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield in July 1996; it was a memorable performance.
  • George Martin. I wrote about his death at the time. I was 15 when the Sixties ended, so the Beatles provided the soundtrack of my childhood. Paul McCartney said of him: "If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George." Says it all really.
  • Keith Emerson. As students, we'd often sit late into the night in each other's rooms listening to prog rock, which was massive at the time. Along with Genesis and Yes, we often listened to The Nice and Emerson Lake and Palmer, which both featured Emerson. As I recall, rock musos tended to view the latter two with more respect than most of their contemporaries. It is a cliché to describe prog rock as overblown and pretentious; while some undoubtedly was - even Rick Wakeman has said he doesn't know what Tales of Topographic Oceans was about - much was groundbreaking, innovative and pushed the boundaries. Emerson's bands tended to be viewed in the latter category.
  • Dave Swarbrick. Virtuoso fiddle player with Fairport Convention, in a duo with Martin Carthy, and in the line-ups of various other band over the years, including the band he founded, Whippersnapper. The electric folk that Fairport pioneered owed a lot to Swarbrick's vast folk repertoire and trad credibility. Ashley Hutchings described him as "the most influential [British] fiddle player bar none". He was an enthusiastic performer, although the energy had to be conserved in latter years owing to his long-term health problems. I wrote about him in June, where I included a Youtube video of him accompanying Richard Thompson.
  • Scotty Moore. Elvis was really before my time; I'd just been born when he first went into a recording studio. However, we were all aware of Elvis in the 60s and 70s, even when we could name only a handful of his 50s contemporaries. Scotty Moore was essential to the early Elvis sound and was credited with the invention of the power chord on the song Jailhouse Rock. Keith Richards once said: "When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life... Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty."
  • Leonard Cohen. His name has almost become shorthand for miserable dirges - I've made jokes along those lines myself - but this is only part of the story. His lyrics were often poetic, and in fact he began as a poet; the songwriting came later. His songs undoubtedly did reach a lot of people: I'd guess that Bird On The Wire and Hallelujah are probably the ones most people relate to. Actually, I'm not keen on the latter, but there are three of his that I do perform occasionally: my favourite to sing is Winter Lady from his first album.
  • Greg Lake. Much of what I've written for Keith Emerson applies here too. Lake's pre-ELP band was King Crimson, and the album In the Court of the Crimson King was a favourite, especially its searing track 21st Century Schizoid Man with its apocalyptic tone and Vietnam war references. I'm sure I'm not the only rock fan to have mused that Carl Palmer remains the only member of ELP still with us.
  • Rick Parfitt. Status Quo have at times seemed almost eternal, so it was a shock when Parfitt died, coincidentally on the day after Quo had played a gig in Liverpool (without him, as he'd given up touring for medical reasons). I have sometimes joined in the "three chord wonders" jokes about Quo that used to do the rounds, although in reality I liked them. I saw them live two or three times, and they were an excellent act. No one can take away from them the fact that they opened Live Aid with Rocking All Over The World, a song written by John Fogerty, but which Quo made very much their own.
There have been many other great acts we have lost this year, such as Merle Haggard, Prince, Maurice White (of Earth Wind and Fire) and, as previously mentioned, George Michael, but this list is specifically of music I have chosen to listen to over the years, whether recorded or live. I'm just hoping I don't have to update it between now and 2017.

Here are some high energy jigs and reels by Dave Swarbrick with Fairport Convention at Glastonbury in 1971. Plus ça change ...

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