Essential Music: John Dowland

I have always loved the music of John Dowland, and I’ve recently started playing guitar again, in part to play some of the lovely music he composed for lute. Dowland’s music has a unique sound, partly joyous, partly melancholic. As an example title of his best known piece of music – Lachrimae – means “tears.”

But Dowland’s melancholy isn’t always sad; it’s nostalgic, it’s a longing for something lost, it’s a recognition of the sadness of the world. It was part of a trend: Elizabethan melancholy was present in music, poetry, and art. It can be seen in Shakespeare, such as the first lines of The Merchant of Venice, spoken by Antonio:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

A number of Shakespeare’s characters exhibited this melancholy: Hamlet, for example, or Jaques, in As You Like It.

Dowland’s music reproduces that tone of melancholy, but he transcended much of the music of his time. Writing songs for voice and instruments (often lute, with the addition of viol), solo lute works, viol consort pieces, and music for other ensembles, Dowland’s music covers the majority of the forms of secular music of the time. (He also wrote some sacred songs.)

The heart of his oeuvre is his four books of songs for solo voice and accompaniment, or for multiple voices (in madrigal style), his 100 or so lute pieces, and his consort music. His hit Lachrimae saw a set of remixes called Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, a set of seven versions of the Lachrimae song for five viols and lute, together with fourteen additional pieces dedicated to specific people. One thing you’ll notice is that Dowland reworked many of his pieces. For example, the song Flow My Tears is pretty much the same as Lachrimae, and there are a number of his songs that are taken from lute solos (and vice versa).

Dowland collectedThere are two essential sets of Dowland’s music. The first is John Dowland: The Collected Works. (, Amazon UK) This 12-disc set, recorded by Anthony Rooley and The Consort of Musicke in the 1970s, includes just about all of Dowland’s music. There are probably some pieces whose authorship is contested, and others which have been found since then are not included. The recording is a bit aged, but the sound is excellent, and the performers some of the best of the period. The lute music is played by five different performers.

Dowland lindbergThe second set worth getting is the Complete Music for Solo Lute, by Jakob Lindberg. (, Amazon UK) This budget set of 94 works for lute is the best performed and best recorded set of the lute works. The Collected Works also contains his lute music, and Lindberg even plays one of its four CDs, but his solo set is better. Another excellent – and also budget-priced set – is one by Nigel North, who also plays part of the lute music on the Collected Works set. (, Amazon UK)

For most people, The Collected Works is the most interesting set. If, however, you really like lute music, or if you only want the lute works, then the Lindberg or North sets are worth having. I have all of them, of course…

No matter what, check out John Dowland’s music. His unique sound may convert you to his manner of Elizabethan melancholy.

Essential Music: Einojuhani Rautavaara

Finnish conductor Einojuhani Rautavaara is enigmatic. His music straddles the line between tonal and atonal, as he dabbled with serialism in the early part of his career, but later discovered his own voice, hyper-romantic and even mystical. I find it hard to describe his music, and compare it to Toru Takemitsu, another composer whose sound world is unique.

Rautavaara’s music is not an easy listen at first, as you need to adapt to his approach, often with complex orchestrations. Born in 1928, he has composed eight symphonies and 12 concertos, along with a number of operas, choral works, and other compositions. The Finnish label Ondine has released dozens of CDs with his works, and there are two low-priced box sets which serve as a perfect introduction to Rautavaara’s music. (I just wish Ondine’s discography were a bit clearer. Some of these works are available on several different CDs, and if you want to try and get all of this composer’s music, it’s not simple.)

Rautavaraa concertos12 Concertos (, Amazon UK) includes all of Rautavaara’s works for solo instrument and orchestra. They feature violin, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, and three piano concertos.

The most interesting concert is certainly Cantus Arcticus, his Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, which is an orchestra playing along with a tape recording of arctic bird song. This work manages to bring together two different types of sound it a surprising way. The four discs in this set are organized by type of instrument, and each disc makes a nice hour-long program of Rautavaara’s music.

Rautavaraa symphoniesThe 8 Symphonies (, Amazon UK) is also a four-disc set covering all of the composer’s symphonic works. Rautavaara does not follow any standard template of symphonies, and the works change greatly as he evolves. Presented in chronological order, this is a good way to discover how the composer changed over the years.

Rautavaraa choral musicAnd his choral works, also available in a 4-disc box set, are intriguing. (, Amazon UK) I’m not usually partial to modern choral music; I find it often sounds contrived, as if it’s just copying a sort of modern choir sound, trying to achieve a texture with dissonance and chromaticisms. Rautavaraa’s choral music, however, grabs me in a way that I didn’t expect.

Rautavaara also composed a number of operas, which I don’t care for, but another two-disc set of his Complete Works for String Orchestra (, Amazon UK) is worth checking out if you find you like his music.

If you’re interested in discovering a composer who doesn’t easily fit in a box, you might want to take a chance on one of these sets. Rautavaraa’s music isn’t for every one, but you might feel, as I do, that this is a sound world that has much to say.

Note: If you’re curious as to how his name is pronounced, go here.

Update: Rautavaraa passed away in July, 2016. Here’s a link to his obituary in the Guardian.

Essential Music: LC by The Durutti Column

Durutti lcAfter the first album by The Durutti Column – The Return of the Durutti Column – had appeared like an alien in the post-punk music scene, Vini Reilly released a second album, LC, containing more mellow instrumentals and a few plaintive songs. Instead of just “the guitarist” and “the producer” (Martin Hannett) that were credited on the first album, LC saw the addition of Bruce Mitchell on drums and percussion.

From the first drum beats of Sketch for Dawn (1), it’s clear this album is different from Return. First, Vini is singing, and second, it sounds more like a band. (The Durutti Column was always Vini Reilly and whoever he was playing with at the moment; it was never a real “band.”) He doesn’t sing on all the tracks; there are plenty of instrumental tracks, as on the first album (Jacqueline, Messidor, The Sweet Cheat Gone, etc.), but there are a few songs.

LC contains what may be the most beautiful song Vini Reilly ever wrote: Never Known. This minor key ballad with lots of reverb and phasing, over a simple guitar rift, features Vini’s voice barely audible, and its melody is nearly heart-breaking.

LC was quite a spontaneous album. Vini Reilly has said:

“I had no real plans for a second album. Then one day, guitarist Bill Nelson sold me a four-track Teac tape machine, and I started putting a drum machine through an echo unit whilst playing the guitar. I recorded a whole album’s worth of material in five hours; then Bruce Mitchell and I went into a studio and put the lot down in two hours.”

Released in an expanded, remastered version in 2013 (, Amazon UK), LC is also now available on vinyl, for those who like that sort of thing. (, Amazon UK) The expanded CD contains lots of tracks that were released on singles, EPs, and compilations, many of which have long been hard to find. These include the cassette compilation From Brussels with Love, the vinyl compilation The Fruit of the Original Sin, and Ghosts of Christmas Past, originally on Les Disques du Crepuscule. There are some demos, the three songs from The Factory Quartet, the early Factory Records release featuring The Durutti Column and three other artists, and more. The vinyl edition includes a previously unreleased 7″ single with two live tracks.

If you’re not a fan of The Durutti Column, this album may convert you; it contains some of Vini Reilly’s finest music. If you are a fan, the extra tracks in this set will make it worth buying yet another copy of the album. And if you like vinyl, well, here’s your chance.

You can also buy this and other Durutti Column re-issues from Factory Benelux records.

Essential Music: Amigos em Portugal, by The Durutti Column

Amigos em portugalThe Durutti Column (aka Vini Reilly) recorded an album in 1983 for a small Portuguese record label. Entitled Amigos em Portugal, this record has been hard to find since its release. (I actually still have an original vinyl copy of it.) Recorded in just a few days, Vini laid down some tracks, mostly instrumental, of some works in progress. The music was similar to what he would soon record on Without Mercy, and Vini made some of his finest music in these few days.

Unfortunately, this album was never really supposed to be released, and Vini never earned any money from it. For many years, it was one of the most collectible Durutti Column albums. Now, Cargo Records has reissued the album, which is available in a package containing an LP and a CD, each of which has been remastered with specific masters (i.e., one for the LP and another for the CD).

If you’re a Durutti Column fan, you must own this. Even thought it’s mostly a collection of sketches, these are some of Vini’s finest songs. (One of my favorites is Wheels Turning, with Vini’s slightly off-key vocals over a piano accompaniment.)

The same label has also reissued Live at the Venue, another limited LP release from the same period. Recorded in 1982 at The Venue, in London, this record features Vini Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell. The sound is rough, but it gives a good picture of what the band sounded like live, back in the day.

Essential Music: Children on the Hill, by Harold Budd

BrusselsIn 1980, I first heard the music of Harold Budd. The only piece I heard at the time was a single piece of music on an obscure sampler called From Brussels with Love, (, Amazon UK) released by a (then) little-known Belgian label called Les Disques du Crepuscule. (Fortunately, this recording has since been released on CD. Children on the Hill has also been released on Budd’s The Serpent in Quicksilver. (, Amazon UK)) You can also buy the song alone on the iTunes Store.

This cassette contained music by many other musicians and groups that I have come to love – such as The Durutti Column, John Foxx, Michael Nyman, and Gavin Bryars – but what stuck with me most about this tape was the one simple piano piece by Harold Budd.

Deceptively simple, subtly emotional, this is a chromatic piano piece about five minutes long where the right hand plays a haunting melody over a simple rhythmic left-hand part that, for most of the piece, plays just four notes.

It’s hard to describe the beauty of this piece and its understated melody that rises and falls like the eternal breath of life. But when I first heard it, I was so taken by the music that I copied it to an endless loop cassette tape and would spend hours listening to it. Even today, hearing this piece brings tears to my eyes.

I later discovered other music by Harold Budd, including his albums The Plateaux of Mirror, released the same year; The Pavilion of Dreams, released in 1978; and his 1984 classic The Pearl, recorded with Brian Eno, who produced much of his work, and then his later recordings (I have a couple dozen Harold Budd albums now). One notable recent recording by Harold Budd is a live piano recital from 2006, Perhaps (, Amazon UK), which contains one track that is a riff on the melodies of Children on the Hill. It’s worth noting that when Budd performed this piece live, he would improvise on it for a long time. You can download a 23-minute version from a 1982 concert here. An excerpt of this performance was included on a cassette that Les Disques de Crépuscule released called Chicago 1982: A Dip in the Lake.

Budd’s music has always retained this naïve simplicity, yet his seemingly simple melodies hide a powerful ability to move and transfix the listener. His music exudes stillness and quiet, and speaks to each listener in a unique way.

Unforgettable, like a sunset on a lonely beach, Harold Budd’s music is inimitable.

Essential Music: Metamatic by John Foxx

MetamaticJust over 35 years ago, John Foxx released his first solo album, Metamatic. Taking the name from a painting by artist Jean Tinguely, this album stands as one of the classics of early electro-new wave.

After recording three albums with Ultravox, John Foxx left the band to strike out on his own. Unlike Ultravox’s art-rock sound, Foxx developed an electronic, nearly industrial tone for this record. This isn’t in any way the industrial music of Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten, but closer to the sounds that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were to feature in their early albums. Most of the music is synthesized, with a mechanical, robotic tone; the bass sounds like the engines in a massive ship, and the drum kit has “cymbal” sounds like compressed air. All this gave the album a futuristic tone at the time of its release.

Foxx has said that the album was recorded in “an eight-track cupboard in Islington,” and has discussed how he was heavily influenced, at the time, by the novels of science fiction author J. G. Ballard. As such, the album is full of references to cars and roads (Ballard’s novel Crash), and is rife with references to a sterile, industrial world. In addition to creating a sound, Foxx released an album of excellent songs: Underpass, No-One Driving, Plaza, A New Kind of Man, He’s a Liquid, and more. There’s not a weak song on the album.

Flashing back to early 1980, this was a transitional period. The Clash had just released the swan song of punk, London Calling, and Pink Floyd had released The Wall, just before Metamatic hit the stores. Joy Division had released their first album, Unknown Pleasures, and was working on a second album, Closer, another Ballardian work, which was finished shortly before lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide a few months later. This was also the year of The Durutti Column’s first album, Return of the Durutti Column, and the charts included songs by Gary Numan, Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire, and The Passions. More mainstream musicu included that was on the airwaves at the time included The Pretenders’ Brass in Pocket, the ur-rap song Rapper’s Delight, by the Sugarhill Gang, and Madness’ iconic One Step Beyond.

Like many musicians of the time in the UK, Foxx leaned toward continental Europe, taking influence from Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Much of the early new wave music owed a lot to these early electronic bands, not just musically. I remember well the music videos of the time, with the young men in their angular haircuts, starkly dressed, often in long coats, trying so hard to look German. Look at Foxx’s photo on the album cover: shades of gray, as he stands there looking dapper in his button-down shirt and wide tie. When I saw Ultravox live that year, after Midge Ure had taken Foxx’s place, the band, now a smooth synth band, all wore the requisite gray coats as they performed music from their best-selling album Vienna.

Metamatic seemed, for a while, like a one-off in Foxx’s career. His follow-up albums, such as The Garden, eschewed the industrial sounds and leaned toward a more lyrical, nearly anthemic approach (especially the songs The Garden and Europe After the Rain). Throughout his career he has oscillated between two extremes: this rough-hewn electro-pop, and pure ambient music (including some wonderful collaborations with Harold Budd). Metamatic sits at one end of this continuum.

In addition to the album itself, the Metamatic period was full of great singles and B-sides, such as Glimmer (a great instrumental, which was the B-side to No One’s Driving), Film One (another instrumental), and perhaps the most industrial/Ballardian song, Burning Car, the A-side of a single released in 1980. All of these extra tracks from the period are available in the bargain box set, John Foxx: The Virgin Years, 1980-1985. (, Amazon UK) This set contains Metamatic, The Garden, The Golden Section, and In Mysterious Ways, along with lots of extra tracks. (In other words, don’t just buy Metamatic if you want the album; you definitely need at least the bonus tracks from that period.) Otherwise, there is a two-disc edition of Metamatic alone available. (, Amazon UK)

A new kind of manFoxx also performed the entire Metamatic album live, along with several of the single sides, in 2008, and released an album from those performances called A New Kind of Man. (, Amazon UK) While it may seem like a nostalgic exercise, this album actually takes these songs and reworks them just enough to make them sound fresh, while retaining most of their original sounds. If you do like Metamatic, you should absolutely hear A New Kind of Man.

Essential Music: Bill Evans Live in 1980

Bill evansBill Evans may have been the greatest jazz pianist ever, but his life was, unfortunately, too short. Born in 1929, he died on September 15, 1980, of a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and pneumonia. A drug addict for much of his career – he had periods where he was hooked on heroin, and others on cocaine – his death was what a friend called “the longest suicide in history.”

Yet when Bill Evans sat down at the piano, magic come from his fingers. From playing piano as a sideman, such as on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (, Amazon UK), widely considered to be the best jazz album of all time, to his first live recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard (, Amazon UK), made in 1961, and through dozens of solo and trio recordings over the following two decades.

In 1980, Evans didn’t know he was at the end, but there is a feeling of wistful nostalgia in his live performances of those last months. Fortunately, many of them were recorded, and there are three essential box sets of music from this period.

In June 1980, Evans played several dates at the Village Vanguard, and a six-disc set of these performances, Turn Out the Stars (, Amazon UK), was released in 1996. Recorded from June 4 to June 8, with bass player Marc Johnson, and drummer Joe LaBarbera, there is just over six and a half hours of music on this set, with notably a number of very long performances of Miles Davis’ Nardis, which was Evans’ signature jamming song. (It allowed both the bass player and drummer to take extensive solos.)

From August 31 to September 8, 1980, Evans played a series of dates at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Again, there are extensive recordings of these shows, with two 8-CD box sets available: The Last Waltz (, Amazon UK) contains music from the first sets, and Consecration (, Amazon UK) has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These were recorded on the sly, but the quality of the sound is excellent.

Evans played a combination of standards and his own compositions, and his improvisational ability is such that you barely notice it at times; it often sounds like the songs were written exactly as he played them, but as you listen to different versions, you can hear the changes.

I have long loved Evans’ music, and particularly these recordings from the end of his life. I first bought Turn Out the Stars in 1996, after listening to bits of it at a record store. My knowledge of jazz was quite limited then (and isn’t a whole lot more extensive now), but I immediately heard Evans’ masterful playing. When the other two box sets came out in 2000 and 2002, I bought them immediately. I have many Bill Evans recordings – I bought a couple of box sets of his complete recordings on different labels – but these are the ones I return to most, along with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. If you like jazz piano, these are essential recordings to own. If you just want one of the sets, I’d recommend Turn Out the Stars, which, with six discs, covers a wide variety of the songs Evans played.

Essential Music: Franz Schubert’s Complete Songs

034571142012Franz Schubert Complete Songs
Hyperion Records
40 CDs plus book containing song texts, 2005. List price £150.

Buy from:, Amazon UK. Buy directly from Hyperion Records, on CD or by download.

In 1987, Hyperion Records began a colossal project: the recording of all of Franz Schubert’s songs (or lieder), a total of 729 songs performed by over 60 soloists. Some of these songs are for male voice, others for female voice, and others for several singers together. (In comparison, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s of all the lieder for solo male voice includes 463 songs on 21 CDs; now available at a bargain price. (, Amazon UK)) Originally released on 37 CDs, over a period of 18 years (the amount of time it took Schubert to compose all these songs, before his early death), and grouped by theme or year, this new set presents the songs in chronological order. It is hard to understate the monumental scope of this set. Never before have all of these songs been available together, and never before have listeners been able to appreciate the broad range of Schubert’s compositions.

Beginning with an idea by accompanist Graham Johnson, and continued as a labor of love (and a relative commercial success), Hyperion Records managed to bring together many of the great lieder singers of the time, even providing showcases for young singers who would go on to become essential performers in this genre. From “classic” singers such as Ann Murray, Janet Baker and Peter Schreier, to new finds like Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, this set is full of great voices. Even the grandfather of Schubert lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, makes a cameo appearance, reading some poems that are part of the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, by Wilhelm Müller, which Schubert did not set to music.

Added to this set (and released separately in 2006) are three discs of songs by Schubert’s friends and contemporaries, including Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and others, giving the listener an overview of the type of lieder that influenced him. But it is the 37 discs of Schubert’s songs that are important here; the “extras” are interesting to become familiar with what other composers were writing at the time, and to compare styles with Schubert.

Listening to this set in chronological order is enlightening, as one can grasp the evolution in the subtlety and depth of Schubert’s compositions. Starting with his earliest songs, written in his teens, and progressing through his final year, when he was 31, the journey is long, yet rewarding. Schubert’s music is the most accomplished of the genre, and the excellent choice of soloists – along with the brilliant accompaniment by Graham Johnson – imbues a great deal of variety and a rich palette of vocal colors. Unlike the Fischer-Dieskau set (which, I must confess, is one of my absolute favorite sets of classical music), where one listens to the range and expanse of a single, masterful voice, the Hyperion set gives the listener a chance to discover the music in more variety. For those who do not like Fischer-Dieskau, this set can be an eye-opener. However, it will never, for me, replace the Fischer-Dieskau set…

While I do not like all the singers on this set, most of them are excellent. Many of the singers lack the immersion that Fischer-Dieskau had in this music, but others are revelations. The recordings by Brigitte Faessbender are excellent, as are those by Stephen Varcoe, a singer I was not familiar with before. Thomas Hampson’s recordings here show him in his youth, and many of the other male singers – such as Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson – rise to the occasion, providing many delightful performances. (You’ll notice my preference for male voices for this music, but this doesn’t mean that there are not many excellent female voices in this set; Edith Mathis’ performance of An die Musik is one of the highlights of the set, and Arleen Auger is excellent.)

One of the revelations in this set, for me, is the many songs for several singers, including those with chorus. These songs are a little-known and rarely recorded facet of Schubert’s work, and this set allows listeners to discover just how many such songs there are, and the general tone of joviality they express.

In addition to the 40 CDs in this set, Hyperion includes a book (258,096 words, as Hyperion specifies on the box) containing an introduction by Graham Johnson and the complete texts of all the songs. While this is laudable, there are a few negatives to this book. The type is relatively small (fine for teenaged eyes, perhaps, but that is clearly not the target audience for this set), and the English translations of the songs, in a column next to the German originals, are in italics, making them even harder to read. (For a different take, and easier readability, John Reed’s (, Amazon UK) is a good investment.) Broken down by year, with an introduction for each year talking about Schubert’s activities, the texts appear chronologically, as they do on the discs. The back of the book contains an index by title and by poet, composer or translator, but, alas, not by singer.

71QMqKSpqgLPurchasers of the original CDs in this series will be familiar with the copious notes by Graham Johnson that accompanies these discs; unfortunately, these notes are not included in the set. For in-depth information about the songs, Graham Johnson has expanded these liner notes to the original releases into a 3-volume, 3,000 page set, which is finally due for publication very soon.

All in all, this set is essential for any serious fan of Schubert’s lieder, or lieder in general. It’s also a relative bargain; congratulations are in order to Hyperion for having released the set at such an affordable price. While other recordings of Schubert’s lieder will be made, this set will clearly remain the benchmark for his music; with the exception, of course, of the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recordings. If you like this music, you should own this set.

Essential Music: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

220px Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volume 9Between February, 1962 and June, 1964, Bob Dylan, at the dawn of his career, made a number of recordings for two publishing companies, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. These recordings were released in 2010 as The Bootleg Series: Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. (, Amazon UK)

Dylan had recorded his first album in late 1961, which was mostly covers, along with two original songs. His originals – the ones on the album, but also those that he was performing – were interesting enough to spur his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, to set up a meeting between Dylan and Lou Levy, at Leeds Music Publishing. The goal was to record songs so that other singers could hear them, and potentially buy the rights to record them. He recorded eight songs for Leeds.

In early 1962, manager Albert Grossman also became interested in Dylan. He suggested that Dylan sign with M. Witmark & Sons for publishing. Since Leeds hadn’t earned anything from Dylan, they let him out of his contract, and he signed with Witmark. In a dozen sessions, Dylan recorded 39 songs for Witmark.

In a way, this minimalist Dylan is the most authentic version of his songs that we have, other than some early live recordings. These songs show Dylan in a very relaxed atmosphere; just him, his guitar, and his harmonica, in a simple studio. The recording quality isn’t always great, and Dylan’s not performing for an audience, but he is clearly aware that he needs to set down these songs in a form that will be nearly canonical. Some of the performances are as good, or ever better than what was released on his albums.

This two-CD set – officially released in 2010, but bootlegged for decades previously – contains an example of the early Dylan showing off his own work, and, while not as perfect as later recordings, stands as a powerful example of his early songs. Many classics are here: Boots Of Spanish Leather, Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Masters Of War, Girl From the North Country, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man. But there are also 15 songs that Dylan never recorded, showing just how prolific he was in the early ears.

The recording quality ranges from good to merely acceptable, but the music comes through, fresh, powerful, full of the potential that we now know was to come. Dylan knew he was going to be great in this period, and the quality of the songs he was writing must have been a clear sign to producers and publishers that he was to become a star.

Essential Music: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here

In my occasional series of posts about essential music, I’ve covered some well-known musicians and composers, and many lesser knowns. But it’s almost a given that Pink Floyd fits in the essential music category, at least for people who like a certain type of music.

Last night, I watched two documentaries about the band: The Making of Dark Side of the Moon, available on DVD (, Amazon UK), and The Story of Wish You Were Here, available on DVD and Blu-Ray (, Amazon UK). Both of these were very interesting, featuring interviews with the musicians, engineers, and others, including the album cover designer and animator Gerald Scarfe. Afterwards, I put on Dark Side of the Moon, very loud; I could recall the first time I heard the album, nearly 40 years ago.

dj.nobsviqs.170x170-75.jpgOne cannot underestimate the importance of Dark Side of the Moon in popular music. Not only is it a highly musical album, with unforgettable tunes, but it’s a single long work, and arguably the most successful “concept album” of the time.[1] Add to that the technical prowess of the recording and production, and it’s not surprising that Dark Side of the Moon defined a genre, and became the second highest selling album in music history. (Do you know what the first is? Look it up if you don’t…)

The confluence of the musicians of Pink Floyd, the engineer Alan Parsons, and the at times simple, at times deeply textured music on the album make this a work of great depth. Watching this documentary, it’s interesting to see just how carefully the album was crafted in the studio, with overlays, doubled guitars and vocals, and myriad effects. Yet one of the most striking parts of the album came when singer Clare Torry belted out her improvised non-lexical singing in The Great Gig in the Sky; originally paid £30 for her work, it’s good to see that she has since obtained royalties for co-writing that song.

5099968084257_1500x1500_300dpi.170x170-75.jpgWish You Were Here was a different story, and one that nearly didn’t make it to record. After the unexpected success of Dark Side of the Moon, the musicians found themselves in an impasse, and the recording process was painful. There’s a concept in half of the album; the story of Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, whose tale is told in Shine on You Crazy Diamond, the song that bookends the album. However, the other three songs – Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and Wish You Were Here – aren’t about Syd at all. While the first two are about the music industry, and they relate Pink Floyd’s experiences long after Syd left the band.

“Just as the final mix of Wish You Were Here was being produced, an overweight-man with shaven head and eyebrows, and holding a plastic bag, entered the room.”[2] No one recognized Syd Barrett, who they hadn’t seen in years, and would never see again. The crazy diamond went away, to live an uneventful life, eventually dying in 2006.

Musically, I find Wish You Were Here more satisfying than Dark Side of the Moon. The production is less layered, and the guitar and saxophone in Shine on You Crazy Diamond make more solid statements than many of the songs on Dark Side. And the song Wish You Were Here is, in my opinion, Pink Floyd’s best song, as David Gilmour said in the documentary. It’s a simple yet moving song, and it works well as an interlude in this album.

Nevertheless, I feel these two albums go together, as flip sides of the band’s work. Dark Side of the Moon was their first real hit, and it was the culmination of their music up until that time; Wish You Were Here was about their struggling with success, and about what happens when you fly too close to the sun. Their next two albums, Animals and The Wall, are certainly excellent records, but they pale in comparison to these classics. After the 1983 album The Final Cut, the band split up, and, while David Gilmour led the group called Pink Floyd, it wasn’t the same without Roger Waters.

I only saw Pink Floyd live once, during the 1980 Wall tour at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. It was an astounding show, but it was an opera, not a concert. It was essentially the album, note-for-note, with brilliant effects. I was never lucky enough to score tickets for earlier tours, and had no interest in seeing the band after that.

There are very few official releases of live recordings of Pink Floyd, the most important being Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii (, Amazon UK), which isn’t a concert, but a staged performance. The band released some live material on second CDs with recent release of the “experience editions” of their 2011 re-releases.[3] Dark Side of the Moon (, Amazon UK) includes a live performance of the album from 1974, and Wish You Were Here (, Amazon UK) has live tracks from the same performance, as well as a few alternate versions and outtakes.

Unfortunately, these live performances are mostly copies of the albums; as much as they can be in the concert context. I’d love to see more official releases of live recordings when the band was working out these songs before they recorded them, and, perhaps, with no more studio material to reissue, we’ll see something like that in the future. (There are plenty of bootlegs, which are not hard to find, many of which have poor sound.)

In the meantime, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here remain two of the most powerful albums of the 1970s, and bold statements of a band at its peak. As old as they are, they still sound fresh today, and I listen to them more often than just about anything from that decade (except for the Grateful Dead, of course).

For more on Pink Floyd, see the book Pink Floyd, Pigs Might Fly, by Mark Blake (Amazon UK; released in the US as Comfortably Numb:, but the UK edition has been updated in 2013 with a new chapter).

  1. I would even argue that it’s the only truly successful concept album. While there were many others, which strung songs together in a “concept” structure, only Dark Side of the Moon succeeds musically. The closest to it would be, for me, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, which is a long musical suite, unfortunately marred by the first part of the second side, which simply doesn’t belong. There were many “concept sides,” though, such as Yes’s Close to the Edge, and Genesis’s Supper’s Ready, which are both musically satisfying.

    I wouldn’t really consider The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be a true concept album, and recordings such as The Who’s Tommy, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Pink Floyd’s The Wall are more musicals than actual concept albums, and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is not really a concept album (half of it is; the other half is not), and Animals is, to me, not a great work musically. But many will disagree with my appraisal…  ↩

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  3. Pink Floyd’s entire back catalog was reissued in 2011, with several versions of each album, some at exorbitant prices, offering little interesting additional content. The “experience editions” are two-CD sets, with the studio albums and one disc of live recordings and/or outtakes.  ↩