Tuesday, August 20, 2013

CD Review: Don’t Forget Your Alligator by Dave Ball ✭✭✭✭✭

Former Procol Harum guitarist, martial arts expert, international banker and author Dave Ball (see his hilarious memoirs here and here) has returned to recording recently and the results will cause a spontaneous case of happy dance from head to toe. In fourteen musically nimble original tracks, Don’t Forget Your Alligator offers a rockin’ rumination on modern life from Ball’s uniquely seasoned perspective. Wit and clever musicianship are the order of the day, with Ball’s poetic portraits serving up a buffet of food for the soul while listeners’ feet tap merrily away.

Befitting a diverse life richly lived, Ball’s album features a wide range of musical styles, from the funky, Delta Blues ode to self interest Gonnadothis - Gonnadothat  to Priceless which turns the classic Country-Western bad romance ballad on its head. Stardust Maginty offers Dylan-esque colors while The Madness of George Pritchard presents a look at modern day paranoia as wacky as its title. The amusing title track finds Ball in 1920s jazz-age mode with the mournful croon: “Of all the things I’ve lost...I miss my mind the most...it’s toast.” And as proof that Ball’s guitar chops have not gone to seed, Sad Song and Who Really Cares deliver bluesy solos highly charged with emotion. 

We spoke with Dave Ball recently to garner his thoughts on this lyrical labor of love. The results were, as always, entertaining and illuminating:

Dave, you are the busiest retired person I know. In between your prolific writing, performing and painting, how do you find time to write and record songs?

Well, retirement just means you are not using up each day’s quota of hours, minutes and seconds working for somebody else. That actually gives you a lot of time to play with, and, if it is doing things you enjoy then you don’t mind putting in some extra shifts. 

When I am in writing mode I can usually bash out around 2000 words in one sitting. Actually, I write in notebooks – usually in cafes whilst drinking lattes, cappuccino’s or espresso (depending on the time of day) before eventually sitting down at the computer to type it all in. That first typing allows me to do a basic edit as I go which saves a great deal of time later.

In a perfect world I would have all my books professionally proofed and edited because every time I go into the published text I find more changes (textual flow; continuity, grammar or spelling). Happily with electronic publishing it is simply a matter of reloading the file.

With recordings you cannot do that. Well, I guess if you only release say, MP3’s it would be possible, but obviously not with CD’s. So, whatever you end-up with after the mastering process will be your legacy. 

That said, this particular album was never going to be perfect as it was pieced together over some time and in a variety of home studios – but I was happy with the end-result, despite a fair few mistakes: the sometimes random drumming; the less than perfect vocals, etc. Really, it just made it all seem like a natural recording – i.e. it is just me singing and playing a few songs. It is personal between me and the listener.

Were you writing songs back in the Procol Harum days or is it a more recent endeavor?

No I wasn’t writing during my Procol days. Apart from being tied up with learning their existing repertoire, and then the new songs for Grand Hotel, I was otherwise engaged partying like there was no tomorrow, and anyway, being the new kid on the block, I cannot imagine the Procol hierarchy (‘Firm’) even allowing it. Besides, it would have been a bit like me telling the Queen how to wear a tiara!

The big mystery for me is when did Gary (Brooker) find the time to write? We were pretty much constantly touring. It wouldn’t have been so hard for Keith (Reid) I guess – I mean you can write lyrics whenever the muse takes you but you need a piano or something to write the melodies, etc. Prior to joining them I had written one or two heavy tunes – riff based things usually – e.g. ‘Dave’s Idiot Dance’ for Big Bertha in 1969 or so. Here’s a sample verse from that:

Need to get some glasses cause I can’t see a thing
Bells inside my head are going a-ring-a-ding ding
Have to see the shrink because I’m losing my mind
The spring is getting tighter an’ I need to unwind

That’ll give you an idea what the inside of my head was like in the late 60’s! I was writing – diarising really throughout that time, I just never thought about using any of it for songs. I remember throwing away about 7 or 8 notebooks filled with bizarre thoughts from this period – pre acid (LSD) days incidentally, just me being naturally disturbed. I was also drawing and painting quite a bit. Not sure if you can use this, but here is an example or two from about 1966:

Pretty scary eh?

I wrote a few songs with Bedlam in 1973 – again, mostly riff based stuff, but there was one song called ‘The Great Game’ which grew from some anti-war prose I had done that morphed into quite a decent tune. I think that might have been the moment when I knew I could actually write (songs) though shortly after that I lost interest in the whole thing. I didn’t really start again (taking a real interest in music writing that is) until the late 90’s. I reckon it would be coincident with the writing of my autobiography which inevitably threw up random lines for songs.

I had an uncharacteristic burst of song-writing activity around the year 2000. I think I did about 9 or 10 tunes one after another. I actually found it really easy. After that – but in bursts - I trotted out a pile more. I now have over a 100 original songs waiting for the studio. (Ref: “Without Rhyme or Reason” – out on Kindle for the complete set of lyrics and poems)

It is my intention (hope) to record all of them before I kick-the-bucket. (All part of “Project Hubris” which is kind of my bucket list)

Are there any songwriters with styles that you find particularly inspiring?

Oh yes – quite a few.

I love Lennon & McCartney songs – the collaborations and the obviously individual efforts. I admit to being more of a Lennon fan than McCartney, but they were both brilliant in their own way, and when they worked together the mix of styles was really outstanding. Ray Davies is extremely good and told some great - quintessentially English stories.

John Sebastian is an awesome writer. Listening back to his songs, and really listening to his lyrics, (e.g. “I’ll paint rainbows all over your blues …”) - they are really timeless. His voice is also very appealing – just that recognisable edge he has. Joni Mitchell – just an outstanding musician and I can listen to her all day! Another favourite is John Prine – wonderful set of songs and again – there’s that voice. KD Lang I love as well whether she is singing her own songs or others, I just love the way she delivers them.

Those writers are just examples of people whose work resonates with me really well. This means that I like the main body of their music, but there are individual songs from many different writers that may strike a chord with me. I suppose it happens when I can feel some empathy with say, the lyric, so that I can submerge myself into the music – really regardless of who actually wrote it. In other words, the relationship is with the song (played or sung by ‘some’ artist) that makes the bond. With the people I mentioned specifically, it is like they made their songs just for me; as though we were having an intimate conversation. When you listen to their music (some of it – not necessarily ALL of it) the rest of the world doesn’t matter for that moment. 

Obviously recording technology has become much more readily available since the 1960s. What was the process of recording the album and did you act as your own producer and engineer?

Well, I had never recorded anything in quite this fashion before; it was unusual to say the least. The music was recorded in five different locations and over a period spanning quite a few years. You remember I mentioned my first real go at song-writing, where I had bashed out quite a number of songs in a short space of time? Well, I got into the habit of getting the ideas down onto tape so that I would remember how they went later. I suspect that this is a common practice with writers. Now it happened that my Brother Denny had a home studio, so when I would visit him (firstly in London, then later in Sydney) I would ask him to record demos for me - which we did using a drum machine; Denny playing bass; me on guitar, then either one of us on keyboards. I would then throw down a vocal track as best I could. The songs were pretty new, so it was all rather hit and miss, but we did manage to get fairly good versions completed. When I came to thinking about tracks for my first album, there were songs we had demoed that I wanted to do.

There are some righteous blues guitar solos on the album; I’m thinking in particular “Gonnadothis -Gonnadotha” and “Who Really Cares?” What guitarists influenced you?

Well first let me thank you for the compliments! This question is not easy to answer in just a few words, in fact, I spent a few thousand words trying to answer the same thing in part 3 of the “Half Hippie – Half Man” series. I could tell you about how I listened to Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Chuck Berry, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt as a youngster, then Eric Clapton with the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers and beyond, but that really isn’t the answer.

Most of what I know technically, I have known for over 40 years. The application of that knowledge is what matures as you get older. I may have aspired to sound like (early) Eric Clapton in the mid-sixties for instance, but for the most part I never really ‘thought’ much about what I was playing at any given moment – well, the soloing aspects at least. I have always just ‘played’ as I felt at that time. Sometimes it comes out sounding good, sometimes not.

The expression that occurs in the playing is really the sum of my whole life (on a good day that is). The technical aspects are just what I have to draw on in order to convey that expression. Does this make sense? It doesn’t mean that I never listen – and learn – from other guitarists of course, but the interpretations belong to me alone. This actually eases any pressure on my trying to be ‘good (whatever that really means). I only have to be as good as me not anybody else so I rarely get the urge to compete with other players. They are free to be much better players than me, but they can never ‘be’ me if you can understand that.

In terms of the particular songs you mentioned, I can tell you that “Gonnadothis – Gonnadothat” was a one take overdub onto tape (not into some software programme). At the time it was intended to be just a demo. It stayed as it was simply because I thought it worked fine as we had originally recorded it. Denny tried to clean up the track as best he could once it had been loaded into the DAW.

With “Who Really Cares”, I had written it as just the 4 verses with the intention of building up from an acoustic beginning through gradually increasing instrumentation (up to full orchestra) in the last verse, then everything dropping away on the last refrain – which would be repeated, until we ended up back with just an acoustic. I recorded it at a Kiwi mate’s home studio in Germany (Mike Brosnan). Once we had the main track done I decided that there would be an opportunity for some grander ending across a bit of guitar histrionics, so I went out of the studio and worked out a melody / hook for the ending. I recorded it onto my iPhone actually, then took it back into the studio and played it to Mike where we worked out what instrumentation would be appropriate. I decided on the 3 part guitar harmony for the hook and that I would just mess around in a solo in the middle then bring it back through the hook again. When we started recording it, I played that main guitar track that you can hear on the record and when it came to the end piece I just kept playing – just to bring it back down to basics, which had always been my intention, i.e. settle it all back to normal. It all just sort of worked. Mike had to fiddle with the background on the end piece – the drums and keyboards, etc. and then I went back over it to do the harmony guitars and that was it - job done. The fact that it came out pretty well is a bit of a fluke really.

Some of the songs seem to relate first hand experiences. In the case of Priceless, did you really know someone whose mouth was “jammed on transmit?”

Well yes although the language I used might have been just a little hard on the person it relates to!

It is about two people with vastly different attitudes towards the ‘use’ of time. Let me explain; I can spend an entire day just day-dreaming – doing nothing but sit around – letting my mind do all the work, whereas my partner at the time had to pack each day with activities. She had this notion that if you couldn’t point to all the ‘things’ you had done during the day, then you had wasted it (the day that is).

So, the song is really about this incompatibility (and its consequences) – me sitting there perfectly contentedly just gazing off into space versus her constantly organising ‘things’ to do and telling me to get off my arse and ‘”Do something – ANYTHING - you’re wasting the day!”’

I have been like this since my teenage years so it is nothing new for me – but I understand that it was terribly frustrating for my long suffering partner at the time.

Your lyrics are quite witty, not a surprise to readers of your books. When you write a song do you generally start with a concept based on the lyrics or a musical idea?

This varies from song to song. I am constantly scribbling in notebooks – about this & that, and sometimes I just happen to write a sentence that has a good lyrical feel to it. When that happens I will write it into a new page and either expand it there and then or come back to it later. That first line is often the key to whether you can frame an entire story around it – this is really the same as concept in meaning.

I have a mixture of personal stories, personal protests (e.g. about war and other bad habits), surreal songs which are really just for fun and occasional contrived things – more often than not in response to a good melody of chord theme I have discovered.

But whether it is a lyric or a musical theme that has suggested itself, the process is quite similar. Get the first bit down then see what flows out from that. Some ideas may sit around for quite a while before you get round to them, for instance, I finished off one song in 2010 that I had started in 1966.

Do you have any plans for future albums?

Yes indeed. I have playlists already set up for 7 albums. Be scared – be very scared! Whether I will be able to finance a complete studio driven album I don’t know – it might be nice to try, however, the cobbled together format does have appeal. It may not be perfect but each track has its own identity which I think is nice. I just have to live long enough to get it all done. Tell you what – ask me in 10 years’ time how it all went - if you can.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait ten years to enjoy this brilliant album. Don’t Forget Your Alligator is available now from Amazon

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