Once Were Brothers

Once were 2

A few months back, Robbie Robertson released "Once Were Brothers" a biography of The Band, adapted from his autobiography "Testimony." As with any good rock doc, it's a bittersweet story of the rise to stardom, fame and fortune followed by an inevitable decline. 

If you're at all interested in this story, you might know a little bit about The Band already, including backing Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 world tour where he "went electric" to a chorus of boos every night from the die-hard folk fans. The roots of The Band go back earlier than that, though. It was formed by four Canadians from Southwest Ontario (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), who joined up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm to become the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. 

The Band had its moment in the limelight in the late 1960s through the mid 70s. Their music created the American genre of music, as ironic as that is. Their first three albums stand the test of time with such classic songs as: The Weight, Stage Fright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest. They influenced artists as diverse as George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, the Black Crows, Drive-by Truckers and Paul Kelly. They continue to influence contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Nathaniel Rateliff. 

The band was together (more or less) for 16 years when Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits with a final concert, what became "The Last Waltz," filmed by Martin Scorsese. As this film makes clear, The Band was heading for destruction due to alcohol and drug issues and Robertson hoped they could take time apart to heal and pull things together. They pulled together an all-star set of musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond and more. The film also includes perhaps the greatest version of their masterpiece The Weight ever recorded with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Staple Singers.

Sadly, the original lineup never played together again, though Manuel, Danko, Helm and Hudson toured without Robertson in the 1980s. Richard Manual sadly hung himself on tour in 1986. The band continued in various configurations in the 90s, but without Robertson's songwriting, the new albums were lackluster. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Levon Helm passed away in 2012.

Robbie Robertson is the only member of the band with contemporary interviews in the film, and it's very much his story. He wasn't the singer, but he was lead guitarist, songwriter and the dominant creative force behind The Band. The film does a good job representing Helm's point of view, who bitterly resented not getting songwriting credits. But as Ronnie Hawkins notes, there's a difference between arranging a song and writing it.  

It's very much a story worth watching. It's equal parts inspiring and sobering.  

Here's a trailer:


Hot upgrades: Jamstik Studio, Uno Synth Pro, Circuit Tracks

Uno Jamstik Circuit

Looks like 2021 is starting with a ton of new announcements from NAMM and beyond. I've picked three new products to highlight here, all of which represent significant innovation in the musical instrument market. 

Zivix JamStik Studio MIDI guitar

Jamstik studioMany readers are probably aware of Zivix original products the JamStik and JamStik+. These were innovative MIDI controllers that resembled guitars, but had only 7 frets. They were portable, lightweight and great for learning guitar, but not really suited to an experienced player. 

Last year Zivix launched their JamStik Studio Guitar. It's now a proper full-size neck (24 frets, 25.5" scale) headless electric guitar with a custom-designed built-in MIDI pickup in addition to the two humbucker pickups. It's gotten great reviews and they continue to update the companion Jamstik Creator software regularly. So now if you know your way around a guitar, you can control any MIDI synth --hardware or software. The creator software tracks chords, single notes, double stops, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, you name it. You want to have your arpeggio guitar parts translated into '90s synth bass? No problem. Horn section? Why not? Run it through your favorite synth VSTs? Sure. Because it's a full-blown electric guitar, you can also blend the original guitar sound with whatever synth craziness you want, playing or recording both the electric guitar and synth sound in real-time. Whoah! 

This is the most innovative invention for guitar players since Line 6 came on strong many years ago. I'm excited to see where Zivix takes this in the future. At $799, it's definitely not the cheapest guitar you'll buy, but it is definitely the best MIDI guitar controller ever to hit the market. 

IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

Uno proI've been a fan of IK Multimedia since the original iRig guitar interface. They've continued to move up-market over the years with high quality interfaces, reasonably priced MIDI keyboard controllers and a ton of software. In 2018, they announced the UNO Synth, followed by the UNO Drum. The UNO synth is an easy-to-use analog mono-synth with rich, fat sounds, 100 presets, all in a battery (or USB) powered portable package. With a price of under $200 it was a bargain and a perfect first synth for newbies. Of course, to hit the that price point, there were some compromises. Chief among these was the keyboard, which is, well, not a keyboard at all. It's a flat surface capacitive touch controller, meaning you tap on the surface like you would on a phone or tablet. 

Just as I was starting to wonder who would out-innovate the original UNO synth, IK Multimedia announced the forthcoming UNO Synth Pro and Uno Synth Pro Desktop. The desktop continues with the capacitive touch keyboard, whereas the pro offers a world-class 37 key Fatar keybed. Both models offer an improved dual-filter, three oscillator sound engine, a dozen built-in effects including reverb, delay, overdrive, more arpeggiator options, 256 presets, a longer 64 step sequencer, song mode and more. The new model is also paraphonic, so you can play 3 notes at a time. (It's not a true polysynth, but it's good enough for triad chords and pads.) The new models are more expensive clocking in at $399 for the desktop and $649 for the larger version with the Fatar keyboard.

I'm looking forward to learning more about how synth designer Erik Norlander has incorporated the latest SSI filter to open up a richer sound palette. 

Novation Circuit Tracks

Circuit tracksLast up, this week Novation announced a new version of their Circuit groovebox. The new version uses the same Nova synth engine, and adds more flexibility for controlling outboard synths, an improved sequencer, a built-in rechargeable battery and better usability. There are also more built-in effects and a mixer.

Sadly, there's still no on-board LCD display, which I think is a drawback for some users. But they seem to know their audience. If you want to compose EDM or chill beats without firing up your DAW, this is a great all-in-one tool and definitely the easiest-to-use groovebox on the market. 

The new version lists for $399, a slight increase over the prior model. 

Let me know what you think of these devices and what other cool gear you've seen come on the market. 


Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Unfaithful music
I've been a fan of Elvis Costello since My Aim Is True fell into my life in 1977. I was still in high school and my older brother thought I would like it because of the nerdy guy with glasses on the album cover. How right he was. Over the next few years I listened to everything he put out. However, by the time Get Happy!! came out with 20 songs in 1980, I hit my saturation point. I regrettably put EC aside for more than ten years and then came back with a vengeance picking up CD versions of Taking Liberties (B-side singles), Kojak Variety, and many of the Rykodisk reissues of the '90s, replete with bonus disks, demos, live tracks etc.  

Though I never saw Costello live in the '70s (Hey, I was still in high school!) or the '80s, I more than made up for it since then, dragging my wife to more EC concerts than any other. 

So I'm pretty familiar with Costello's career. I knew all about Stiff Records, his original backing band Clover, his awkward appearance on SNL subbing for the Sex Pistols and more. I knew he'd wandered from his band the Attractions, grown a beard and gone Country, collaborated with Burt Bacharach and had dalliances into Classical and Jazz music. All was forgiven when he cut 1994's Brutal Youth with the Attractions. Then 2002's When I Was Cruel was even better. 

I probably should have jumped on his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink when it first came out. But, better late than never. I'm actually listening to the audio version of the book, as read by EC himself.  If you are fan of Elvis Costello, especially the early albums, it is definitely worth checking out. He's a fabulous raconteur and if you like his lyrics, you'll love his prose.

However, I have to say the book is definitely too long. And, more unforgiving, it's presented in schizophrenic order. We get the setup for the 1978 Hollywood High concert before we're ever told anything about My Aim Is True, or how the Attractions were formed. We hear about his meeting Paul McCartney before anything about This Year's Model. And then nothing more about co-writing with Macca for 20 chapters. There are lengthy dispatches not about Costello's upbringing, or his parents, but about his grandparents. Ok, these are the literary equivalent of the Brodsky Quartet, you can just skip these sections. 

Still, despite these weaknesses, it is one of the best rock biographies I've ever read. Costello gives you enough insight into his creative process without drowning in the details of drink, drugs and debauchery. Costello doesn't gloss over his prickly personality, personal failings or bad decisions. He's generous in acknowledging the influence of other musicians (Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell --so many Canadians!) and heaps on well-deserved praise for the Attractions. As with the best of his songs, his prose is filled with keen observation, wry commentary and wonderful delivery. It's great to hear Costello's funny as hell encounters with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johny Cash and others. He remains a true fan of music and his appreciation shines through.

It makes for a compelling read. 

Here's a video from '78 of sweaty, skinny Elvis Costello & The Attractions on German TV tearing through a thirteen song set in 45 minutes. At times the band teeters towards the brink of chaos, pulling back for a couple of numbers and somehow keeping it all together. I really should have gone to see them back in '78.


Crack The Sky - The Greatest Band You've Never Heard Of

 

Crack the sky band
Every couple of years I run into some breathtakingly fantastic band that no one has ever heard of. Often, by the time I find them, they have delved so deep into obscurity that they soon break up. (I'm looking at you BrainPool. And Thunder. And The Hellacopters.) I hope this doesn't happen to my latest discovery, Crack The Sky. This is a band that has been ahead of its time for so long that you sort of give up and think they'll never be famous. But in fact, they are big stars. Well, at least in Baltimore. 

Crack The Sky was formed in the early 1970s. They managed to put together some demos and then got picked up by the third-tier label Lifesong. Their self-titled album received rave reviews. Rolling Stone called it the debut album of the year for 1975:

"Like the first albums of Steely Dan, 10cc, and the Tubes, Crack the Sky's debut introduces a group whose vision of mid-'70s ennui is original, humorous and polished..."

The band toured with Supertramp, Foreigner, Yes, Boston, Kansas, Styx, Rush and even Frank Zappa, but never broke into the mainstream. Their songs were too complex for radio and they never had a hit single. Sometimes they got thrown off tours for blowing the headliner off the stage. The band's manager Derek Sutton was the inspiration for the character Ian Faith in the film Spinal Tap. And yes, they really did get lost trying to find their way onto the stage. 

So despite a comedy of errors, they managed to build a following and get on the radio in Baltimore. CTS, as they are known among fans, has had its ups and downs over the years, but they've mostly continued recording and touring in the Northeast. 

CTS is not to everyone's taste. It's proggy and sometimes overly-complicated. But if you look at the breadth and depth of their music, it is astonishing. Add to that they have been regularly touring and recording new material during most of this time, they are a criminally underrated band. If you like hook-laden classic rock, you owe it to yourself to check out their first album, the self-titled "Crack The Sky," "White Music" or their 2010 concept album "Machine." There are also several very good live albums and DVDs

I'd argue that all of their albums are good and many are superb. I’ve become obsessed with CTS in recent months. They have the harmonies and hooks of the Beatles, the explosive guitar of Cheap Trick, the heaviness of Pink Floyd, the musical sophistication of Steely Dan, the prog cred of King Crimson with none of the associated prog pretension.

Despite their thematic songwriting, Crack the Sky has never written a rock opera. They had an early attempt to write one to honor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (I am not making this up), but it didn't get beyond the first song. They've come pretty close with concept albums "Machine"  and "The Sale." So I'm hoping they'll give it another shot. (JP, Rick, I can show you how it's done. I'm Canadian and I'm ready to help.) I'd never heard of the band when I wrote my rock opera Underground Radio, but in some strange time-warp fashion they were a huge inspiration. 

I'm not holding out for a live gig in Michigan or California. But if there's one band I would considering getting on a plane to see, it's Crack The Sky. Check out the videos below for great live performances of From The Greenhouse and Hold On / Surf City. There's also a jazzy acoustic version of Surf City filled with Beatle breaks. Unbelievable! 

 


More Rock Opera Reviews

Rock operas
Over the last couple of months, I've posted several new rock opera reviews over at www.rock-opera.com. These include:

  • Crack The Sky - Machine (2010)
    The best rock band you've never heard of with one of their best albums ever. CTS combines the best elements of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Cheap Trick. And they're still recording and touring after 40 years.
  • Green Day - American Idiot (2004)
    One of the rare rock operas that actually accelerated a band's career. It's a great album from one of the best three-chord rock bands to come out of the Bay Area's punk scene.
  • Styx - Kilroy Was Here (1983)
    Coming in after 4 platinum selling albums in the late '70s / early '80s, lead singer and songwriter Dennis DeYoung had multimedia ambitions that resulted in a lumbering story about a surveillance government where rock music is illegal and two guys try to.... Well whatever. There are a couple of great songs, but if you want to why the band split up, this is the answer. 
  • KISS - Music From the Elder (1981)
    Possibly the worst rock opera ever and certainly a finalist for worst album ever, this was Gene and Paul's attempt to win critics over. Unfortunately, the album is turgid, overloaded with Bob Ezrin's coke-fueled production, strings, and a storyline that makes Styx look like Shakespeare. A few fans really like this album, but even Gene and Paul consider it a stinker. 
  • Lou Reed - Berlin (1973)
    Possibly the most alienating but moving rock opera out there. It was a commercial disaster for Reed, who had his biggest hit ever with "Walk on the Wild Side." Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin produced a masterpiece that you might not be able to listen to more than once. 
  • David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
    It's an album so good, you might not even realize it's a rock opera! It's short, just 38 minutes, but all eleven songs are good and half of them are among Bowie's best.

Check out www.rock-opera.com for the full reviews, remastering news and more.


Let It Be Revisited

Let it be
It's hard to believe that the Beatles final album, Let It Be, was released 50 years ago. The album came out on May 8 and the documentary of the same name was released a week later in theaters in the US and two weeks later in the UK. 

Get backThe story of the album is well known: Paul McCartney, at this point the de facto band leader, wanted to create a "back to basics" album, originally known as Get Back. Instead of the psychedelic studio production wizardry of Sergeant Pepper's, or the tension-filled solo recordings of The White Album, this was to be the four of them, playing new songs in a live television concert special.  

In early 1969, the band started rehearsing at Twickenham studios. Film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was invited as a fly-on-the-wall, to film all of it. He shot over fifty hours of footage, which resulted in the cinéma vérité documentary.

The film tells no story, has no plot and other than when the Beatles are playing live, is not very good. It shows the lads rehearsing, playing cover songs, arguing, goofing around, etc. There's a strange scene where McCartney talks non-stop for several minutes to Lennon who doesn't say a word. It's hard to determine who is more bored: Lennon or the audience.

The film has an undeserved reputation as capturing the band's break up. There are a couple of moments where you see the tension, but there are far more scenes, especially when they're playing, where you get to witness the magic of four people connecting, playing live with some of their most famous songs. 

The original film has been out of circulation for decades. I managed to see it in college in about 1980 and then more recently downloaded an, ah, archival copy. For Beatles fans it is still remarkable to see them play songs such as "Two Of Us," "Let It Be," "Dig a Pony" and others. You also get to witness the famous rooftop concert featuring "I've Got A Feeling," "Get Back," and "One After 909" I had forgotten a very funny scene where Lennon flubs the lyrics in the otherwise heartfelt "Don't Let Me Down" in a most creative fashion

The album is good, if a bit of mixed bag. Following the rooftop concert, several mixes were made by Glyn Johns and rejected by the Beatles. The band lost interest and then proceeded to begin work on the much stronger album Abbey Road. The Get Back project sat on the shelves for months. Phil Spector was called in to rescue the album and added orchestral strings and choir overdubs to four songs. The album came out more than a year after it was recorded under the new name Let It Be.

Although McCartney disliked Spector's final mix, Lennon defended Spector's work a 1971 interview saying:

"...he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit, with a lousy feeling toward it, ever. And he made something out of it. He did a great job."

Not one to leave well enough alone, in 2003 McCartney remixed the album as Let It Be... Naked, excising Spector's embellishments and substituting two tracks. It's different, but you'd be hard pressed to say it's better.

As of yet, there has been no 50th anniversary remixing of Let It Be, as we have had for Sergeant Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road. There is a new documentary film The Beatles: Get Back, being created by director Peter Jackson, Although originally expected in September 2020, the film has now been delayed by almost a year. The film uses Lindsay Hogg's original footage as well as over 140 hours of audio to create a new documentary. My hope is that there will be a new Deluxe album to go with it.

I just wish it wasn't going to take so long.


Underground Radio Remastered

Underground Radio - Vinyl 3

Given the shelter-at-home quarantine we've all been faced with, I finally got around to remastering my rock opera Underground Radio. Mastering is distinct from mixing and is a separate phase of production during which a talented audio engineer listens to your album and makes adjustments to the overall sound, as opposed to the individual instruments or vocal tracks.

It turns out that at least some of the mastering process can be automated through the use of artificial intelligence. So I used a nifty automatic service called LANDR. I think the songs came out punchier and louder. I also fixed two niggling things that bothered me in the title track and adjusted the album artwork to better show the "ring wear" of an old vinyl album. You can listen to the remastered songs at rock-opera.com, SoundCloud or download them free from Box.

Here's a comparison of the original version:

And the remastered version:

Now you can definitely hear all three chords!

All of this was done in preparation for the music to be distributed digitally on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, DeezerTidal, etc. I've used CD Baby and BandCamp for distribution. The Bandcamp album features embedded mp3 lyrics, a 45 page Digital Libretto and 5 bonus instrumentals all for $5.

Here's the Spotify version but choose whatever service you prefer.


Fiverr and the Quest for Perfect Tab Files

GuitarPro - Redbone

If you don't understand the headline, this post is not for you. But for guitar and bass players who might not be able to figure out a song by ear, a tab file is a musical notation that makes learning songs easy. Tablature is a very old music system which shows where your fingers should be positioned to play a fretted instrument. Though not perfect, tab notation is much easier than reading traditional musical notation with clef bars, treble bars and all those squiggly lines.

In the 1980s, tablature became popular in guitar magazines and music books which published licensed transcriptions of guitar solos in a form that the average guitar player could read. With the rise of the internet 1990s, amateur musicians began posting thousands of their own text-based tablatures. In the early 2000's, Guitar Pro, a brilliant software application from the French company Arobas Music, took things to a whole other level by creating a tool that could not only create tablature files, but it could play the music it represented. You could create and playback all of the different instruments (guitar, bass, drums, piano...), and you could isolate, slow down and loop parts, making it easy to practice new parts.

I've beee using Guitar Pro almost daily for more than 10 years. If you're a musician, you should just click on over to the Guitar Pro site and get a free trial download. It works best on a computer (Windows or Mac) though it is also available for tablet and smartphones. 

While you can find most popular music in Guitar Pro file formats (e.g. .gp, .gpx, .gp5 etc) every now and then there will be a song I can't find or whose tab file is terribly wrong. So recently, I used the online task marketplace Fiverr to commission the creation of a couple of new Guitar Pro files. I was blown away by the quality of the work. 

These are excellent Guitar Pro (.gp) transcriptions of some admittedly obscure songs:

Come and Get Your Love is a campy early 1970s song that had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity after inclusion in the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. It's impossible to play this song and not have a smile on your face. The guitar chords are straightforward: Em, A, D, Bm repeated in the verse and the chorus.  The bass part is a pretty busy sequence of staccato 8th notes. It's quite a fun funky sound, replete with '70s fashion, wah-wah, cowbell, strings and even a sitar. There's a great story in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year where Redbone bass player Pat Vega describes the history of the song and how he and his brother Lolly wrote it. 

Shama Lama Ding Dong is even more obscure. It was a hit by the fictional band Otis Day & The Knights as portrayed in the 1978 film Animal House. It's an homage to early R&B and rock songs of that era. Little known fact: Robert Cray plays bass in the film.

In addition to the Guitar Pro app, Arobas offers MySongBook, an online store where you can buy songs or a subscription. There are also many free Guitar Pro files available online at GproTab.net, GuitarProTabs.org, GuitarProTabs.net, UltimateGuitar etc. Or just google any song you're looking for.

Kudos to RaymondMusic on Fiverr who completed these perfect transcriptions. 

And here are a couple of great videos of these songs:


Wishbone Ash - 50 Years & Still Rocking

Wishbone Ash is one of those epic '70s bands that burned brightly for a few years, releasing top 10 albums, playing stadiums worldwide and then seemingly vanished. If you weren't listening to prog rock in '72 or maybe '74 you might never have heard of them. They never had a charting single in the US, no "Behind the Music" VH1 special, nothing. That makes it all the more surprising that 50 years later they are still recording and touring in the US and Europe.

Although Argus, their most famous and best-selling album, is not a rock opera, it comes pretty close. It's a concept album with a solid unifying theme (something to do with England and uh, fighting for king and country). It's an amazing album that ranges from prog rock to folk-rock harmonies, classic English blues and straight ahead rock and roll. It still sounds fresh and inspired almost 50 years later. To my mind Argus is one of the most important rock albums ever made. Argus is up there with the pantheons of British rock: The Shadows, Abbey Road, Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin I, Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars and Never Mind the Bollocks. I don't think you can really understand the evolution and scope of rock and roll until you've heard this album. It's the Rosetta Stone that ties together everything from CSNY to Iron Maiden. 

Wishbone Ash pretty much invented the twin lead guitar sound which went on to influence bands like Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Steely Dan and even the Eagles. As mentioned, the band still records and tours, led by original lead guitar player Andy Powell. While they never surpassed the impact of Argus, they've had a productive career with 20 studio albums, a dozen live albums and many compilations. If you want to get a taste of the band, I recommend Argus, the compilation Time Was, and the live album Live Dates. There are some solid later albums including New England, Bona Fide, Elegant Stealth, No Smoke Without Fire. Blue Horizon, their most recent album, comes closest to capturing the magic of Argus. And next year should see the release of a new album Coat of Arms and another worldwide tour.

I've seen them live on several occasions at Callahan's, a now defunct club in Michigan, and they did not disappoint. These were among the best live shows I've seen. Check out some live clips on YouTube with vintage '70s pointy guitars, hairstyles and wardrobe. 


So Then I Wrote a Rock Opera

Ur banner

This article was originally published at Linkedin

In early 2014, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, Duo Security, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.

So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?

The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."

I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.

Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.

Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.

As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.

They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”

Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic "Can I make this suck less?"

I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.

Ur selfmade lyricsRob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and let's see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and managing family obligations.

Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!

But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.

We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?

Ur orchestraLong story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.

So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.

I hope you'll go to the skills section of my Linkedin profile and click on Rock Opera to show your endorsement. 

Update: The project overachieved on its funding target by 150% and was completed on time. All of the music, the bonus tracks and the Libretto are available for free download at www.rock-opera.com. You can also listen for free at SoundCloud. The music is published under an open source Creative Commons attribution license and can be used, copied, shared and re-mixed freely.

Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Traverse City, Michigan.


Tom Petty Biog

Petty-title

I'm not a huge Tom Petty fan. Sure, I'm familiar with his top 40 radio hits. You couldn't avoid Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in the '80s and '90s. But I never saw them live and never followed them that closely. But "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes is something special. First of all Warren Zanes knows his music. His band, the Del Fuegos, opened for Tom Petty in the '80s. And he's an unapologetic fan. But he's also an extremely gifted and objective writer who brings a serious study to a field that is littered with "I was there" stories that don't tell you anything you don't already know. 

Zanes explores the ups and downs of Petty's career with remarkable insight. He's also great at putting a broader societal context on the evolution of the music business. You get the feeling of what was going down in Gainesville in the 70s and what gave Petty, Benmont Trench, Mike Cooper and others the drive to sustain themselves when so many bands fell by the wayside. What emerges is the complex story of a band that managed to (more or less) evolve and stay together for 40 years under the leadership and songwriting of Tom Petty. You get to experience the band politics, friendships and loss. There are also some very funny scenes whether it's about the manager who needed a manager or touring with Bob Dylan. This is a great book, told by someone who understands the music world. If you're a fan of Tom Petty, you will love it even more.

Best of all, Zanes narrates the audiobook himself.  Here's a video of the original line up of the Heartbreakers covering that '60s classic "Louie, Louie."


Guy Pratt - My Bass & Other Animals

Pratt book

Although I was not familiar with Guy Pratt, I certainly knew many of the bands he played with: Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Robbie Robertson and Pink Floyd to name a few. His book "My Bass and Other Animals" though poorly titled, is a terrific account of what it's like to play sideman to the legends of the music industry. It's like sitting down at a pub with an old friend from high school thirty years later  and discovering he toured with one of the biggest bands in history and he lets you in on all the crazy shenanigans.

This book’s genesis is from a series of life/stand up performances that Pratt did telling his stories of life as a rock and roll Road dog. That said, as a conventional autobiography it starts a bit slow as you learn about Pratt’s upbringing, first bass, first band etc. As Pratt's career takes off, the store is become quite funny. There were times when I was in stitches due to the materials as well as Pratt’s wonderfully dry English delivery. The stories about Pink Floyd are hilarious. If you listen to the audio version you also get Pratt's very entertaining American regional English accents. Here's a video of Guy Pratt talking about smashing his bass on stage at the end of  his tour with Pink Floyd. 

For bass heads or other musicians, the last chapter includes a full rundown of just about every bass, guitar, amp, and effects pedal that Pratt has owned. This is a great book and an awful lot of fun. But if you are bothered by stories of drug taking or drink, probably best to skip it.

And just for posterity's sake, here's a twenty-six year-old fresh-faced Guy Pratt playing bass on "Money" from the 1988 Delicate Sound of Thunder tour, live album and DVD. However, brace yourself for those dreaded late-eighties fashions.