Mittwoch, 3. März 2021

No, Eric Clapton is *not* racist! (Rant)

"Best of Eric Crapton"

Some statements are like zombies. They keep returning and replicating. And some people are all too willing to parrot simple statements like these. But simple statements are for simple minds...

If you're not aware of what this is referring to, you might be scratching your head and saying "How could a musician who dedicated almost his entire life to playing and celebrating Black music possibly be considered racist?". And that statement wouldn't be false either.

Nonetheless, there is that one incident which is, undoubtedly, a blemish on a career that otherwise can only be considered remarkable. I'm not going to replicate his words here; you can find them elsewhere if you're interested, and they're really horrifying. No denying that.

But there is a larger picture here and anybody who focuses on this one occurrence thinking it is in any way representative of Eric Clapton is engaging in willful ignorance. The incident happened in the middle of his raging alcoholism, which occupied about fifteen years of his life. After getting off heroin in the early 1970s, he slid from one addiction to the next. At the time this was seemingly not seen as much of a problem, and that is very much the problem. Can you imagine going to a gig where the main attraction performs the entire show lying on the stage, with a microphone stand lying beside him? This might sound hilarious, as does the episode where he went out fishing in the middle of the night and then freaked everybody out by returning in a diving suit. But in reality, alcohol had turned Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. An introverted, intelligent, well-mannered man turned into a belligerent idiot. It's almost as if his personality had completely flipped - the only thing the two Claptons had in common were that they both played guitar. There is no film material of the infamous 1976 "speech" but there are bits of video showing him trying to pick a fight with the audience. He comes across as bone-headed and entirely unlikable. Pattie Boyd, his wife at the time, confirms that he was violent under the influence, and that it was not part of his sober personality at all. In his autobiography, he admits that there was always a nutcase inside him waiting to get out, and drinking set it free.

In his autobiography, Clapton also refers to his second time of rehab, since which he has been clean for good, as the beginning of his maturing into a grown-up. And if you analyze all those accounts of his drunken behaviour, they can be summed up in one word: childish. It didn't help that his management (Robert Stigwood) was protecting him from a lot of trouble, this clearly furthered the 'spoiled child' behaviour. He got mad at officials for reading his full name (Eric Patrick Clapton). Can you take anything serious he said in such a state?

In the documentary "Life in 12 Bars", he referred to that awful speech as "the moment that ruined everything". Again, it fits into a pattern - not one of racism, but one of self-destruct. He had car accidents that could've killed him (and others). His unquantifiable alcohol consumption gave him ulcers that could've killed him. It goes on and on. He had no respect for anybody, least of all himself and his own life.

To add context: Those horrifying comments didn't come out of nowhere. Clapton referred to UK parliament member Enoch Powell, already then a polarizing figure but not unpopular. His "rivers of blood" speech on what immigration would turn the UK into was deemed racist back in the day. For the record, Powell always denied being racist. If you define racism as hating others based on their skin colour or heritage, then he doesn't fit the definition. But nowadays it's generally consensus to also label the idea that racial groups have certain intellectual properties racist, and it's a definition I tend to agree with. Of course, genetic disposition is a thing, but not across entire swathes of population. And this kind of prejudice needn't be negative either. If you approach somebody with Indian roots with the clear idea that they must be a mathematical genius, this is still racist because you're basically not willing to accept that human beings are all individual, not just those of your own group. A certain former US president exhibited this kind of behaviour time and time again.

So, Powell does not really fit the bracket of a typical right-wing rabble-rouser, but he was seen as a problematic figure. As evidence, Manfred Mann, who had left South Africa partially because he couldn't stand the Apartheid regime and how it treated Black people, dedicated this instrumental to him after the "rivers of blood" speech. In case you're still wondering about what Manfred thought of him, just read the title "Konekuf" backwards.

Now why would Clapton, always influenced by and admiring Black musicians, come out with support of Powell? It's not an easy question; drunkenness is only part of the answer. First of all, I think many people have some amount of prejudice. We always like to think that we don't but most of us grow up in relatively homogenous surroundings. I'm wary of people who say "I'm the least racist person", because those either lack self-critical insight or modesty. Secondly, the UK has always been a bit funny about this. My father, who's a jazz musician, told me that the British jazz scene is the most isolationist in this part of the world. Just look at the Brexit vote: those beliefs are still very much alive. To be clear: There is a fine line between simply thinking 'mass immigration' is bad for one's country and being actually racist, but Clapton's comments clearly crossed the line, not just through the choice of words. So is he racist, after all?

...I don't think so. I still think it was mostly alcohol-fueled shit-talking. Maybe he was spending a lot of time in pubs where his drinking mates talked like that and he simply parroted something he'd heard the other night. Not really an excuse but an attempt at an explanation. Every ugly cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, people horrified by Clapton's comments started the Rock Against Racism movement in response to this incident (as well as a cocaine-based David Bowie ogling fascism at the time).

Anyway, let's put things into perspective.

In 1968, a very thoughtful and articulate Clapton commented on the conundrum why so many of his main role models and influences didn't get the same amount of media attention that Cream got at the time. Clapton analyzed the situation succinctly and told the interviewer that this was due to ongoing segregation and racism in the USA. In fact, a lot of the original bluesmen (and -women) had received more praise from a white audience in Europe (on the so-called "American Folk Blues Festival" tours) than what would've been possible in the US at that time. For reasons still somewhat mysterious, a lot of young white kids in the Old World, especially the UK, had really latched onto this style of music. It was a dedicated fandom, blues nerdism was a real thing. Those Brits might not have known all the backgrounds of slavery and sharecropping, but there was something universal in the music that spoke to them. Bands like The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Spencer Davis Group, The Yardbirds and later Cream basically re-imported a genuinely American style of music back to the USA, where it was then rediscovered by a larger audience (while people like Mike Bloomfield were similar catalysts on American ground).

In any case, Clapton was well aware of the civil rights movement and said that it needed to progress further towards equality so that his heroes could get their due respect. This is the Clapton I want to remember when he's no longer with us. His statements then are consistent with pretty much his entire career. How?

His formative days were influenced by blues music he heard on the radio and later, on import records. Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Chuck Berry were among the musicians he payed close attention to. He literally modeled his playing style on those icons of Black music. In 1965, he left The Yardbirds because he was a blues nerd and didn't want to go their way of diluting that element for pop success. His subsequent playing in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers was ground-breaking; the combination of a Gibson Les Paul and overdriven Marshall amps (which he stumbled onto by trying to imitate Freddie King's sound) basically defines the tone of modern blues rock guitar. The famous graffitti "Clapton is God" originates from this period. Mayall himself was extremely educated about the blues and saw it as his mission to introduce his fans to lesser known blues artists - the LP "Crusade" (recorded after Clapton's departure) explicitly states the aim to bring more blues to the radio, and contains a mournful ode to J.B. Lenoir, one of Mayall's biggest influences.

Clapton left Mayall because he had seen Buddy Guy at a gig with just bass and drums and wanted to front his own trio. In the end, Cream was a rather different beast, with multi-instrumentalist Jack Bruce doing most of the singing and songwriting. What didn't change was the reverence for the blues: After he'd already sung Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind" on the Bluesbreakers album, Clapton resurrected another Johnson classic with "Four Until Late". And Skip James earned more money from Cream's version of "I'm So Glad" than from anything he had done up to that point.

As this Jack Bruce interview shows, Cream were not fussy about giving people credit. Clapton even eschewed bringing any new material of his own to Cream's third album "Wheels of Fire" in favour of covering Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" (which was brand new at the time), Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" (aka "Cross Road Blues", combined with elements of Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues") and the classic "Sitting on Top of the World" (written by the Mississippi Sheiks but made famous by Howlin' Wolf).

Clapton once also pointed out, correctly, that Cream's heavy blues paved the way for Led Zeppelin. But Willie Dixon had to sue the Zeps for royalties to "Whole Lotta Love", given that they gratuitously used his lyrics of "You Need Love" (recorded by Muddy Waters). This is not the only example of LZ ripping off black artists without giving proper credit, whereas Cream rearranged songs so heavily that they could've at least called themselves co-writers, but didn't. So who's the racist? (As an aside, Clapton admitted that his own "Let It Grow" borrowed heavily, if unconsciously, from "Stairway to Heaven", which he saw as a sort of irony considering how much he had criticized Led Zeppelin...)

If, after all of this, you still consider EC to be a racist, think of this: He has made music with Black artists almost his entire life. The Yardbirds backing up Sonny Boy Williamson didn't work out so well, but a few years later he was invited to play guitar on an Aretha Franklin song, he jammed with Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King and worked his way up, if you will.

In 1986, Clapton's live band consisted of himself, Phil Collins, Greg Philinganes and Nathan East. In other words, it was a 50/50 black/white split. Generously sharing the spotlight, all four bandmembers got to sing some parts of the show. East has been one of his go-to sidemen ever since and Philinganes also worked with him a couple of times more. I could list more names (e.g. his backing singers Michelle David and Sharon White), but you get the idea. If there was more to the allegation than the drunk rant, someone will have come forward about it at some point. I've not heard any tales that he treated fellow musicians different based on their skin.

That said, being the boss of his own band is one thing, but I've also never heard from any African-American blues artist who didn't accept him. He was good friends with Muddy Waters, who invited him to his wedding and even told him to keep the blues alive - Clapton goes as far as saying "The Mud" was almost like the father he never had, and he regrets that this took place in the time alcohol still had a tough grip on him. (Muddy died in 1983.) Robert Cray and Buddy Guy are also on good terms with him. The friendship with B.B. King seems to have been even deeper. B.B. called him a genius and told him "May I live forever, but may you live forever and a day". Of course B.B. was one of the most generous souls who ever walked the earth, but this was unusual even for his standards. Even if their collaboration album "Riding with the King" was a disappointment for me (as a fan of both artists), it probably still brought B.B. some new attention.

My favourite Eric Clapton album was released a few years earlier - I'm talking about "From the Cradle", which is an almost 1:1 reconstruction of classic blues mostly from the Chess Records stable. This was a project dear to his heart; after the tragic death of his son Conor, the ensuing hit single "Tears in Heaven" and the very successful MTV Unplugged album/video, management clearly expected something else but it's just like Clapton to deflect from himself by putting out a love letter to this classic era of Black American music. It has some of his finest playing and some of his most passionate singing ever, and the live gigs - with a fantastic band that featured, among others, Muddy's harmonica player Jerry Portnoy - were even better.

If anybody who bought this album and didn't know the blues before would investigate the work of Leroy Carr, Eddie Boyd, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Rogers or Charles Brown, the album already was good for something. A few years later, Clapton finally explored his love for Robert Johnson's music at album length. "Me and Mr. Johnson" soon got a sibling in form of "Sessions for Robert J", because EC kept playing with the material. And his more recent albums have usually also included a handful of blues classics such as "Can't Hold Out Much Longer" by Little Walter or "That's No Way to Get Along" by Robert Wilkins. In the final chapter of his autobiography, he goes through names of people who meant the most to him, and they're predominantly Black: Muddy, B.B., Leroy Carr, Little Walter, Ray Charles, Robert Cray and so on.

Cynics might say Eric made a lot of money playing African-American music. It's partially true, but then again he himself has become a main influence on many guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green or Gary Moore. For all of his borrowing of licks, his playing is usually recognizable because it's his own personal expression.

And if we talk about money, we shouldn't go without talking of his charitable actions. After surviving heroin addiction, going through alcohol rehab twice and also finally quitting smoking, he contemplated the fate of many of his musical heroes who didn't get the chance to straighten up their lives - blues and jazz are notoriously littered with addiction casualties. He also thought of people who couldn't afford therapy. Borne out of all this was the Crossroads Center in Antigua, which became a major undertaking for Clapton. He auctioned many of his guitars to raise money (besides the amount that he paid out of his own pocket), and this led to the Crossroads Guitar Festivals, which have usually taken place every three years and seen some of the best line-ups ever. The DVDs of the festivals are usually very recommended and all profits from their sale go to the Crossroads Foundation.

So, I don't take too kindly to people trying to paint him as some kind of villain. He's not faultless but he's mostly worked on himself; he had to overcome a lot of problems and managed to both find personal peace and a good cause to dedicate himself to. If you don't like his music or consider him a bad imitation of real blues guitar playing, that's a much more understandable & valid criticism than "he's racist".

In general, I abhor people who complain about "wokeness" and "cancel culture" because they want to have unchecked free speech and demand the right to offend anybody's sensibilities, which should not fly. But sometimes there is a grain of truth and I think this is it.

See, I'm very much pro equality and against discrimination. Structural and institutional racism is definitely a thing and "we" (= mostly privileged white people) must all work to do away with it. But an ideology that literally does not accept apologies and disregards the idea that someone might actually change their stance (if you can call even a drunken slur a stance) is not what I want to be part of. Clapton, although it's hard to disagree he wasn't really himself, said and did awful things and expressed regret about it. Though I'm not a very religious person, there is the teaching of Jesus that says "He who is faultless may throw the first stone". If you're going to keep on jumping on a man who's done so much since then for one drunken slur he made over forty years ago and that he has repeatedly disavowed, you'd better be sure you have no skeletons of your own somewhere in a closet. Moreover, you should really be taking your attention elsewhere. To me, a racist is someone who doesn't regret making offensive comments. EC doesn't fit that bill. Many people still do and act like that, though, and not just under the influence either. This is what we need to focus on.

Oh, and if you are only using this story in order to defend your personal dislike of his music and to make the ill-informed point that EC is unimportant/talentless/whatever, this is very poor form.

Don't get me wrong: Eric Clapton can be a bit of a pain to be a fan of. His albums are famously differing in quality - for every "From the Cradle" there's a "Back Home" and for every "CLAPTON" there's an "Old Sock". Politically speaking, his recent collaboration with Van Morrison on the subject of "lockdowns" alienated a lot of fans. But while I also criticize him for his unhelpful statements, I'm irritated that now all of a sudden this old stuff gets dragged to the surface again when it's really old hat.

Samstag, 2. Januar 2021

Marillion: Not Afraid of Anoraks

 Marillion are an interesting band. You don't think so? Then you probably only know "Kayleigh", the only song of theirs that radio stations like to play these days. But Marillion's output is actually quite large, including (depending on how exactly you count) up to twenty studio albums and an almost uncountable amount of live releases, plus other oddities like demo albums. I'll take a closer look at the band's reissue strategy in a separate post but this is about the band and their music in general.

Marillion's roots go back into the late 1970s. While progressive rock might have been declared dead by the hip people in London, in more remote areas of the United Kingdom, the music of Yes, Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Camel and the like was still popular. Out of this scene, a group emerged in Aylesbury that initially called itself "Silmarillion" after the posthumous J.R.R. Tolkien book, which was then shortened to simply "Marillion".

The very first line-up included Mick Pointer on drums, Doug Irvine on bass and vocals, Martin Jenner on guitar and Neal Cockle on keyboards. The latter two were replaced by Steve Rothery and Brian Jelliman. When Doug Irvine left, he was replaced by two people – bassist Diz Minnitt and vocalist/poet Derek William Dick, commonly known as Fish (for a habit of taking extended baths, when he was living in a place that only allowed you to use the tub at specific times…). The band now had the classic five-man line-up of Genesis and Yes, and started developing into something of a local attraction.

Fish really helped to make Marillion a lot more professional. If you ask yourself what that entails, it included firing almost all the original band members! By the time of the debut single, only guitarist Steve Rothery and drummer Mick Pointer were left from the early incarnation, and Pointer had to go after the first album. (Finding a replacement proved to be a problem, though, only after a couple of drummers the band had found their ideal rhythm engine in Ian Mosley, who has been with Marillion ever since.) Mark Kelly replaced Brian Jelliman on keys and Pete Trewavas came in to take over from Diz Minnitt, which was especially hard on Fish since it was only through the friendship with Diz that he had even got in the band. Nonetheless, Jelliman and Minnitt left a legacy in form of the songs that had been written when they were still in the band ("Market Square Heroes", "Three Boats Down from the Candy", "Grendel", "He Knows You Know", "The Web", "Garden Party", "Forgotten Sons"), and the same goes for Mick Pointer, who's listed as the co-writer of all songs from the first EP and album. (Pointer remained to be pretty bitter about being fired from a band that was just starting to break through, but he later achieved some success with his own band Arena, which has been going for many years now, too.)

From the get-go, Marillion were an anomaly. After all, punk and new wave were supposed to have done away with the "excesses" of prog rock. Yet there they were, playing long, extended pieces with long, extended guitar and keyboard solos, different parts and even the odd odd meter (although Marillion used that element rather sparingly, and sometimes even made a normal 4/4 sound like something more complicated by dividing it up into things like 3+3+2, a trick that would later be used very successfully by bands like U2 and Coldplay!). The music press, especially those writers who thought they had the right to decide what was allowed to be successful and what wasn't, were quick to try and write Marillion off the scene. Alas, it didn't work.

Part of this was down to the fact that there was simply a lot of quality in the band - Steve Rothery's guitar playing was influenced by David Gilmour and Andy Latimer, and he displayed a great ear for a big guitar tone early on; Mark Kelly could dazzle listeners with technique but also lay down atmospheric keyboard tapestry, and Pete Trewavas approached the bass in a way reminiscent of Paul McCartney.

For a lot of people in those days, though, Fish was the main attraction. At first hearing, his voice has some similarities to both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins (although he would insist that Peter Hamill was the bigger influence), but he's clearly doing his own thing. Fish's vocal delivery had an aggression to it, and on the first two LPs the whole band sounds quite edgy. In fact, while neo-prog (as the new movement would soon be labelled) can be seen as a counter-reaction to the dilettantism of punk and the coldness of synthpop, those trends didn't simply pass Marillion by. I'd wager that this was one reason why they didn't simply disappear, and why you couldn't label them as dinosaurs. They had something to say and they were relevant (not just to people who had lost faith in Genesis and Yes, both of which had become more and more commercial). They expressed a lot of the same angst that spoke through punk too, but with much more finesse and eloquence (Fish's talent as a lyricist and writer was evident right from the first line of "Market Square Heroes", a track that cleverly addressed the wish for revolution without a real goal).

It didn't make sense to the critics, though. Those had simply decided that prog was out and supposed to stay dead. (Steven Wilson, a first-hour Marillion fan and now a musician and producer in his own right, would later find out how much this affected some of the musicians of the first prog era like Robert Fripp, Ian Anderson or Steve Hackett: "They were brainwashed by the media into thinking everything they did in the '70s was worthless junk.") What made matters worse was that they drew crowds and gained a following, which gave some critics the idea that they could not only insult the band, but also its fans.

This ceased, to some degree, after the band's 1985 album "Misplaced Childhood". EMI had already been ready to drop the band given that 1984's "Fugazi" had actually sold less than the debut "Script for a Jester's Tear". Both albums are now regarded as absolute classics of the neo-prog subgenre, but the concept album "Misplaced Childhood" was much more accessible and warm sounding, and even produced several hit singles - not just "Kayleigh", but also "Lavender" (which was elongated for the single) and "Heart of Lothian". Marillion now played in the first row of 80s rock bands, opening for Rush or Queen (in fact they were approached with writing the "Highlander" score, which they declined; as we all know, Queen eventually did the task very successfully).

As is typical when a band has had a massive success, there was a lot of struggling to come up with a follow-up. This was also accompanied by internal wrangling: Some of the band members, especially Mark Kelly, felt Fish was writing too much about his own issues (the main character of "Clutching at Straws" is a writer named "Torch", struggling with alcoholism), and generally there must have been a lot of tension between the band members. "Clutching at Straws" mostly maintained the success of "Misplaced Childhood", but its singles ("Incommunicado", "Sugar Mice" and "Warm Wet Circles") weren't as big smashes despite probably being even more commercially appealing than the 1985 singles. The band reconvened to write its fifth album but by this point, relationships were very tense. The instrumentalists didn't like that Fish was now starting to write from a more political and Scottish point of view, and Fish simply didn't relate to the music he was supposed to marry his lyrics to. Also, he demanded a change of management, feeling that there was too much pressure to tour so that the manager could make money from the band. The other four members felt differently at the time and that was the end of the partnership. (For the record, Marillion parted ways with the management some years later, essentially proving Fish's point.)

Just like Genesis when Peter Gabriel left, a lot of people were quick to write off Marillion as a band. Surely they couldn't continue without their charismatic frontman and lyricist?? But the band simply continued to work on the music they had already started with Fish, and employed a writer named John Helmer (not knowing whether their new singer could write lyrics). In the meantime, Fish launched into his solo career, although the release of his debut "Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors" was delayed in order to avoid a clash with Marillion's first album without him!

Unlike Genesis, Marillion didn't recruit somebody from their own ranks. Steve Hogarth had sung with The Europeans and How We Live, but he wasn't very well known. His timbre was very different from Fish's, but he immediately made clear that his crystal-clear and expressive voice (somewhere between Bono and Mark Hollis) was a force to be reckoned with. "Seasons End" covered a diverse range of topics, from the Northern Ireland conflict ("Holloway Girl" and one of the first Marillion songs starting from an idea by Hogarth, "Easter"), across the Berlin Wall up to the danger of anthropogenic climate change in the title track, something that evidently was already discussed way back in 1989, but not done much about in the years since.

"Holidays in Eden" was probably the last true effort to achieve commercial success, at the behest of EMI, who wanted big single hits. "Cover My Eyes", "No One Can" and a re-recording of "Dry Land" by How We Live all had potential but didn't chart as highly as expected. The reaction was a long, dark and dense concept album called "Brave", which for the first time saw Hogarth and Marillion properly playing to each others' strengths and all pulling in the same direction. Nonetheless, the company was unhappy both with the long gestation period and the fact that the album was so hard to market. They made just one more record for EMI, the very highly praised but again not really big selling "Afraid of Sunlight". This was a more relaxed sounding album that fused many of their trademarks together, all the while opening up into new directions of sophisticated pop.

So now Marillion were on their own. The next three albums, "This Strange Engine", "Radiation" and "" (co-produced by Steven Wilson, who'd already worked with Fish for "Sunsets on Empire") all appeared on smaller labels and showed a band somewhat searching for a new direction. All of those albums contained some great songs but also some failed experiments.

The positive experience with a US tour financed by the dedicated fans eventually got Marillion to realize they could release albums without the aid of a record company, thus becoming the pioneers of crowd-funding. 2001 saw the band reconnected with Dave Meegan (producer of "Brave" and "Afraid of Sunlight") and back with a much more focused record.  The album was titled, quite cleverly, "Anoraknophobia", the cover adorned with the cute comic character "Barry". What sounds like "arachnophobia" (fear of spiders) is a nice tribute to the fact that Marillion tended to appeal to a "nerdy" audience, people who feel cast out, uncool or in some other way not quite capable of fitting in. The song "Separated Out" directly deals with this, and it wasn't the band's first ode to outsiders - Fish had already written "Freaks" (1985 b-side) in much the same vein. 

The next album was a major undertaking, "Marbles" turned out to be Marillion's first official double album (unless you count "Brave", which occupies two vinyl records, but fits on one CD), although the full opus was initially only available through the band and the wider public got a scaled-down single CD. (Thankfully, the 2CD edition has been reissued and is now the de facto standard.) This somewhat conceptual piece of music, in its full glory, contains no less than three 10+ minute epics, including the absolutely glorious finale "Neverland", which in my humble opinion might just be the best song ever written and recorded by anyone – but that's just me.

Thanks to their eager fan base, the singles "You're Gone" and "Don't Hurt Myself" saw Marillion return to the British charts, the former even was their first Top Ten hit since 1987! Marillion had regained their position as a respectable band, and were no longer dependent on their fans. But here's the surprising thing: The fans really wanted to continue supporting the band. So, essentially, all the albums after "Somewhere Else" were pre-financed by the fan base.

I could go on and on about Marillion but to be honest, the Wikipedia entry does all this better (and I've nicked some bits from there too). But the relationship to the fans (aka "freaks" or "anoraks") deserves an even closer look. What is it that Marillion do differently? Well, for a start, they know how to satisfy fans hungry for music by their favourite band. This is why there are so many live releases (some only as downloads or fan-club exclusive releases), and why Marillion have also issued "making of" discs containing demos and writing sessions. They're not fussed about putting out material that they may themselves not be entirely happy with. They're not greedy and picky in that regard, which is a total opposite from many artists who like to control their public image so much that they don't release anything from their archives, or only a few precious outtakes. Marillion, on the other hand, don't mind being self-deprecating with titles such as "Proggin' Around the Christmas Tree" (for a while, they would release Christmas mini-albums for the fans, containing one festive classic and a couple of band rarities), "Unzipped" or "Keep the Noise Down". In fact, contrary to the main tenor of their music – which is definitely on the melancholy side of the spectrum – they have exhibited quite a bit of humour over the years with album titles and cover artwork.

Knowing that they have a steady and devoted audience that will likely purchase most of what they put out, Marillion have been able to make a decent living and are now actually making more money from their music than during what seemed to be their heyday. Even so, you can't really accuse the band of being money-grabbers. They give the fans what they want and the fans reward this with buying the CDs and concert tickets. Win-win situation!

There is a feeling of familiar closeness between the band and their fan clubs, too. Out of the fan conventions with small, intimate acoustic gigs (some of which were recorded for posterity), something much bigger grew: The Marillion Weekend! This is probably the - excuse me - wet dream of any devoted fan of a band. Just imagine: You spend an entire weekend with like-minded people and not only get to enjoy three (initially two) concerts by your favourite band, but can also interact with them during various activities such as "Swap the band" (jamming Marillion songs with the members themselves!).

Of course, virtually all the Weekends were filmed and recorded and released in the form of live DVDs and CDs, which partially explains why Marillion have released sooooo many live albums. Surprisingly, they aren't as redundant as one might think, because…  a) Marillion songs have a tendency to improve live . For all the band's perfectionism in the studio, desire to recreate the studio recordings as closely as possible and not particularly jam-friendly nature, they often get elevated by the feedback of the audience inspiring the band to perform the songs more passionately. b) When you confront an audience of dyed-in-the-wool fans that know your catalogue inside out, you can't knock out your greatest hits and be done with it. Especially not if you see the same people the next night, and the night after that! Not to mention that they pay a lot to see different setlists, so Marillion always deliver. Often, these are themed setlists, and the most common one is simply playing an entire album (given that the Weekends happened long after Fish it's not surprising that it's only the post-Fish albums that have been played in full):

1989's Seasons End (2009, "Out of Season" and "Live in Montreal")

1991's Holidays in Eden (2011, "Holidays in Zélande")

1994's Brave (2002 and 2013)

1995's Afraid of Sunlight (2003, "Before First Light" and reissued as part of "Breaking Records")

1997's This Strange Engine (2007, "This Strange Convention")

1998's Radiation (2013, "Clocks Already Ticking" reissued as "Breaking Records")

1999's (2017, "")

2001's Anoraknophobia (2015, "Out of the Box")

2004's Marbles (2005, "Marbles by the Sea", 2015, "Out of the Box")

2008's Happiness is the Road: Essence (2019, not released yet)

2012's Sounds That Can't Be Made (2013, "A Sunday Night Above the Rain" – but it's out of order)

2016's F*** Everyone and Run (2017, not released but probably because "All One Tonight" already contains a full live version of the album)

Other setlists have centered around singles, covers and rarities or – yes – the Fish era.

But even on a normal tour, Marillion tend to defy expectations. This doesn't come without drawbacks; I remember seeing the band in late 2018 (shortly after Mark Kelly had managed to somehow collide with a truck while running - but he was back on stage within days after the accident!) and trying to point out to a woman after the gig that there isn't really much point in Hogarth trying to sing "Kayleigh" when there is so much more material from his period with the band (13 albums vs. 4 with Fish) that also suits his voice better. Even then, they might sometimes overstep the line a bit by focusing on the long, dark material that mainly appeals to their hard-core fans, when they could also charm the casual concertgoers with more accessible songs like "Map of the World", "You're Gone", "Don't Hurt Yourself" or "The Damage".


All in all, Marillion are an admirable group of people. They have stayed around in spite of trends and fads, and have somehow managed to cement their place in the rock scene. Their music is instantly recognizable and unlike every other band - taking cues from Pink Floyd, Genesis, U2, Talk Talk, or even younger bands like Radiohead and Coldplay, they still managed to create an identity that's simply Marillion. The characteristic voices of (first) Fish and (later) Steve Hogarth, coupled with Steve Rothery's crystalline arpeggios and soaring leads and Mark Kelly's cinematic keyboard soundscapes, are the main columns of Marillion.

Their catalogue is well worth exploring. :-)

Dienstag, 10. November 2020

[Politics] Let the exorcism begin

Sometimes the answer to all questions isn't 42 but 46.

I suppose a lot of us let out a collective sigh of relief on Saturday when the results of Pennsylvania came in.

It's true that the USA need healing now, and I think Joe Biden is capable of making empathy and compassion front and center of his presidency.

However, the US also need an exorcism because they are still haunted by demons, and although Trump was their most obvious manifestation, he was far from the only one and their roots go back years, at the very least back to the fateful meeting at which the Republican Party decided, way back in 2009, to block Barack Obama as much as possible. Trump's presidency was the result of this stance, but just like Brexit in the UK, the conservative movement basically opened the bottle unleashing the genie, with the thought they could somehow keep it under control and use it to their advantage. It doesn't work like that. If you flirt with disaster, don't be surprised if you find yourself married with it soon.

The GOP really have a lot to explain, because they allowed a figure like DT to be successful and to undermine virtually all the values they, as a party, initially stood for, degrading the rest of the party to mere props only there to say yes to everything he said (except for the few rank-breakers of The Lincoln Project and a few outspoken critics like Mitt Romney). This is not how democracy works.

Thankfully, the result of the election caused Trump to finally show his true face and lay his contempt for the electorate down for all to see. I wasn't surprised in the least (but definitely dismayed) to hear him talk as crassly as this about trying to stop the counting of some votes that just so happened to be against him – it's just the logical result of saying "I will accept the results of the election IF I WIN" way back in 2016. No, this is not how democracy works.

The GOP also have a lot to ask for with their history of allowing science denial dominate their policies – this also proved to be fatal for many US citizens in the face of Covid19, and might prove to be fatal for many people all over the world if we still can't get our shit together with regards to climate change.

Of course, there is also the media side of the coin. Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook considerably stepped up their game compared to 2016 when it comes to flagging misinformation but knowing the danger doesn't eliminate it. Social media remains to be a problematic part of the equation.

What's far less unpredictable than the machinations of social media is the world of conventional media, and I think it's really time that some screws were adjusted there in order to ground the discourse in facts and reality. Here, the problem originates even earlier; we have to go back to the Reagan era and the removal of the fairness principle. Although it's been shown that sometimes representing 'two sides' of a debate can be misleading (again, see my pet topic climate change on the curse of "both-sidesism"), fact-checking and not allowing opinions and facts to be mixed at will would really benefit the political culture. There will always be conspiracy theories and people their "alternative" narrative is the true one - but without a big amplifier like Fox News or (gulp) Breitbart they would get much less traction, just like not having a president claiming the existence of "alternative facts" anymore should be good for the US. (Study: Trump biggest source of Covid-19 misinformation)

I can't write this entry without talking about the electoral college. The electoral college is a disgrace in its current form.

How? Let's illustrate this with a very simplified example.

Take a hypothetical USA that consists of three states. State A has 100 electoral votes, State B and C 60 each. (220 in sum.)

State A gets won by party D with 80% of the votes, State B and C both get won by the party R with 55% each.

This means that the end result will be a victory for party R's candidate with 120-100. How is this in any way representative of the public opinion?

Without the "Winner takes it all" principle, i.e. with a proportional division of electoral votes, the results would be as such:

D: 80 + 27 + 27 = 134

R: 20 + 33 + 33 = 86

In other words, it's about 3:2 (15:10) in terms of actual votes, whereas the electoral college comes out at 5:6 (10:12).

This is simple math. The electoral college, as-is, will continue to skew the result towards the less populated US states. This violates the idea that elections should be equal, since a voter who moves from state A to B or C will suddenly be worth more and vice-versa.

During this election, it eventually proved to be of no big consequence except making the race a bit more nerve-wracking than it needed to be, but it remains a fact that Democratic candidates are under more strain if they want to win due to the way the system is currently laid out.

What do I think about Joe Biden? Well, although I hoped he would win, I was part of the chorus who were afraid he might lose because he was too old and not charismatic enough. I wonder if this was the wrong way of looking at it though. Biden actually has a couple of interesting things going for him. He's achieved more than most of us can dream of (vice president from 2009 to 2016), and he's at an age where he really can't be said to set himself up for life anymore. This means he's basically not suspect to using his office to make life better for himself, i.e. to line his own pockets. He's on a mission; I truly believe it. He even stated as much, saying that he felt the need to challenge Trump and try to get him out of office, not for his own sake but for the greater good of the US. And of course he knows how politics work, gah!

I also have to admit that his policy proposals sound very sound (hah) to me; and in complete contrast to Trump's stubbornness and constant insistence that he knew better than advisors and scientists who've spent their lives devoted to their respective subjects, he's willing to listen to other people and cooperate. The "Biden Plan", after all, incorporates ideas from many of the people who ran against him in the primaries, and even quotes them as such. Refreshing!

But let's not burden the poor old guy with too many expectations; otherwise, many people will quickly be disappointed that Biden didn't suddenly grow a halo and a pair of wings. A lot also depends on whether the Republicans remaining in the system (senators, etc.) are willing to also leave partisanship behind and thereby come across as more human again. I think their credibility in future races now hinges greatly on whether they realize the erroneous ways of Trumpism.

While I will NEVER condone racism, the Democrats must also acknowledge that not every Trump supporter is racist and that some people have voted for him out of understandable concerns. Biden also must address those people. In general, a lot of the political problems of the last two decades are also rooted in the simple polarity of the two-party system, but I have no idea if the US will ever change from that. As it is, there is the danger that they will simply swing back and forth, with every new administration undoing whatever the previous one has done, thereby stalling the country's progress indefinitely.

Back to the exorcism. Trump will not be immune anymore from the point that his term ends. This is important because he's been causing all kind of concern. I'm all in favour of "in dubio pro reo" but apart from the fact that Trump certainly never lived by that motto (see his comments on the Central Park Five - classy)… if he really had nothing to hide, why did he never want to release his tax returns? Why did he try almost everything to stop or hinder Robert S. Mueller's investigations into the collusion with Russian elements? Logic dictates that if somebody were really not guilty, they would fully cooperate in order to transparently make their innocence proven. Is this what Trump did? Far from it. Make of that what you will, but I think we're in for a couple of interesting revelations.

Sonntag, 25. Oktober 2020

[Politics] Musings on Trump, Biden and climate change

Note: This post strictly represents my thoughts. Other opinions are available. I've included a fair few references but tried to not clog everything up.

~~ Do you remember the Paris Agreement? ~~

I do. I remember being quite anxious and pessimistic that the results of the 2015 climate conference would be non-existent or, at best, wishy-washy. To the great surprise of many people, the countries involved came out of it with something quite a bit more ambitious than predicted. At the same time, the agreement came under fire from various sides. But I'm not sure that's such a bad sign; if you've got criticism from all directions, it might as well mean that you're looking at a pretty fair and balanced compromise.

This is why I think Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the agreement is wrong. I'm not saying he wasn't allowed to do it, and I understand that from his viewpoint, it made sense to do so. There are various problems with that decision though. One can criticize all kinds of aspects of the paper but fact is that Trump was explaining his exit with misconceptions about the nature of the treaty.

There is also the argument used in his favor that the agreement is ineffective. However, there are people whom I would allow this argument, and Trump isn't one of them. He has shown, many times, that he doesn't really have a grip on climate science.

Now couple that with all the environmental rollbacks in his term and the argument becomes nonsensical. If he doesn't really care much about the environment and doesn't "believe in" global warming, why would he (or any other climate change denier) be worried that the agreement doesn't mitigate the damage as much as possible? This is a non-sequitur. If a doctor tells you that you should drink more water, you don't reduce your water intake even further. Yet that is more or less what withdrawing from the climate settlements amounts to, if you're actually convinced the science is right about the issue.

Generally speaking, that's a reason why I would be very careful with people who criticize the Paris agreement; it can often be quite enlightening to research what informs their own standpoint, and what aim they pursue by speaking up about it. Are they fair and unbiased? Although awareness of the carbon problem has thankfully risen in the wake of Greta Thunberg, the shameless attacks on her and the movement led by her have shown that the fossil fuel lobby is still extremely strong and still willing to invest more money into misinformation campaigns than into a more sustainable society.

Getting back to Trump for a minute. I know he gets admiration for his strong-arm style of governing. I should mention that as somebody with two nationalities who's grown up in a country that had to be "cured" of its imperialist fever dreams, I've never really been one for patriotism and national pride; maybe because from my viewpoint, they tend to divide and work against the greater good. So all of Trump's flag-waving and sloganeering means little to me, but I recognize that this is a strong trait in many Americans and he appeals to that.

But beyond that, his politics are also informed by his character. I know some people shun discussing him as a person but look at how quickly he loses his temper; how can this be ignored? Trump and his supporters like to point out that he's not your average Joe politician. That's certainly true but the coin has another side.

I don't profess to have followed his endeavors before his entry into politics but I think, after more than four years of paying attention to him and reading a couple of things about him, I've got a relatively good idea of some of his character traits. Two of them are relevant here: 1) Critics have accused him of projecting his own wrongdoings onto his political adversaries. 2) He thinks of himself first and foremost.

If you add those two together, it's not hard to see where his attitude towards political deals and negotiations comes from. He assumes everyone is as selfish as him, and therefore he thinks everybody wants to take advantage of the United States. The antidote is trying to get the most out of a deal for the US... with a lack of empathy for the other party that also had to give up some of its positions in order to reach an agreement. This changes the established equilibrium normally at play with diplomacy.

I don't like this approach at all. I believe in collaboration and symbiosis - decisions from which all involved can benefit. Trump's strong-arm style has sometimes taken on the shape of extortion tactics (putting the partner under pressure so that they would accept his conditions), with mixed results. Aside from being exactly what Trump has accused others of - being unfair - it's also risky for the general fabric of the world. Why? When you always tell your following that they're being treated unfairly by other countries, it's not going to increase their positive feelings towards others.

But I digress. And although I'm an idealist, I wouldn't necessarily disapprove of Trump's way of politics if he were fighting for what I'd call a noble cause. Maybe that's hypocritical of me but imagine - the same guy, same tactics, but with a definite view towards doing something for the environment? Why not! If he had said "This agreement is no good, we're going to do a better one" and somehow managed to grab, say, the government of China and India by the cojones and forced them to sign something more drastic and binding... I'd be the first in line to applaud him. (Though one of the links at the end shows that there are two sides to this issue, too...)

There are two issues with this thought, though.

1) Political negotiations are a tightrope walk. Frankly, for Trump to suggest that the deals made by the Obama administration are insufficient is a bit insulting to the people involved. I think it's not outlandish to suggest that the Paris agreement was close to the most that could be wrought from the climate conference at that time, as much as I (and many activists) would've liked more concrete results.

2) This whole thing is a global issue. It affects people all over the world. Somebody with the mindset of "America first" is unlikely to become a fighter for a greater good. Or pudding it differently 😉, somebody like Trump would always find a way to complain about an agreement that involves the US cutting down on something. So, getting somebody with his approach as a fighter for environmental policies seems like a long shot.

For far too long, Climate politics has been a game of "who blinks first, loses". The results have been as expected, especially since politicians tend to prioritize short-term developments and like to weigh up economy against ecology. I think that is a fatal flaw in the discourse; I know it's a horrible comparison but it's a bit like taking drugs. You might feel unusually great for a moment but the long-term effects will outweigh that high. The economical costs of not acting against climate change will likely outsize the investments we can make now. The bubble is going to burst sooner or later, but the later it happens, the louder it will burst. Communicating this to the people affected is difficult, I'll admit, but politicians shouldn't try to simplify matters just so that citizens accept a simple narrative. 

There are many moral implications at work here too - just to quote one example, Inuit are already struggling with the reduction of polar ice. It's also no surprise that island states and African countries were main drivers of the 1.5K goal*. But given the Trump admin's track record on human rights in general, I think it's fair to say that they're probably not too troubled.

We're at a fork in the road. Michael E. Mann, one of the leading climate scientists and an outspoken critic of Trump and the Koch brothers' network (in turns, he became a target of aggressive slander and threats), goes as far as saying that a second Trump term will be "game over" for the climate. It is definitely one topic that the two 2020 presidential candidates greatly differ on (not that they agree on many things anyway).

The public climate (excuse the pun) seems to be changing though, so even if he gets re-elected, Trump may face more determined opposition on environmental matters. Even in the economic sectors, some actors have apparently woken up to reality. There is some solace in seeing that the free markets might actually move in the right direction. But I can't help the bitter taste knowing that most of the science was on the table in the 1990s already. And I'm not happy about the shenanigans surrounding the Supreme Court.

What if Trump doesn't get re-elected? One thing's for sure, Joe Biden is setting himself up for failure. If he loses, he'll have failed to take opportunity of a strong political movement. If he wins... well, there's simply no way he's going to execute all the things he's promised, and a lot of people will be very disappointed for one reason or another. But what gives me some hope is his, as well as many of his fellow Democrats', endorsing of science as a leading principle.

Bringing it all back to the Paris agreement. Should the USA rejoin it? In my opinion, yes. We're all dealing with two big crises at the moment, so a new and better climate agreement may not be on the cards for the quick future while Covid-19 (which in itself is like a sped-up climate crisis) takes precedence. Even then, we shouldn't underestimate the symbolic power of such a move. It would set a good example for others to follow, it could give the country a lead on new technologies (in this positive context, I approve of "America first"! 😁)... and yes, it would also have an influence on emissions.


If you've been wondering why there is such a disconnect between what climate scientists predict and demand and what actually gets done by politics, you may get an answer here:

The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change

This peer-reviewed study points out some egregious errors leading to totally misleading conclusions... in a paper on damages by climate change that actually won the Nobel Prize for Economics!

Recommended further reading:

The Heartland Lobby (this is a really great article that delves into the dark underbelly of science denial. Every sentence should be savored. It's really that good.)

Tragedy of the Commons - Wikipedia

The Paris Climate Agreement: Deliverance or Disappointment?

Why Trump's withdrawal from Paris doesn't matter as much as you think

20 advantages and disadvantages of the Paris Agreement

Pros and Cons of Paris climate agreement (I think this is a bit too simple, but...)

The Two Sides of the Paris Climate Agreement: Dismal Failure or Historic Breakthrough? (this is an excellent write-up that also sheds light on the Kyoto protocol and why a lot of what might already be called "watered down" about the Paris accord was watered down due mainly to - yes - the US' influence)

And generally speaking, if you have doubts on scientific topics, try to peruse sites that are listed on this page by Media Bias/Fact Check. I've only just stumbled across RationalWiki which also seems to be an... interesting source.

* I know this is pedantic, but differences of temperature ΔT are normally given in Kelvin (K), not as degrees Celsius (°C)

Mittwoch, 20. Mai 2020

Manfred Mann's Earth Band: The Odd Mann Rocking Out

Last December, I've seen Manfred Mann's Earth Band live (not for the first time). The band are also due to release a new album sometime soon (the first since "2006", which was released in 2004, of course!, and the first proper band album since 1996's "Soft Vengeance"), and should be touring with Status Quo if the world has become somewhat normal again by then. I think those are enough reasons to talk about a band with a remarkable longevity, despite always being 'outsiders' to some degree.

Manfred Mann, of course, is just the pseudonym or stage name of Manfred Lubowitz, a keyboard player born in South Africa almost eighty years ago. His interest in jazz music was not particularly appropriate in a society that oppressed people who weren't "white", and that also didn't have much of a music scene to speak of. So Manfred dared to venture to England, and played with various musicians before eventually finding stardom (without searching for it) with a band that was simply called Manfred Mann. Despite the band having his stage name (which he derived from jazz drummer Shelley Manne, and first used when writing as a jazz critic), the keyboardist wasn't the frontman as such. This was so confusing to the public (and still is) that Manfred waited until 2014 to release an album under just his name ("Lone Arranger").

Manfred Mann, the original 1960s group, had two singers – at first Paul Jones, who left to become a solo star (didn't quite work out), then his follow-up Mike D'Abo. Other band members also came and went, including Mike Vickers, Tom McGuinness, Jack Bruce, Henry Lowther and Klaus Voormann. The one constant was drummer Mike Hugg. Now, both incarnations of the group made some really good music, and Manfred Mann stands as likely the only British beat band that could effortlessly switch between blues, pop, R&B and jazz. However, in the eye of the public they were defined by rather banal pop melodies supplied by outside writers ("Do Wah Diddy Diddy", "Pretty Flamingo", "Sha La La", "Ha! Ha! Said the Clown", "My Name Is Jack", "Fox on the Run") that, at times, felt almost immature compared to what the competition was evolving into. The boys also didn't enjoy success as much as you might think: Being chased down the street by screaming girls, as Manfred put it, wasn't nearly as fun as a young man might imagine. The band eventually stopped playing live (according to Manfred, the line-up with Mike D'Abo wasn't great live, although none of the musicians involved was bad – something that Klaus Voormann would agree with in his book), but Manfred then realized that he really liked performing on stage. It was just that the whole band image had pigeonholed him and Mike Hugg, who continued to stick with him.

The two formed a new group that was the complete antithesis to Manfred Mann: First called Emanon (at this point the pop outfit still existed), then Manfred Mann Chapter Three. This was an outfit that broke all the rules and severely confused the still existing fanbase: They recorded only self-penned material mostly written by Mike Hugg, who'd also become the singer (although he hardly had a strong voice), and switched from the drums back to his original instrument, the piano. Manfred himself stuck to electric organ. This was a band with two keyboard players and no lead guitarist! However, they had a horn section to make up for that, and lead sax player Bernie Living essentially did what, in the late-60s jam-friendly times, would normally be done by a guitar player. Still, Chapter Three was a most unusual sounding band – jazz rock with the occasional pop melody, but not linked to the US fusion scene at all and only loosely related to bands like Colosseum. It was really original, experimental and highly interesting music, but essentially too uncommercial to reach a large audience. Chapter Three disbanded before the third album (which is still unreleased in full, although six tracks were included on "Odds & Sods" and "Radio Days Vol. 3") could be released. Manfred was fed up with constantly having financial worries (Chapter Three was a big band, after all, and didn't sell that many albums or tickets), and only recording Mike's songs.

So, as I like to put it, every revolution gets followed by a counter-revolution. The new band should evolve naturally. Manfred Mann, guitarist/singer Mick Rogers, bassist Colin Pattenden and drummer Chris Slade started playing together and worked hard to find a groove and an audience willing to listen. By this time, Manfred had discovered the wonders of the Moog synthesizer (still a very unusual instrument in rock 'n' roll), and so the band could produce a big, powerful sound with just four players. One of the first recordings to showcase Mann's new instrument, besides "So Sorry Please" from the unreleased Chapter Three's third album, was actually Uriah Heep's anthem "July Morning".

The debut album of the new group (then still simply called Manfred Mann) "Stepping Sideways" was cancelled as the band had already evolved to a point where they felt the material wasn't representative of their live sound anymore. Large parts of the album surfaced in 2005 on "Odds & Sods" and show a lighter, poppier side to the band that did betray Manfred's 60s past, as did the first single, Randy Newman's "Living Without You".

By the time the actual debut was released, Chris Slade had come up with the name Manfred Mann's Earth Band, which had a nice "ring" to it (apparently "arm band", "head band" and "elastic band" were also considered!) and also tied in with the growing ecological awareness of the time. The self-titled debut album did show the harder rocking direction in some songs such as "Captain Bobby Stout" (which is still in the live set today), a much heavier re-recording of Bob Dylan's "Please Mrs. Henry" and the dissonant-but-catchy "Prayer", which was actually a re-write of the song "Dealer" from the Mike D'Abo era album "As Is". Here you can see some of Manfred's typical tricks in action: 1. Obscure songs re-arranged in a more accessible fashion, 2. using songs by master writers such as Bob Dylan (preferably, less famous ones), 3. Re-recording and re-writing of material already recorded in an earlier incarnation. All of these traits actually aren't unusual in the jazz scene, but rather uncommon in rock.

In some ways, the debut was not perfect though (and this is also something that would come back to haunt Manfred), since some of the songs were rescued from "Stepping Sideways" (including the wonderfully atmospheric instrumental "Tribute", which actually foreshadows Pink Floyd's later sound), and therefore it wasn't a really coherent recording. Even though the LP wasn't particularly long, Manfred's jazz piano solo in the Dr. John song "Jump Sturdy" was shortened. And the finale is quite disappointing, two sleepy songs sung by Manfred himself… (who was clearly inspired by Dr. John's vocal style on "Gris-Gris", but couldn't pull it off to anywhere near the same effect)

Nonetheless, a beginning was made. And MMEB started to pump out albums at an alarming pace, while playing incredible concerts. "Glorified Magnified" (which introduced the famous band logo) was another rather mixed affair with lots of dissonant and shrill moments ("Our Friend George" is a must-hear!), but also another Dylan cover ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"), a re-recording of a Chapter Three song ("One Way Glass"), a much better version of "Ashes to the Wind" (from "Stepping Sideways") and the Leadbelly song "Black Betty", which Manfred had already recorded on "As Is" as "Big Betty" but now became "Look Around" with a new lyric. "Messin'" showed the band's progress with longer and more focused tracks, especially "Buddah" and the spine-chilling "Black and Blue". The title track actually came from the unreleased Chapter Three album! And of course there was another Dylan cover ("Get Your Rocks Off").

"Solar Fire" became the apex of early MMEB. Considering the circumstances, it wasn't inevitable. The success of the standalone single "Joybringer" (based on "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity" from Gustav Holst's "Planets" suite) had led to the wish to adapt the entire cosmic (or astrological, if you wish) piece, but the band didn't get the permission to do so. Still, "Solar Fire" remained "cosmic" and includes such spectacular tracks as the hard rocking "In the Beginning, Darkness" (with Mick's voice sounding uncannily like Jack Bruce), the spherical 7/4 title track and the epic medley "Saturn, Lord of the Ring/Mercury, the Winged Messenger". True to form, the first half was actually another track from Chapter Three's unreleased third album, then titled "Fish"! And the band's tradition of covering Dylan songs (which, of course, had already yielded the 60s band hits such as "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", "Just Like a Woman" and "Mighty Quinn") also reached a total triumph in the form of "Father of Day, Father of Night" – a massive epic with lots of dramatic moments, introduced with a spectacular "sound cluster" destroying the soft choir intro, led by a solemn Mellotron melody, fueled by Mick Rogers' flaming guitar work (and also showing possibly his best vocal ever) and topped off by an emotional Moog solo. You just can't beat it!

"The Good Earth" is an album I never warmed up to. Although essentially cut from the same cloth as "Solar Fire", it always seemed to lack good material to my ears. Gary Wright's title track is one of the better songs, the crazy instrumental "Sky High" is entertaining but unfortunately without much hooks. "I'll Be Gone" is rather boring and "Launching Place" might just be the worst thing the line-up ever recorded; worst of all, it drags on for six minutes! In the end, only "Earth Hymn" (based on a Vivaldi motif) satisfies me, and the fact that it appears twice seems to underline that the band were struggling. Even the publicity surrounding the LP gimmick (if you registered within a certain time, you had the claim to one square foot of land somewhere in Wales) didn't help the album's success, although it turned out to have interesting consequences, as the area of land bought by the band is still in a very natural condition today. With hindsight, they could've also titled the album "Protect the Earth"!

MMEB were, essentially, a niche within a niche. They played hard rock with a Minimoog, progressive rock with a commercial edge – and in those early years, they stayed more or less within their own bubble. That doesn't mean they didn't socialize: They went on tours with Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, and a fledgling Rush opened for them. I'm not sure Rush ever acknowledged the influence of MMEB, but if you listen to "Nightingales & Bombers" you can hear it: The title track's intro sounds like "Xanadu"'s opening, and the odd meter in the same song foreshadows the immortal "Tom Sawyer" – as does the keyboard/guitar duel from "Time Is Right" (which is another song with a very complex structure). The album also includes the beautiful and haunting "Visionary Mountains" (which was a first hint at the coming direction) and an eternal classic in the form of "Spirits in the Night" from Bruce Springsteen's debut album. At the time Springsteen was being touted as the new Dylan, so trying the "Father of Day" formula on one of his songs made sense, and Mick turned in a fantastic wah-wah solo. Otherwise, the album was chock full of instrumentals – some great like the eerie "Countdown", some less interesting like "Crossfade", and "As Above So Below" actually turns out to be the middle section of MMEB's live arrangement of "Mighty Quinn". On the whole it's a very, very dark album, claustrophobic and discomforting in places (it also comes through in lyrics like "Fat Nelly was killed with a butcher's knife"). And apparently, this was also a reflection of the state MMEB were in.

In a way, the Earth Band of 1975 resembled Chapter Three in late 1970. Mick Rogers wanted to do other things (apparently he was among the vocalists who auditioned for Peter Gabriel's vacant place in Genesis, but Steve Hackett obviously didn't want another guitarist in the band), and the last two albums were evidently not commercial enough to garner any success. MMEB were stuck. Mick's departure could've been a fatal blow for the band, but in fact his two replacements (Chris Thompson on vocals and Dave Flett on guitar) gave the outfit a new direction and spark. Chris was an incredible vocalist and also a capable guitar player, which allowed more possibilities. And the material, this time, was only top-notch: "The Roaring Silence" turned out to be a masterpiece of sorts, effortlessly fusing the different facets of MMEB together to a majestic whole. Thompson's vocal pathos, often underpinned by a "heavenly" Mellotron sound-bed, helped to elevate the material into new spheres. One of the songs, Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" had already been rehearsed with Mick still in the band, but only in 1976 did the band manage to cut their version. The track rocketed up the charts, and suddenly, MMEB were a name in the US again. Although, as with all of Manfred's singles, you really need to hear the album version to appreciate the full beauty of the song. Other highlights include the total-freak-out 7/4 instrumental "Waiter, There's a Yawn in My Ear" (once again recorded live), the stirring "The Road to Babylon" (with Thompson's voice stabbing right into your soul), a Moog solo in "This Side of Paradise" that always gives me a lump in the throat, and the beautiful closing ballad "Questions" based on a Franz Schubert "Impromptu". (I made an attempt to cover that song, but it's just a pale shadow…) Chris also sang a new version of "Spirits in the Night", which eventually did become a hit, but doesn't really showcase Thompson's "X-factor" – you'll have to listen to live recordings to hear what the guy could do with the song.

Curiously, 1978's "WATCH" did not repeat the chart success of "The Roaring Silence" even though the material was just as strong: In fact, the album established itself over the years as THE eternal fan favourite and is widely accepted as the best album of the Thompson-fronted outfit, if not of the entire Earth Band catalog. There simply isn't a weak song, although it takes time to unfold. "Circles" is a beautiful mini-drama, the sandwich medley "Drowning on Dry Land/Fish Soup" (starting as a ballad, then morphing into a prog instrumental) packs a lot of excitement into six minutes, and Chris' voice on the coda is goosebump-inducing. Same goes for "Chicago Institute", a rocking but spooky track with astounding guitar solos, chilling chord sequences and clever vocal arrangements. "California" is a beautiful but sad acoustic-led ballad with Chris putting a lot of heart into the words (even if he apparently didn't like the song!), a guitar duel in the middle and Manfred turning in a tear-inducing Moog solo at the end. The second side contains three songs that are a must at any MMEB concert (and two were actually recorded live): The hard-rocking "Davy's on the Road Again" with a showcase synth solo, the no less dramatic and intense "Martha's Madman" and the reworked version of "Mighty Quinn" with a mind-blowing midsection. An edited (and less exciting) version was released on the tenth anniversary of the 1968 single and achieved moderate success.

Internal issues led to the band breaking up and reforming with a new line-up; only Chris Thompson and Pat King (who'd already replaced Colin Pattenden after "The Roaring Silence") remained, new additions were the inimitable Steve Waller on guitar and vocals and Geoff Britton on drums. And in an unusual move, Manfred decided to share production duties for "Angel Station" with Anthony Moore of Slapp Happy, himself a keen sonic experimentator and musician in his own right. Moore's touch helped to give "Angel Station" its mysterious atmosphere. The new sound worked especially well on the nervous six-minute "Don't Kill It Carol" (the fourth MMEB opener in a row with cello!), which featured a talkbox, piano, Moog and guitar solos and a hugely catchy chorus, and its side B counterpart "Angels at My Gate", a masterpiece in sonic layering that again shows Waller's talkbox abilities. "Hollywood Town" was originally a folk song by the relatively obscure singer/songwriter Harriet Schock, but got updated with a dramatic arrangement. True to his jazz roots, Manfred wrote a new song over the exact same changes and used more or less the same backing track for the corresponding "You Are - I Am". Amazingly, both songs work well and include stunning Moog solos! The short but captivating "'Belle' of the Earth" shows that Manfred's claim not being a good composer is totally incorrect. Another Dylan song, "You Angel You", sounds playful, and gave the band another hit. I'm less fond of the sugary "Waiting for the Rain" and the misguided attempt at a closer "Resurrection" (sung by Manfred himself).

If "Angel Station" showed that the Earth Band could get good results from developing a more polished studio sound, "Chance" proved that it could also backfire. There is nothing wrong with the performances on the album, but there are two issues: One is that Chris Thompson had tried to break away and is therefore only featured on the first three songs. Not that there's anything wrong with Peter Marsh, Dyane Birch or Willy Finlayson, and both Steve Waller and Manfred himself had already sung bits on previous albums, but at times, it feels more like "The Manfred Mann Project" as opposed to a band. Secondly, the songs just aren't as good. At least not on side 2. Side 1, on the other hand, boasts the exuberant "Lies (Through the 80s)", one of the band's best social anthems (written by Denny Newman), the dark "On the Run" (actually a re-working of "The Heat is On", which would be a hit for ex-ABBA lady Agnetha a few years later, and which is anything but "dark"!) and an eternal classic in form of Springsteen's "For You". Again, Mann's strength is making a song much more focused and extruding hooks that barely existed in the original, and Chris' vocal just seals the deal. Another remarkable track is the jolly instrumental "Fritz the Blank".

After a few singles and the longest pause between MMEB albums so far, "Somewhere in Afrika" marked the last true high point in the band's career. The album dealt mostly with Manfred's place of origin and railed against South Africa's apartheid policy by fusing the Earth Band's rock power with authentic Zulu and Xhosa chants. Untrue to form, the most striking melodic motifs (the various instances of "Brothers and Sisters of Africa") actually were written by Manfred himself. True to form, they were derived from the band's re-working of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"! Chris Thompson actually only appears on four songs, but nonetheless remained MMEB's live frontman, as can be heard on "Budapest Live". Sadly, the live album is way too short, badly sequenced, heavily edited and over-produced ("Spirits in the Night" probably isn't a live recording at all), but still essential listening (especially with the three bonus tracks that appeared on the 1998 reissue). A full double album with uncut recordings is long overdue.

"Criminal Tango" marked the return of Mick Rogers, but ironically, it did not mark a return to the prog roots, although Mick's guitar does shine on some tracks. The artist was listed as "Manfred Mann's Earth Band with Chris Thompson". Chris' vocal role was much larger than on the previous two records, while Mick only gets to sing "Rescue" and some additional vocal parts (as he already did on the cool non-LP single "Runner", which was one of two tracks added to the US release of "…Afrika"). Some of the songs are rather good, but watered down by the synthetic sound. Even Manfred, normally very well endowed with good taste, chooses some unfortunate synth sounds. The lack of direction is evident in the closer "Crossfire", an interesting but confused sounding instrumental. A version with vocals later slipped out on the 40th Anniversary Box Set and shows that turning the song into an instrumental was a mistake. The band also fell flat on its face when trying to cover The Beatles for the first and to date only time. Although Manfred has to be commended for choosing the relatively unknown (but excellent) "Hey Bulldog", the overproduced cover lacks everything that made the original so great. There are some highlights though – "Killer on the Loose" was once again supplied by Denny Newman and harkens back to the best MMEB material as it combines a chilling topic with a dazzling instrumental section. And the aggressive "You Got Me Right Through the Heart" features Chris at his vocal best and a fantastic guitar solo.

"Masque" marked the end of an era. Chris had left the band and Manfred returned to the theme of "The Planets" with a few Holst adaptations, but there are also some unexpected synthetic jazz excursions featuring Maggie Ryder's voice. Denny Newman performed vocals on his "Telegram to Monica". Drums were officially still credited to John Lingwood, but the album's main fault is the lack of proper drumming – a lot of it sounds programmed, giving the LP a very cold atmosphere. My personal highlight is the cover of Cream's "We're Going Wrong", which is at least as good as the original (and Mick Rogers tackles Jack Bruce's vocal melody with total ease). Playing the classics live with a female vocalist in Chris Thompson's place was not an option though, and so the Earth Band officially disbanded. Manfred tried to continue in a pop vein for a while (some tracks later appeared on "Odds & Sods") but then took a different turn.

Covering Michael Murphey's "Geronimo's Cadillac" (not the Modern Talking abomination!!) set Manfred on a path that eventually led to his solo project "Plains Music". This mostly consisted of music by Native American tribes arranged in a timeless, sometimes lightly jazzy manner. The two-part "Sikelele" celebrated the end of Apartheid in South Africa. This track, as well as "Medicine Song", had vocals by soul singer Noel McCalla, who would then front the new Earth Band that started playing live in the early 90s. The new band was drastically different from the old one, although Mick Rogers and bassist Steve Kinch remained. But the repertoire included a lot of new, yet unrecorded songs. Some of them eventually saw a studio version on the album "Soft Vengeance", although the result was a bit of an overproduced "bastard", with Chris Thompson replacing some of Noel's vocals late in the process. It was also perhaps a bit too safe and AOR-sounding with a lot of commercial songs and not nearly enough Mick Rogers guitar and live power, but it also included some of Manfred's most beautiful keyboard solos and some great tracks, e.g. the Dylan cover "Shelter from the Storm", the slow-burning opener "Pleasure and Pain", the dramatic "Complete History of Sexual Jealousy" (which was also a working title of the album, unsurprisingly given the main theme of the lyrics), the mournful instrumental "Adults Only" or the rocky "Miss You".

The tour, which featured both Chris (already deteriorating) and Noel on lead vocals, was captured on the live album "Mann Alive", which is longer than "Budapest" but still suffers from edits and messed up setlist (the LP reissue corrects the order, at least). Manfred then started working on the album that was eventually released in 2004 but called "2006"! It was credited to "Manfred Mann '06 with Manfred Mann's Earth Band", because Manfred felt that some of the material wasn't in the style that fans expected from the Earth Band. While it contains some good tracks like the instrumentals "Happenstance" and "Black Eyes" (a well-known Russian song) or an unexpected twist on The Coasters' "Down in Mexico", it remains my least favourite Mann album. Some of the Russian or Gregorian sounding choir stuff in the second half does not appeal to me at all, "Independent Woman" (based on a melody by Tchaikovsky) is a total disaster, not to speak of the awfully fuzzy mix. Even some of the better tracks get ruined by things like the unnecessary German rap in "Demons & Dragons" or the horrid drum programming in "Mars" (another Holst adaptation). Chris Thompson's reappearance also isn't so great because his voice was now clearly shot.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band continued to play live, including songs that never appeared on studio albums, but it seems that the recording days were finally over. In 2008, Jimmy Copley's drumming gave the band an extra edge that they hadn't had for years, but Noel McCalla eventually left in 2011 to be replaced first by Pete Cox and then permanently by Robert Hart. Manfred explained that he was working on a solo album, to be called "Rational Anthems". A single called "(Lick Your) Boots" was already released in 2011, but then withdrawn for legal reasons… The album finally came as "Lone Arranger" in 2014. It's clearly a solo album (with contributions from various musicians, including some MMEB members past and present) because the style is much more electronic and modern than MMEB's sound, and Manfred didn't shy away from covering some really well known songs such as "All Right Now", "We Will Rock You", "Light My Fire", "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Nothing Compares 2 U" or "Get It On", but doing them in very unusual ways. The album also contained three songs by other artists that had sampled Manfred's work, which now in turns was reworked by Manfred again. "One Hand in the Air" is a heavily shortened version of Kanye West's (!) "So Appalled", which contained a sample of "You Are - I Am". "One Way Stand-Up" featured Manfred playing keyboards over The Prodigy's "Stand Up", which was based on Chapter Three's "One Way Glass". He did the same with The Disco Boys' headache-inducing version of "For You", although he thankfully shortened it a bit. The album isn't always successful, but surprising and interesting.

The only thing to keep fans of the Earth Band happy besides live gigs  are various archive releases. Sadly, a lot of classic era stuff got destroyed in a fire at the end of the 80s, but the "Bootleg Archives" (Vol. 1-5 & 6-10), "Odds & Sods" and "Radio Days" plus a few DVDs do plug some holes in the discography, and continue to prove what a great live band MMEB were in almost all its incarnations.

In 2020 though, it's looking very likely that we'll finally see the release of a new, proper Earth Band album! According to Robert Hart (who just released a solo album too), it was recorded over the last four years. I had the chance to talk to Robert at the gig and asked him whether Jimmy Copley, who sadly died of leukaemia in 2017 (John Lingwood came back to fill his place in 2016), would still be on some of the recordings. He said no. I suppose this means that the recordings made before 2017 won't see the light of day anytime soon, but this is to be expected with Manfred's perfectionist tendencies (there are still tracks from the "Soft Vengeance" and "2006" sessions that have not been released). Nonetheless, I'm very much looking forward to what the guys bring forth. Robert also said there are "some Bruce Springsteen covers". I just hope the sound quality (drums especially) will be better than on "2006" and that there's no drum programming!