Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Harry Lime

History hasn’t been very kind to some of the people who pioneered the elements which make up rock guitar as we know it today.

Whilst the contributions of players such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and even Hank Marvin are acknowledged as vital to the evolution of modern rock guitar playing, lesser-known figures who played crucial major roles are ignored.

One such player is the late Mike Bloomfield.

bloom-1

For a time back in the mid to late1960s, Bloomfield was as significant a player on the US white blues scene as Clapton was in the UK and they were straight contemporaries whose careers eventually entwined musically in a very interesting but under-appreciated way.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family living on Chicago’s North Side, Bloomfield became infatuated with the music that came from the city’s black South Side. I’ve never found any details or explanations of what caused a white Jewish teenager to become not only accepted but admired by the black blues musicians he met there, but Muddy Waters, BB King and Buddy Guy all supported his early career so he must have impressed them profoundly.

Those early days in Chicago gave rise to the band that brought Bloomfield to greater public attention. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (they dropped the ‘Paul’ later) comprised Bloomfield on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harp and vocals, Elvin Bishop on guitar and vocals, Sam Lay on drums, Jerome Arnold on bass guitar and Mark Naftalin on keyboards.

This was a rare thing in 1960s America – a mixed-race band. Lay and Arnold were black…and comprised not just any black rhythm section but Howlin’ Fucking Wolf’s rhythm section!

Their first eponymous album was good, but not earth-shattering. It revealed a band which worked very well together and showed off everyone’s chops fairly well, although Bishop had yet to play any lead guitar. Listening to it alongside the Mayall/Clapton Beano’ album at the time, it seemed a little refined and, as a budding guitarist back then, Clapton’s playing sounded rawer and more direct to me. Thinking about it now, I realise that Bloomfield’s playing was actually far more fluent and less confined to the normal pentatonic licks than Clapton’s. I managed to nail Clapton’s style pretty well after a while but the way Bloomfield strung phrases together was far less easy to copy, so, in a way, I think I was being lazy.

Anyway, when the ‘difficult’ second album from the Butterfield Band came along Bloomfield’s playing had changed and progressed so dramatically that I gave up trying to copy him and just listened instead.

This album – ‘East West’ – was unlike anything white blues guys had ever produced before. Fuck, unlike anything anyone had produced before.

For the first time, you had a blues-influenced electric band stretching out on long improvised tracks and smashing down the boundaries between musical genres with a merging of elements of blues, jazz, Indian raga and folk music.

The track responsible for this was the title track – a 13 minute piece which included solos from Butterfield, Bloomfield and Bishop with stellar support from the three other guys.

It evolved over time from a piece called ‘Raga’ and the recorded version captures it in the middle of its development with subsequent live versions becoming longer and even more complex. Fortunately, some of the versions of what was always ‘a work in progress’ are available on a commercially-released CD called ‘East West Live’ which includes a 28 minute version that reveals an intensity and complexity that has never been bettered. Even when Bloomfield and Bishop step back to play rhythm they layer tritone chords in a way I’ve never heard before or since and when the various musicians cut loose – and they all do on this version, which is noticeably less polite than any of the other versions available – the results are just brain-meltingly good.

The original was the first ‘modern’ recording I’d ever heard which took me to ‘another place’. Yes, Clapton’s playing on the ‘Beano’ album went for the ears and guts, but Bloomfield’s also went for the heart and mind. He showed me that music could take you to places you’d never been and that only existed in your mind anyway. They were unique and private places I could visit whenever I dropped the needle onto the vinyl and that Bloomfield was creating for me and everyone else who cared to listen.

It was the first ‘head’ music.

Unfortunately, there was no third album with Bloomfield – after attracting the recognition and admiration of Dylan he recorded ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ with His Bobness whilst with Butterfield (even turning down the chance to become a permanent member of Dylan’s band), went on to form the Electric Flag which was an OK blues band with horns, produced some dodgy film music, collaborated with Al Kooper and then spent the rest of his all too brief life playing blues gigs with various San Francisco notables for about 12 years whilst making the odd rather lacklustre album.

The genre-bending playing on ‘East West’ eventually took a backseat and was very seldom revisited whilst Mike went back to the blues and demonstrated his encyclopaedic knowledge of the musical form. His instructional album and most satisfying solo release ‘If You Love These Blues, Play ‘Em as You Please’ is now regarded as a definitive source of black guitar styles ranging from gospel, ragtime and Delta blues to electric playing and is a good place to start for those wishing to understand what influenced him.

Unfortunately, Mike had one big and insurmountable problem.

He was a smack addict.

Giving up the guitar at one point to spend more time with his addiction, heroin blighted his life and his career and culminated in his death in 1981 when he was found dead of an overdose in his car. The circumstances became a tad suspicious after it was alleged that he was driven home by two men after a party.

It’s my contention that without Bloomfield modern rock guitar would have remained essentially blues-based and anyone who played outside of that format would have found it far more difficult to gain acceptance. Sure, in ‘East West’ you can spot the excesses that made the Grateful Dead sometimes yawningly boring but then again you’d not have had people like Hendrix and Cream-era Clapton stretching out and leaving the blues behind for a while and opening everyone’s minds to music beyond it.

In a nutshell, with ‘East West’ Bloomfield gave to rock what Miles gave to jazz with ‘Kind of Blue’.

Freedom.

Which brings me to the theory I’ve had for a few years now that rock guitar today essentially owes its current form to three people.

Forget following some sort of evolutionary lineage through Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Van Halen and Slash – and there are those who see it that way.

I’ll give you Clapton.

He nailed that sustained overdriven sound on the Beano album with a Les Paul and a cranked up Marshall. You can still hear that sound in the playing of Slash, Angus Young and even the later metal of Pantera, Metallica and the like. Hell, just about anyone who employs some sort of distortion.

Then we have Bloomfield.

Had he not started to mix styles and forms then rock guitar might still be stuck in the pentatonic rut and all the poorer for it – his amazing chops aside.

The third player will be the subject of a future blog post, but I can tell you now that it isn’t anyone many people will have heard of.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter how things have become the way they are – there’s enough guitarists playing in a vast number of styles for everyone to have something to enjoy – but it only seems fair that some people get the recognition they deserve whilst lesser players continue to attract attention.

Stay tuned for the identity of the ‘Third Man’ of rock guitar and feel free to disagree!

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Machete experience with Portsmouth customs

P1010225 My unfeasibly large chopper – it’ll bring tears to your eyes…

During our recent visit to the UK, we stayed with my brother-in-law and his wife. Whilst we were there we discussed the house we’re in the process of buying and he showed us a tool catalogue.

The prices all seemed very low, so, in view of the number of brambles we’ll need to cut down all around the house, we bought a couple of pairs of heavy duty welding gauntlets which seemed to be thorn –resistant and also a machete, which seemed a most useful tool for hacking one’s way through the jungle vegetation. The whole lot only cost about a tenner, too, so we packed the items along with other stuff that we’d bought to take back and set off home to France.

At Portsmouth Ferry Terminal we got beckoned into the Customs inspection shed and asked to open the boot of the car by a woman Customs officer. The usual questions ensued – ‘Did you pack the car yourselves’ etc – and then the one about knives

Are you carrying any knives?

‘Yes,’ I answered (resisting the temptation to say – and a great big FUCK-OFF one it is, too, madam)

‘A machete’

There then followed a sharp intake of bureaucratic breath…

She asked to see it.

How could I possibly refuse such a request? After all, it’s not every day that a young woman asks to look at my unfeasibly large chopper.

As I’d tucked it well at the back of the boot, this took some doing. I finally found the machete, took it out and handed it over to the officer.

I swear she blanched…

She then called her colleagues over who crowded round it as if it was a small but very dirty nuclear device or, at the very least, a Young Taliban RPG launcher.

The supervisor came over and asked why I was in possession of such a thing.

I explained that I  thought it’d come in handy for slashing at brambles and other undergrowth when clearing the garden.

Fortunately, I managed to resist the temptation to say that I’d bought it so I could go on a killing spree in the Super U when I got back home, plus it could come in handy if there was a long queue at the ferry bar as I was gagging for a pint…I didn’t think that such a flippant and sarcastic approach was the best one to take under the circumstances.

He asked me why I hadn’t bought a machete in France as surely they sold them there. I said that they might well do, but nowhere near as cheaply. (Had he not seen the price of shit over there in his line of work???)

He took a minute to deliberate and then told me I could take it through but that it had to be tucked well out of sight – which it fucking well had been…not that I said this, of course…

The woman officer then told me that I’d been right to declare it.

So, feeling that we’d been good and dutiful citizens, we put the machete back where it had been and repacked the boot – which was a fucking art form in itself with the amount of crap we’d managed to pack in there before we set off.

However, what a comfort it is to know that the UK border is so rigorously guarded and that people carrying huge knives are apprehended at the ports – and also what a relief that Portsmouth customs never found the 20 kilos of smack, 200 pr0n DVDs and 3 crates of AK47s we also had in the car…

Only joking.

Miners helmets and beaves

anvil

According to Stephen Clarke – author of the ‘Merde’ series – in his latest book ‘1000 Years of Annoying the French’, the wife of the 20th century UK PM Harold Macmillan was a tad eccentric and enjoyed gardening at night wearing a miner’s helmet.

Too late for a ‘heads up’, but this short post gives me an opportunity to rave about a very rare thing – a good TV program.

If you can catch it in BBC iPlayer or something similar, then I can heartily recommend ‘Anvil – the Story of Anvil’ in the BBC4 ‘Storyville’ series.

It told the story of 1980s Canadian hair metal band Anvil’s recent attempts to make a comeback and eclipsed the classic ‘Spinal Tap’ film.

I don’t doubt for a moment that some of it may have been staged, but much of it wasn’t, I’m positive, and had me in stitches when Lips – the lead guitarist and vocalist – was describing the meal rota at the cooked meals suppliers he drives for and almost in tears when the band walked out to a packed house in a Japanese venue after expecting no-one to be there.

Then there was the drummer, Rob Reiner, who, when asked the reason for their current lack of success, said something the lines of ‘I can say it in one word…two words…three words what’s wrong…our management’s no fuckin’ good.’

There was also the inevitable fight between long term members Rob and Lips with Lips sacking Rob and then a tearful making up.

A further, rather surreal delight was Rob’s artwork. Several canvases of street scenes totally empty of people – ‘I like buildings’ – not to mention his painting of a giant sculpture of an anvil in a park which dwarfed the people near it.

Apart from all that, any band who writes lyrics that include the word ‘beaves’ has to be paid some attention…

Anyway, just try and see it – definitely my favourite TV program of the year so far.

Next, please!

When we were back in the UK was week, one of the questions we were most frequently asked was how were we coping with the French language.

Our standard reply was that in this part of France, at least, very few people either didn’t speak English or felt inclined not to, so we had to do our best to communicate totally in French. This was getting easier as we were amassing a useful vocabulary and were beginning to understand the spoken language better.

Indeed, why should the French speak English? It’s their country, after all, and it’s up to us to adapt and not them. So, we shall struggle on – no doubt making many mistakes, faux-pas and gaffes but learning all the time and possibly amusing a few of the natives into the bargain.

I’m not sufficiently fluent yet – and I strongly doubt I ever will be – to tell if someone is using French correctly or to be aware of change in general use of the language, but after nearly 60 years of speaking English I think I’m better qualified to notice these things in my own language.

So, step forward the BBC.

Long cited as one of the bastions of the Queen’s English, the Corporation seems to have embarked on a mini-Crusade to change not just a very basic and common word, but also a fundamental concept that guides each and every one of us through life.

The word is ‘next’ and the concept is sequence.

This culminated last night in a rant at the television between the penultimate and the ultimate episodes of the latest series of ‘Doctor Who,.

Having just sat through episode 12, the overpaid continuity announcer then informed me that “next on BBC3’ was a film about dragons called ‘Reign of Fire’, but first the last episode of ‘Doctor Who’.

What the fucking fuck?

That’s like me saying that after today (Saturday) the next day coming up is Monday, but first we’ve got Sunday coming up.

Sitting here, in the kitchen, I can see a row of mugs on a shelf. looking from the left I can first see a stripy mug and then a blue one and lastly a yellow one. That’s a basic sequence and describes exactly what I can see. I haven’t got a stripy mug and next a yellow one but, oh look, there’s a fucking blue mug before the yellow one.

The sequence is stripy, blue, yellow.

End of.

Just as last night’s schedule was ‘Doctor Who Episode 12’, ‘Doctor Who Episode 13’, ‘Reign of Fire’.

What the blistering cunting fuck was the problem with saying something like, “Next on BBC 3 is the last episode of ‘Doctor Who’ and after that a film about dragons called ‘Reign of Fire’”? It’s informative, correct and logical.

Similarly, I’m getting mightily pissed off with the word ‘best’ used to mean ‘favourite’. Although I don’t listen to BBC Radio 5 anymore, early on a Monday morning during his book phone-in when Dotun Adebayo used to ask listeners to ring in and tell him what ‘my best book’ was, it used to drive me fucking mental.

Dotun, you drivelling shithead, it’s ‘favourite book’. ‘Best’ implies that it’s either the smartest one on the shelf or it’s the writer’s master work.

I realise that language evolves, but this doesn’t have to mean that it loses precision or meaning. As our chief means of communication, language is precious, particularly the spoken word, which is how we all interact on a daily basis. Fuck with this and you could cause all sorts of problems. I mean, you can argue all fucking night about what the terms ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ mean, but surely ‘next’ or ‘best’ are so clear cut that we can all use them without the need to puzzle over them first.

Anyway, fuck the BBC and their publicly-funded shit, I’m going to post this to my blog.

Next I’m going to go to bed.

But first I’m going to sit outside with coffee and a smoke, have lunch, play guitar, sink a few beers, have dinner, watch a DVD and read for a while before turning out the light… 

Catching up

Well, here we are – back in La Belle France and very glad to be so.

It was lovely catching up with friends and family but the comparative hustle and bustle of the UK – even in Milton Keynes and relatively quiet areas such as the Forest of Dean and the Gloucester countryside – was a real culture shock. So many people and cars and all seemingly in a tear-arse hurry to get somewhere.

Mrs Shark commented on how little I swore in France after hearing me let rip at a driver who cut me up on a roundabout in MK but even she used some colourful language at the utter cunt who overtook a coach just east of Chipping Norton and almost rammed us head on.

Admittedly, there’s more room in France – it’s a bloody big place – but even so, people seem just that bit less hurried and this all seems to contribute towards a more relaxed demeanour, generally speaking.

It’s cherry season here and we’ve come back to a bumper crop. The tree in the garden is laden with ripe red cherries and after bottling some with cognac yesterday, there’s now jam to be made. This means that Mrs Shark has been busy buying jars, thermometers and a great big sterilising machine for said jars.

It seems to be sales time here and we’ve bought some garden furniture and a couple of small barbecues so that we can reciprocate the many invitations we’ve had to go to eat charcoal-blackened meat…

The trip back to the UK also meant that Waterstones and other bookshops got a right rifling and we’ve returned with many, many books, having just about exhausted our supply of new books we brought with us last March.

I can’t recommend anything we’ve just bought (not finished anything yet!) but here are a few titles from the last batch that I can heartily recommend.

Dennis Lehane – The Given Day: the latest novel by one of my favourite authors. It’s a bit of a departure for Lehane as it’s an historical novel. It tells the intertwining stories of a young Irish-American policeman and a black fugitive set in early 20th century Boston. It had me gripped from start to finish and the superb characterisations made me really care about what happened to the two main protagonists.

Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential: inspirational stuff describing the true life story of a punk chef. It’s like Led Zeppelin hedonism meeting gastronomic armageddon with a seasoning of smack, sex and knives. Genius stuff with Bourdain pulling no punches whatsoever.

William Sansom – Darkfire: The fourth book I’ve read featuring Shardlake – a sort of Tudor sleuth. Again, great characterisation makes you care about the hero and a wry humour and sharp attention to period detail make this a delight to read along with the three others so far published. Sansom captures the atmosphere of Tudor religious/political paranoia very well indeed.

After a week of beautiful weather back in the UK, we’ve come back to even better weather here with heat but not as much humidity as back in the UK. It’s currently about 38 degrees celsius outside our back door and it’s quite bearable. However, it’s starting to cloud up a little and I have a feeling that later today we might well have some spectacular thunderstorms.

(3 hours later)

In typical Mayenne fashion, the clouds just went away after an hour or so of warm breeze and it’s now yet another balmy evening. Barmy too, with 5lbs of cherries stoned and a huge vat of jam bubbling away under the watchful eye of Mrs Shark. 

We’ve just had chicken in satay sauce with noodles. Here’s my own recipe for the dish with a cheat satay sauce:

Mix together 2 tablespoons of crunchy peanut butter with a dessertspoon of dark soy sauce. Add 200ml of boiling water to which you’ve added about half a block of creamed coconut and then mixed to a paste. Blend this into the peanut/soy mix and add half a teaspoon of minced red chilli – more if you want it hotter. Stir into sauteed sliced chicken breast, red peppers and mange-tout peas. Serve with thin egg noodles.

‘33’ beer is currently 6 euros and 5 cents for a pack of 30 25cl bottles at the Super U this week. Goes very well, chilled to buggery, with the above dish.

Picked up some chicken rillettes on offer – let’s hope they’re as good as the pork ones.

After last week, during our sojourn in the UK we had three barbecues. Once we got back we bought all the kit and have had a couple here – one with sausages and pork chops and one with brochettes made of cubed beef, mushroom and red pepper. It seems that BBQs are the most popular way of entertaining during the summer months, so we’re having one with guests the weekend after next.

Mrs Shark claims to have seen a hoopoe whilst we were out driving to Pouance this morning. That evens out the Golden Oriole I saw the week before last. Last night we went out looking for glow worms and found several. There also seems to be a pair of kestrels that have taken up residence near here. They were both out hunting yesterday, so perhaps they’re working on a second brood.

I’ve made contact with a British guy living nearby who sings and plays guitar. We’re meeting on Saturday. If we think we can play together then gigs are – apparently – waiting. Be nice to play again. I have to admit that I’ve hardly picked up a guitar in the time I’ve been here so it’ll be good to have an excuse to play, being as I’m such a lazy sod!

The cats are pitiful in the heat – they just sack out under the hedge for hours and then emerge when it’s cooler. It’s too hot for even Django’s bloodlust – the local wildlife is safe during the day, although I should imagine that the nocturnal variety still gets an ass-whupping. The two cats are pathetically grateful to be home and although we can heartily recommend Les Creature Comforts at St Aubin Fosse Louvain for your cat or dog’s vacation, run by the lovely Stephanie Lack, there ain’t no place like home. For us and the ginger bastards!