Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.

Music in Sheds

Can You Sing?

A year on, and Music in Sheds is still lacking a regular singer. A few people have had a stab at it, but no one claims to be any good at it. Besides, it’s difficult to sing and play an instrument at the same time. It can be a bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly.

Cloudburst 1982, Stage invasion

I’ve toyed with the idea of singing, on and off. It’s not like I haven’t done it before. Back in my Cloudburst days, I used to sing backing vocals. Backing vocals is easy. You generally can’t be heard above the main singer anyway.

I’ve only ever sung lead vocal twice: once when Cloudburst performed Hawkwind’s Spirit of the Age. [And if you’ve heard the song, you’ll know that it’s more of a monologue.] Not only did I sing lead, I played the keyboard at the same time. Well, I say “played” — I’d actually programmed the keyboard to arpeggio, all I had to do was hold down two chords. It sounded pretty awful.

Cloudburst, Christmas 1982: Spirit of the Age

The next time I braved the mic was 20 years later, when I was recording a song for The Moles’ Worm Pizza project. I’d reinterpreted We Are the Moles by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, and it needed a vocal. As there was no one else to sing, I had to do it myself. I attacked the task with the attitude that I was going to sing in the style of Peter Murphy or David Bowie. I sounded nothing like them, but it was a passable vocal. Job done.

The thing is: it’s probably fair to say that most people can sing — a bit. We’ve all sung in the shower, in church, at the match, at a gig, etc. But that’s usually because no one can hear you. And, let’s face it, when was the last time someone complimented your lovely singing voice?

It’s true that some people can’t sing for toffee. In my experience, a small number of unfortunate souls are tone deaf, and the sound coming from their mouths is not what was intended, at least some of the time. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s a terrible curse. I like to think that they excel in some other respect, to compensate.

Hovis Malone singing

But, the main barrier to singing, at least in my case, is embarrassment. How do singers do it? I guess I have the same problem with public speaking too. I can do it, but I hate it. Once I get started, I can talk to a room full of people, after an initial rush of fear and adrenaline, and several hours of anxiety. I’d just rather not. It’s less stressful!

So when Munsif, Rick, Lee, Richard and James sang at Music in Sheds, I was full of respect. No one laughed, and it helped the flow of music tremendously. It didn’t look scary at all.

So, if you fancy having a bash at singing with Music in Sheds. Please, let me know!


2019 Favourites

I used to pride myself in keeping up to date with contemporary music, but in recent years, this has proven harder to manage. I guess I’m not in regular contact with as many fanatics as I used to be. So, in a way, it’s a special treat when I come across a really good album to obsess over for a few weeks. In 2019, I managed three:

The Silver Globe (2014), Jane Weaver

The Silver Globe (2014) by Jane Weaver

I’m kicking myself for not paying closer attention to Jane Weaver. I remember reading Piccadilly Records’ 2014 recommendations and seeing a great write-up on this album. I mustn’t have followed it up properly. Fortunately, an old friend mentioned her early this year in the same breath as Broadcast and Stereolab, and I remembered to look.

This album shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a weird mix of psychedelic space rock, folk, motorik krautrock and pop. I even recognised a purloined Hawkwind sample in one song. The melodies are very catchy and the repetitive driving rhythms are hypnotic. Love it. The Amber Light quick follow-up is very good too, though some of it is just a re-hash of this album.

Heartbreak (2019), Unloved

Heartbreak (2019) by Unloved

I really enjoyed Unloved’s first album (Guilty of Love), so I was pleased to learn that the follow-up was out this year. I first discovered their music through the TV crime thriller Killing Eve. When I googled “Unloved” and discovered that DJ/soundtrack guru David Holmes was involved, I was in for the ride.

At first, I was disappointed in this album, as it’s not as brash, catchy and immediate as their first. But after a few plays, each track introduces itself to you, and you realise that there’s quite a lot going on under the surface. And, despite it having a real 60s Phil Spector vibe going on, it’s amazingly modern and sophisticated. I got to see Unloved live this year too. Highly recommended.

Three Friends (1972), Gentle Giant

Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant

As a big Progressive Rock fan in my teens, I listened to all sorts of weird and wonderful nonsense, from Amon Düül II to Zappa, via Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. At the time, I bought a Gentle Giant album (The Missing Piece), but it was awful, and I forgot all about them. Reading about them again recently, I decided to try some earlier albums of theirs.

I’m very glad I did. Their most popular album Octopus (1972) is great, but the preceding two albums are even better, to my ears, especially Three Friends (also 1972). The first track is a mind-blowing combination of virtuosic playing, time signature and key changes, poly-rhythms, with rock music colliding with choral music. And it does all this without sounding contrived or pretentious. The rest of the album jumps about from one experiment to the next, with plenty of soul and sweat thrown into the mix too. Why did I leave it so long?