Monday, February 4, 2002

A run of 'Thunder'; overview of latest solo album from John Paul Jones

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

As promised, here is a description of the music on John Paul Jones' new album, The Thunderthief, slated to be released Tuesday in the United States and later this month in Europe.

The full-on rock explosion of the opener, "Leafy Meadows," contains Jones' catchiest instrumental melody to date. While the artist lays down a punchy bass line resembling the "Macarena," Nick Beggs uses his Chapman stick to play the complicated main theme. Drummer Terl Bryant keeps a straightforward rhythm and medium pace. Halfway through the song, King Crimson leader Robert Fripp joins to provide the guitar solo. That opening track definitely works here, and it would have also felt right had it been on Jones' 1999 effort, Zooma.

The most obvious difference between this album and his previous is that Jones sings on a few songs here whereas Zooma was strictly instrumental. On Dec. 10, 2001, I asked Jones why sing?

"Well, as you probably know, I've always said that I didn't want a person on lead vocals," he told me. "It's like walking a dog. All of a sudden, he becomes the producer and I'd end up [not in charge anymore]."

Jones continued his rationale, saying, "And I didn't want to rewrite Zooma. I had this idea that instead of having the riffs as the melody, I thought I would have the riff and the melody on top."

After some thought, he arrived at his ultimate conclusion: "So I thought, I can do it."

Cleverly, Jones' title track begins with the sound effects of thunder and rain. The verses contain a call-and-response between his vocals and a hard rock line represented by doubled basses. The lyrics, written by Peter Blegvad, describe the legend of "The Thunderthief."

Jones tells how that came about:
"So in fact, Peter Blegvad came to me, the singer-songwriter who also did the artwork. And he also handed me lyrics that he hadn't set to music. And he gave me two [pieces], one called 'The Thunderthief' and one called 'Ice Fishing at Night.' And I put them to music and just tried to experiment to sing on them, and if I liked it, I'd put it on. And I thought it was OK."

In "The Thunderthief," Jones' first lead vocal since his Scream for Help soundtrack in 1985 is muffled and distorted. The song really has the feel of a playful track by the Butthole Surfers. After each repetition of the chorus is a lengthy, complicated piano line played in multiple octaves at a speed beyond humanly possible. Somehow, for me, it evokes images of the Addams Family.

Next, the instrumental "Hoediddle" begins with no less than 2:52 of multilayered yet unaccompanied soloing, in the same style as Led Zeppelin's "In the Light" from 1975 and Jones' "Nosumi Blues" from 1999. What follows the long intro is an electrified bluegrass melody. During the song's last 49 seconds, the electric instruments fade out, revealing only mandolin, koto and ukulele. They all continue playing a bluegrass jingle reminiscent of Afro Celt Sound System's "Colossus."

Jones plays "Ice Fishing at Night" exclusively on a multi-tracked piano. The second song with lyrics (also written by Blegvad), it speaks about some things in nature. The darkest part of the song is perhaps the instrumental break. Jones' piano playing here is just a step above George Winston. He limits his improvisation to within a modal scale. However, the brighter major chords in a lyrical section about "springtime" and "dawn" suggest just what the lyrics do: brightness. The song starts and fades with some gentle soaring noises.

The sound of an old vinyl record, complete with pops and cracks, ushers in "Daphne." Jones follows with a bass line played on one of his many-stringed bass guitars. Soon, it seems as if the melody is going to be provided by more piano, but the 88 keys take a back seat. The main instrument then is a Keith Emerson-inspired synthesizer part that sounds like it was modeled after a section of ELP's "Tarkus."

The piano takes over again while vocal samples come to the fore in the mix. A female says "hello," and a male says "yes." These two samples repeat as Jones plays a funky four-string bass solo. (The male voice on "Daphne" is generated by probably the same speech synthesizer employed on "Fitter, Happier," from Radiohead's OK Computer.) The vocal samples escalate into a two-line exchange. "I really wanted the sound of the voice," Jones explained to me. "I even made the sound of the voice in 'Grind' on Zooma, just sampled, because I like the sound of it."

Jones said he felt that using only vocal samples "was cheating myself," which helped him decide that he should sing too. He does sing on the next track, "Angry Angry." If "Wearing and Tearing" was Led Zeppelin's brush with punk, then "Angry Angry" is much the same to John Paul Jones. But the song lasts seconds short of the six-minute mark, and so it lacks the brevity of
most punk music.

Already, Jones had recorded his vocals for the two other songs whose lyrics had been written by Blegvad. Jones liked them but thought he should have a few more songs with words. "I thought, I've tried singing, now I'll try lyric writing!" Jones told me.
"So I tried it, and it was great fun! Got the word processor going, and -- 'Ah, this isn't so bad!' You look up, and you've written three verses. 'Oh, OK, that's all right!'

"'Angry Angry' started off as a guitar solo. There's a friend of mine whom I met in New York, called Adam Bomb. He calls up one day and says, 'I'm at the Borderline, tonight!' 'Oh, OK.' So I went down, saw him, and I was blown away, it was sort of 'glam punk.' He was brilliant. It was amazing, I really liked it.

"The next day I called him up, I said, 'Come up, come to my house, bring a guitar.' He said, 'What, the acoustic, Jones?' 'No, bring your electric guitar.' I wanted to play him a track. He said, 'OK,' so he came over.

"But I hadn't actually got a track. So I mopped up like 24 bars on the drum machine with a bass riff and just put that down and just said, 'OK, this is all there is. Play over it.'"

Adam Bomb recorded a "screaming solo," as Jones called it. It continues through the fade of the song, at times adding harmonics not unlike ZZ Top's "La Grange" and quick firepower fretwork not unlike the electric guitar solo in Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker."

At that point in the recording process, Adam Bomb had left the country, and Jones was left with an instrumental track that needed more. "So I thought: Lyrics! Turn it into a song."

The lyrics, an example of Jones' own writing, are told from the point of view of someone who is simply angry all the time. Progressively through each verse, his vocal line sounds more and more angry. (He actually starts out quite monotonous and understated in the first verse.) Following the furious guitar solo, Jones is able to pull off the proper emotion through a groaning,
straining yell.

Jones took me through the process of picking a topic for the lyrics of this song. "Maybe I'll write a protest song of some sort," he said he'd originally thought. "And then the more I thought about it, I said, 'Ah, that's kind of corny.' And I thought I'll write a protest song about people who are always protesting!"

Laughing, he continued:
"You know those people who are always angry. You know, what happens? Nothing's right for them. I thought, I'll write a song about that. And that's what it's about. And that was loads of fun being completely removed from it. It's sort of autobiographical in that I know people like this. But everybody knows people like this. When you're in your car, there's always some arse going, 'Grrrr!' The day must be miserable for you."

I asked whether any bit of "Angry Angry" was written as a response to his former Led Zeppelin bandmates for having not included him in their reunion. He immediately said no. "I'm not that sort of person at all," he said. "But as soon as I finished that, I thought, people are going to read stuff into this. But you can't."

The only track on the album not written or co-written by Jones, "Down to the River to Pray," is next. This traditional folk song was used in the Academy Award-winning 2000 cult film O Brother Where Art Thou? and on its soundtrack. Here, Jones handles for the first time an arch-top triple-neck mandolin, made by Andy Manson and mentioned here Feb. 3.

"Shibuya Bop" has the feel of most tracks on Zooma. It is also probably the most intricate piece on the album and thus Jones' career. The musical styles of King Crimson and Rush blend together for the first and third parts of the song. During the second, Jones improvises, both using the Kyma sound design workstation and a Hammond organ. After this, the first part reprises once again, courtesy of Jones' koto, which takes the song to a near-collision halt.

To finish off another nine-track collection, Jones recorded a simple track called "Freedom Song." In this little Celtic ditty, the protagonist proposes a leisurely trip to his lover. In each of the verses, he mentions such vacation plans as seeing Carnegie Hall, renting a bike, letting Mum take over to watch the kids, calling in sick to work. Jones sings his own original lyrics here, backed not by any band but just his own ukulele. Andy Manson made that instrument for Jones back in 1979.

Sunday, February 3, 2002

Manson brothers continue to innovate when building instruments

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Instruments or equipment made or repaired by Hugh and his brother Andy Manson can also be found in the hands of such musicians as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Steve Howe of Yes, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson and Martin Barre, and members of Oasis and the Stereophonics.

"There's a new English band called Muse," Hugh told me. "They've got a massive recording deal with Madonna's label, Maverick." He said that the guitarist of Muse, Matt Bellamy, now 23, walked into Manson's Guitar Shop one day with an odd request: "Can you put a whammy pedal in the guitar?"

Hugh must feel that nothing is impossible. "So we built a little microprocessor in the instrument," he said. "I've made him some amazing stuff, with MIDI on board, an actual MIDI controller in the guitar. So for example, you can control a whammy pedal, which is on the floor, with a laptop computer pad on the instrument. It also has a built-in Theremin pad."

Bellamy's future is a bright one, predicted Hugh. "I think he is a guy to look out for," he said. "He is very exciting as a player, and he has some wonderfully demanding ideas for me to create. You should see what I'm working on for him now! It involves lots of lasers."

Necessity is the mother of invention, it's been stated many times. This could be the premise that guides the work of Hugh and Andy Manson, inventors in their own right. Andy, who designed and built the triple-neck guitar for John Paul Jones in 1976, is still creating new instruments for Jones these days.

"Andy's made something; it's not a secret anymore," Hugh told me. "It's a three-neck arch-top mandolin. It has mandolin, mandola and bass mandolin. It has a carved top. That features on the new album [on "Down to the River to Pray"], and we hopefully will be touring with it as well."

These days, Hugh is closely involved with Jones' concerts, looking after the instruments and amplifiers. On tour, Jones has used an array of basses, keyboards, plus stringed instruments like the mandolin, ukulele and the bass lap steel. Other sounds come courtesy of the Kyma sound design workstation. All of that, including Terl Bryant's drums and Nick Beggs' Chapman stick, fall under Hugh's jurisdiction. "I'm responsible for the day-to-day running of the stage, really," he said.

It's a huge commitment, but Hugh couldn't be any more pleased with his boss on the road. "We go back a long way," he gushed. "John is so nice to work with, a great guy -- no attitude, just a true pro and an amazing musician. I wouldn't miss a tour for the world, although it does seriously cut into guitar building time!"

The brothers' building time is best explained in Andy Manson's book, Talking Wood: A Guitar Maker's Diary. With the foreword written by none other than John Paul Jones himself, the 140-page book was published in hardcover form. "There is only a limited run, so I think it will become a collector's piece," said Hugh.

"It's like an instrument maker's diary over a year," he added. "It's not like how to build a guitar, although you probably could from the photos! It's a diary of what a good guitar maker would do, if people are interested."

Around 250 color photos grace the book. Included among them are Jones with his eight-string acoustic bass, his 12-string bass, and the crowning glory, his triple-neck acoustic guitar. Some of the photos document the building of a replica three-neck for a Japanese Led Zeppelin tribute band called Cinnamon.

Next, what you can expect to hear on John Paul Jones' new album, The Thunderthief. It is scheduled to be released on Tuesday in the United States and later in the month in Europe.

Saturday, February 2, 2002

Manson brothers building instruments for nearly 45 years combined

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking by telephone with one of the men who makes John Paul Jones' musical instruments. Hugh Manson, of Manson's Guitar Shop in Exeter, England, gave me a few minutes of his time on Jan. 24, before heading off to help with Jones' Guitars for Landmines show in Manchester.

Hugh has been in the business of making instruments for more than two decades, but his interest in assembling things goes back further than that. The 47-year-old said, "I was always into making things when I was a kid. Model airplanes. When I got a watch for my birthday the first thing I would do is take it apart."

Aside from handiwork, another thing that interested Hugh was music. "The first thing that really made an impact for me was Bob Dylan and maybe Donovan," he said. Hugh mentioned that he "delved into" the Beat movement. "I was into Woody Guthrie stuff for a while. Then came the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors," he said.

He said he was about 14 when he first combined his musical interests with his skill for building things. "The first instrument I created was the Appalachian Mountain dulcimer, an American instrument made famous by Joni Mitchell but used by lots of people prior to that. It's a thing you play in your lap. I made that when I was about 14, I suppose -- maybe longer ago.I've still got it, and I still play it. That's where I started."

He explained his affinity toward musical instruments, saying, "[They] are one of the only things that people make that have to fulfill three functions: They have to sound good, look good and feel good. There are not many other things that people make that fulfill all three of those functions. Musical instruments use at least three of the five senses. New ones even smell good!"

Interestingly, while his brother Andy went off into the business of building electric and acoustic stringed instruments, Hugh instead sought a career in teaching. "After being a student I was a schoolteacher for a while. I taught art and design," he said.

But Andy was becoming too bogged down in his manufacturing work to continue doing it alone, and so he asked Hugh to join him in the business. Hugh said he jumped at the opportunity. "So I handed in my resignation at the school the very next day and went to work with Andy," he said. "That was 22-ish years ago."

By that point, Andy had already contributed to Led Zeppelin history himself by building one of the group's most recognized instruments. Hugh said Andy's connection with Led Zeppelin began with a knock on the door.

While they were living in Sussex, England, John Paul Jones lived nearby. "I even learned to ride motorcycles on his drive when I was about 15," said Hugh. One day, his mother said to Andy, "There's a 'pop star' living at the end of the lane. Why don't you go and knock on his door and see if he's got any work for you?"

Following his mother's advice, Andy knocked on the door. It was Mrs. Jones who answered. Andy inquired, "I understand there's a pop star living here." She replied, "My husband's a musician."

Before long, Andy met John Paul Jones, and they became friends. "John and Andy got to know each other pretty well," said Hugh. "John gave Andy tickets to a concert. ... Andy went to the gig and saw John use three instruments in the same number. He thought to himself, 'John needs a three-neck guitar.' Andy went away, designed one and made it. He made it in '76, and John said, 'Wow, that's amazing.' He used it on the next tour."

During that next tour, Jones' triple-neck guitar became one of the highlights of every show. Used on live versions of the song "Ten Years Gone" on the 1977 North American tour, the multifaceted instrument was seen by tens of thousands of people every night. "It has a mandolin, a twelve-string and a six-string guitar," said Hugh.

Over the years, the Mansons have made instruments for "a lot of English names," said Hugh, who currently overlooks more than just the instruments and equipment used on Jones' solo tours. "I'm responsible for the day-to-day running of the stage," he said.