The Most Famous Music Videos Featuring Puppets

weezer muppet

There sometimes comes a point in a musician or bands’ musical career where they (or their management) get the crazy notion to produce a music video that involves some form of puppetry.

elton john and ms piggy

By puppetry, I don’t mean that the artist themselves decides to take up puppeteering – oh no of course not – rather, they usually “drop” a video that prominently features puppets, or, as it were, marionettes.  Presumably, the desired effect here is a resounding WOW!

Indeed, this is the type of career move that neither a fan or casual music listener of said artist can ever be fully prepared for, with the effect of such as manoeuvre generally eliciting a variety of reactions – from hilarity to eye-rolling, to sheer wonder and amazement, depending on who is watching and their level of self-seriousness.

One thing that associating (or in some cases becoming) puppets does for a musician, good or bad, is that it generally does not go unnoticed by the public.

phil collins puppet

Reasons for making a music video featuring puppets are numerous – whether it’s a band who is generally seen as serious who would like people to know they have a sense of humour, to an artists’ Hail Mary attempt to get attention from the world that has ignored them for so long, to simply desiring to produce something different and creative, the impetus behind unleashing puppets on an unsuspecting fanbase is a desire that has long burned with unmatched brilliance in the hearts of entertainers around the world since the invention of the music video itself.

As a fan, you sometimes have to ponder what is behind such a decision, as the results of puppetry in music videos isn’t always 100% well received in the same way Jar Jar Binks and The Phantom Menace can, at their mere mention, lead to the overturning of tables and the sudden negation of civility and the disintegration of lifelong friendships.

jar-jar-obi-wan-feature

Consider that recording artists, who are usually fairly eccentric to begin with, when combined with the unmitigated zaniness and creativity of puppets, tend to make a lasting impression one way or another.  It is, logically, a decision that any recording artist of note will one day have to wrestle with themselves in their heart of hearts.

Hence, today, I want to present to you some of the most famous music videos featuring puppets, since these are videos which, once you see, you cannot un-see, such is the magnitude of sheer creativity in some of these videos, matched only by the level of ridiculousness at times.  Enjoy!


Elton John – Crocodile Rock

If any one musical artist makes sense to be surrounded by puppets, whether it be for a music video shoot or just in every day life, it’s Reginald Kenneth Dwight, better known as Elton John!

Here is perhaps the most famous of all Muppet Show musical appearances, with Elton singing his signature song, Crocodile Rock, complete with Animal on drums and singing crocs.

The idea of a campy rocker such as Elton John and the wacky Muppets seem to go together here just like PB & J, making what is essentially a whole lot of unnatural things seem rather expected and totally believable.  I’d almost expect every Elton performance to look something like this.  As fate would have it, he would eventually enter the world of animation, bolstering his mega-stardom even that much more via The Lion King.

In terms of this appearance with the Muppets being a potentially risky career move, there was essentially no risk at all of Elton coming off looking ridiculous, as his inner weirdness has been fairly “out there” for his entire career.  If anything, the Muppets were risking their reputation being seen with him.

Not only that, but Elton John has sort of earned a name for himself doing just about anything and everything, playing for crowds huge and small, and, if you’ve ever seen the biopic Rocketman, or are aware of his history with drugs, this appearance on the Muppet Show was probably one of the more mundane things that he experienced on that specific day.

Visit Elton John’s website here

Visit Jim Henson’s website here


Coldplay – Life In Technicolorr ii

Like U2 before them, Coldplay has garnered a reputation over the years as a fairly earnest band, who sings songs with universal themes for the Everyman, meaning no harm to anyone and preaching nothing but unity in their songs about Life and encouraging people to look to the night sky to see yellow stars.

As competent musically as they clearly are, they have been criticized by their detractors as being fairly self-serious and a little boring at times.  You don’t say…

Enter – Coldplay as puppets.  As mentioned in the intro to this article, there is the idea that a band, aware that they are considered decidedly un-funny by the press and a certain segment of the population, can re-present themselves in a new way to people, showing that yes, they too, like to have a laugh once in a while, displaying to all that they’re not really rich rock stars, but just regular guys.  Yes, that’s right, if by “regular guys” at a pub you are referring to a puppet show spectacular guaranteed to flip your wig right off your head!

This video for Life In Technicolor ii does seem to show, at least to me, that it is possible to have puppets in a music video and have them not be totally ludicrous.  As much as Coldplay plays the “we can be funny too” card here, I don’t find this video to be that funny (or even funny period), although I will say it’s creative and enjoyable even to a sullen whelp like me.

As a puppet video, I think they’ve managed to do the token puppet music video genre some justice, inserting just the right amount of silliness into the video concept, never reaching that career-compromising tipping point.  Bravo!


Mastodon – Deathbound

In terms of clichés, the appearance of puppets in an artist’s music video tends to indicate a desire to make things more fun, or campy, or both.  Perhaps have your band appeal to a new audience of doe-eyed youngsters via a playful charade featuring bobbing, laughing human and animal facsimiles.

But there is another road that may be taken… and that road sometimes points to emphasizing the inherent strange-ness of puppets, resulting in results which may be seen as somewhat “trippy”.  Rarely, however, does an artist employ the use of puppets only to massacre them all.  Such was the prerogative of the band Mastodon, who clearly has had it in for puppets since they were small puppet sized beings themselves.

That said, if you know the band Mastodon, and their style of music that they play being heavy and doom-y as it is, you probably weren’t expecting to see this video when it came out.  Heavy bands like this don’t usually go full puppet-fest.  The above video definitely draws a line in the sand when it comes to puppets, and suggests something to the effect of, the only good puppet is a dead puppet.  Harsh message!

This video even goes as far as to destroy an entire puppet society, complete with puppets that resemble Fraggles, Muppets, and even hardworking Doozers!  Yes, I did even notice that eclipse in the background – ominous.  This is a very artistic video with very strong views, and amazingly it manages to embody the insanity of what would really happen in a puppet society if they were stricken mad, and attacked by larger, more violent puppets bent on destruction.  Clearly there was never any chance of escape.

Visit the Mastodon website here


Genesis – Land of Confusion

Land of Confusion by Genesis is another one of those examples where we have a band that was normally (up until a point) taken quite seriously by their fans and the general music listening public, but then they come out with this.

There’s a few things about “this” to note.  One is that, if you, like me, have grown up listening to the music of Phil Collins through the ’80’s, and sort of getting a sense of who he is, then this video appearing on the scene back when it did is far less surprising.  It may have taken aback Genesis fans back when it came out, but actually, likely not as Phil had been cranking up the cheese over the previous several years with his solo work.  Would the man that wrote “Sussudio” turn himself into a puppet?  You’re darn right he would!

But “Land of Confusion” is more than just “band turns into weird puppet likenesses of themselves for comedic effect”.  Back in the ’80’s, there was a show called Spitting Image, which was British satirical TV show, which had a very specific style of puppetry on display here in this Genesis video.

For many fans, Genesis wasn’t what they once were when they were fronted by Peter Gabriel.  By the mid-80’s, some might say they were just another vehicle for Phil Collins, who, although he is a fantastic musician, also took what people liked about Genesis converted it into his kind of corny dad humour, typified by the Spitting Image puppets.  On the other hand, many would defend Phil and saw the video for Land of Confusion as a landmark ’80’s music video that was just perfect for that era, in large part thanks to the puppets.  What do you think?

Visit genesisfan.net


Alice Cooper – School’s Out

When Alice Cooper was really a household name back in the 1970’s, whose persona rankled the establishment, this song was actually a symbol of his menace to the more reserved families around the United States.  Can you imagine?

Why would this be?  Well, just maybe he represented several things that members of the uptight establishment didn’t approve of – namely, the implication that being in school in some way isn’t good, and the scandalous idea of actually blowing it up (BOOM!).

That I know of, no schools were demolished as a result of this song, and to any reasonable person it is to be taken in good fun, but it must have been a thorn in some parents’ sides at the time just based on how much of an anti-school sentiment it carried.  Whether you are pro or against this song basically depends on how much you yourself enjoy school.  And, as people eventually came to understand over the years, Alice himself is a very educated and erudite man of the world, hehe. (cue clip).

The decision to pair up Alice Cooper with Jim Henson’s Monster Muppet Players must have been interesting at the time, since this combination would have simultaneously made Alice Cooper seem more kid-friendly, while making the normally “PG” muppets seem more “AA”.  In any event, the above video shows a side of Alice Cooper that, prior to his appearance here with the muppets, many people may not have expected him to have – a certain playfulness.

Visit Alice Cooper’s website here

Visit the Jim Henson Company’s website here


Lily Allen – Alfie

Just think, Lily Allen’s real life brother Alfie had this song written about him because he was such a little stoner slacker, and these days he’s been nominated for an Emmy for portraying Theon Greyjoy in the hit series Game of Thrones.  What a turnaround this guy has had!

But, back in those days, when he was the subject of a criticism by his own sister in the song “Alfie”, Lily decided (or someone decided) to portray young Alfie as a delinquent puppet, which then amazingly went on to become the hit that it was.

Lily Allen has done something here which we have yet to mention specifically, although everyone on this list so far has done it more or less, which is the subtle art of the main protagonist of the video not reacting to the fact that there is a puppet in their midst, and treating that totally obvious puppet like he / she / it is a normal person.

The result of this tactic has what must be the desired effect, which is to make the video, which has the gonadulars to parade a sloppily dressed puppet around doing trashy things, seem very cute and quaint by comparison to the perfectly coiffed star of the video.  This is actually a great lesson in both acting and video production for all you young aspiring music video makers out there, which is to learn the age old trick of not breaking that fourth wall.

Overall, the employment of puppetry here is top notch, and by not reacting in any way whatsoever to the atrocious appearance of the puppet with its red eyelids, horse teeth, and suburban lowlife hoody, Lily Allen has entered herself into the pantheon of music videos containing a puppet, and managing to co-exist with it happily on screen.

Visit Lily Allen’s website here


Supergrass – Pumping On Your Stereo

When it comes to music videos, everyone knows there’s a certain alchemy that makes it a “hit”, but it can be hard for musicians or their creative team to know what that might be, or else there would be no such thing as bad music videos.

Back in the year before Y2K, a little English rock band known as Supergrass put out a song that would definitely try its best to become a “hit”, using all manner of methods that the band could muster, including using elements of puppetry.

This song, “Pumping On Your Stereo”, definitely was delivered with a certain wink and wolf-whistle charm, as it went for the trifecta, I believe, of hit song qualities.

First, it delivered a video that basically no one had ever seen anything like.  Yes, there had been weird music videos throughout the previous decade of the 1980’s, and the 1990’s too had their share of one-hit wonder type videos, but simply visually, this video really is uniquely wacky.

Second, the song itself is very very hook-y, to the point where love it or hate it, you’re going to be humming it soon after hearing it.  It uses the Rolling Stones proven recipe of banging out some chords and having a young upstart sneer his way throughout what essentially could be a jingle for just about any product ever made.  Hard to resist!

Thirdly, and most significantly maybe, Supergrass did the ol’ “we’re pretending to say pumping but really we’re saying humping hahaha!” trick, which makes the song not only catch, but slightly more offensive than it has to be, in order to give it that certain “cool kid” snarky vibe that it has.

At the end of the day, it’s really hard to say what makes this song and video so irritatingly catchy.  Is it the chords, is it the words, is it the very freaky puppet stuff?  Is it all three?  All I know is that I don’t know what to think of this, but I had to put it on the list.

Visit the Supergrass website here


Weezer – Keep Fishin’

We come at last to none other than Weezer.  Why are they here?  Well, by now they’ve tried all sorts of gimmicks for their videos, and so it wasn’t a real shocker to probably anyone with eyes and ears that Weezer, the band that needed the love of fandom more than any other band has needed love before, came out with a video featuring none other than the Muppets.  Like, legit.  It’s the Muppets and Weezer.  Whoa.

By the time 2009 rolled around, it seemed almost as if that appearing with Muppets was a rite of passage for a band or artist.  As in, you haven’t really made it unless the actual Muppets are your friends.  Symbolically, it’s a sign that you are now truly a part of popular culture, even if you crammed yourself in there the same way a fat guy puts on jeans that don’t fit him.

Since we are more than a decade past this video now, we can clearly see that since the very beginning, the kind of band that Weezer is is the kind of band that would want to be around Muppets, Weird Al, the Fonz, and Tokyo drift motorcyclists, preferably all at the same time.  Some might even say that they have no shame (that would be me saying that).  Only maybe the Foo Fighters manage to self deprecate themselves with humour and deflate the whole rock star schtick while simultaneously and fairly obviously trying to embrace it.

All of that said, it’s really quite easy to forgive Weezer for any sort of perceived crimes against music they have committed, especially considering the level at which they rock has never really gone beyond just jamming out for their fans.  The fact that Weezer at one point jammed out with the Muppets, while it doesn’t really tickle my pickle, is something that any $2 psychic could have predicted back in ’94 when the Buddy Holly was on MTV every 10 minutes.  Did I mention I actually don’t mind Weezer?

Visit Weezer’s website


Well, we did it, friends…we made it through some of the most famous puppet-centric music videos of all time.  Did I miss any videos that you are aware of that feature puppets?  What did you think of these videos?  Tell me in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist trying to make my own puppet-y video, with the help of the team over at Broadcast King.  Let me know if I should be in the Hall of Fame, or the Hall of SHAME!?

More from this blog you might enjoy (assuming you didn’t mind this post):

The All Time Best Karaoke Songs To Sing Drunk And Be A Hero

What is the Demoscene?

Test Dept Interview January 2019 – Speaking with Paul Jamrozy and Graham Cunnington

Today I speak with Paul Jamrozy and Graham Cunnington, of the innovative and highly-engaging UK-based musical act, Test Dept – a group which gives new meaning to the expression, “brutal honesty”. 

This is because Test Dept has ever been raining blows upon inanimate objects, albeit in a percussive and poly-rhythmic fashion.

To the uninitiated, these sounds may seem disorganized and shrill, and perhaps even…maddening. 

If you’ve seen the musical “Stomp”, imagine that briefly, if you will.  Then, replace those happy-go-lucky performers with staunch political activists, and then invite Ogre, Al Jourgensen, and all of Einstürzende Neubauten to the party.  This might give your “normal” individual, who may not get out much, some approximation of the sonic scenario here, although, that description is oversimplifying things quite a lot.

In any case, the skittish and faint of heart may be unlikely to enter a venue with Test Dept on the marquee, particularly if they are aware of the group.  The sound of a rabid gray wolf baying outside their front door may prove to be more soothing aurally to such an individual.

However abstract and disjointed Test Dept’s on-stage presence may seem to people who have always tended to bathe in the jaw-slackening sounds of pop music, there is, and has always been, a game plan and purpose behind everything Test Dept does.  And there are also those that know this, and appreciate their activities.

https://testdept.org.uk/

For the record, Test Dept is known globally for their impassioned live shows, and for their use of industrial “found” material (ie. scrap metal), refashioned into more purposeful instruments, with which they make their unique music. 

They have been interpreting the world around them and converting it into vigorous sound since 1981, when they emerged in New Cross, London.  Their mission to make music with a built-in purpose continues to this day.

With over a dozen members come and gone over the past almost-30 years, and many collaborators to speak of, Test Dept has been quite prolific, developing a formidable body of work.  This is work that may certainly be deemed influential to anyone who knows how to recognize when influence has been passed along the winding corridors of modern culture, as modern culture has a distinct tendency towards wilful forgetfulness.

If you’ve seen some of Test Dept’s video output, you will know they are, in addition to being very rhythmic, visually stimulating and cinematic.

 Here is a clip called Program for Progress to demonstrate what I mean.

Recently, the core members of Test Dept has re-formed in order to take the stage once again, motivated by the curious goings-on in global culture.  It is they who I had a chance to put some questions to.  Luckily, they responded.

So, to delay no further, here is my interview with Test Dept, where we discuss a variety of topics.  We start, as logic would dictate, at the very beginning.


For those who don’t know the band or its history, Test Dept, by your own admission, emerged from a decaying culture in South London in the early 1980’s. So much so that you literally grabbed hold of pieces of that crumbling world and started making music with them. Do you remember the first time you did this, and the circumstances around it?

GC: We had been living in Amsterdam when the idea for Test Dept emerged. We relocated to the docklands of South London where we were surrounded by the inevitable consequence of Thatcher’s destruction of the heavy industry and manufacturing economic base in favour of a service economy.  

PJ: Corrugated sheeting, empty beer barrels, gas cylinders, car springs, they were everywhere around us. Deptford Creekside was our playground, we wandered around the old decaying factories, rummaged on the banks of the Thames and scavenged in the scrapyards that proliferated the area.

Stowage, Deptford / mylondondiary.co.uk

Was your music, in the beginning, more a reaction to the music at the time, or the politics? For example, were you bothered at all by the disco duck?

PJ: It began more as a noise thing, a reaction to where we had been after punk, we had a sense of unfinished business. The post punk period, with the wide spectrum of new experimental music that poured out was all very liberating. The politics were already there but developed rapidly with the hate figure of Thatcher to oppose, The Falklands War, followed by the ‘English Civil War’ that was the ‘Miners Strike’ and the wars kept coming. Must say, Disco duck never really caught on in Deptford but must confess it is quite irritatingly catchy.


Do you feel your music is “atonal” or “noise”? For instance, do you think of it as such, or do you think of it as perhaps “nice” or “relaxing” but maybe just an “acquired taste”? Or are you more of the mindset that “yes, it’s an awful racket, but we love it!”?

PJ: I think you pass through a number of states and emotions in the performing and listening modes. Sometimes you had to go through the pain barrier to reach a crescendo or release and that was true of the audience too. Not everybody got that but those who did were very passionate about it. To us it wasn’t an infernal racket; it was co-ordinated and constructed into a giant machine in which we were all components, that sense of utilitarian unity gave us a vision of building something immense and beyond individualist egos.


Once you make an album using pieces of discarded metal and whatnot, does that metal hold any sentimental place in your heart, or do you simply shove it back into the sea or the scrapyard from whence it came? In other words, do you consider yourselves pioneers of worldwide recycling, or are you simply riding the waves of detritus and scrap as it crests, and then surfing away in the opposite direction once the wave crashes down?

PJ: Well we have had some fabulous pieces over the years but through our own transient lives, lack of a continuous space to work in, etc. Many fabulous pieces were lost such as our giant ten-foot trumpet and the sputniks (antique 1950s brewery barrels made of a very distinctive alloy); but some were just too big to keep, like the ten ton tank that nearly brought the Albany Empire ceiling crashing down. Some took a beating and were just destroyed in action. 

demolished Cars and scrap metal ready to be shipped – amsterdam


Bands like Coil, or maybe someone like Alec Empire, seem to have taken a sound you created and distilled it into more palatable tones with some of their albums. Have you ever thought of doing something more contemplative and “new age-y” in the same way as something like Time Machines (Coil) or Low On Ice (Alex Empire)? Hell, even Throbbing Gristle made that “funk” album, right? Perhaps have a sexy female voice singing “skulls crack” could open you up to…ah, forget it.

PJ: I think we have always been diverse in working with a variety of styles including some ambient tracks, think Plastic (Beating the Retreat), Comrade Enver Hoxha (Unacceptable Face of Freedom) and female vocalists, Nadka (Terra Firma),  Gododdin the album with Brith Gof and Totality the album with Katie- Jane Garside.


You have long been associated with the “art” world, whether it be performance, sculpture, concept art, and various counterculture and subversive movements within the “art” world, some dating back decades if not centuries. How comfortable are you being associated with the art world in general?

PJ: The ‘art world’ is far too general a term, we do not sell commodified work to an art market and whilst appreciating work aesthetically, we find that this art world, as an arbiter of taste, is distasteful and totally removed from our lives. However it is true to say we have many artistic influences going back to the movements of Dada, Futurism, Constructivism in the early part of the last century; and on to the multi media of Fluxus, the political stance of the Situationists and other radical art movements in the latter part of the last century. These movements and the art produced was indeed revolutionary and critical of the society it evolved into, using art as a vehicle to expand horizons, or to create visions of a new world of possibilities.

Fluxus street theatre

Obviously, Test Dept has no problem making “regular” people uncomfortable with your music, both in recordings and live performance. Surely, even as new people get exposed to your music, they are still as uncomfortable now as they were when you first arrived on the scene. There will always be suburbanites and people racing down Wall Street who, at most, would cast you a disdainful and utterly fed up / confused glare. Assuming you have always enjoyed people’s squirming discomfort at what you bring to the table, do you still enjoy it today?

GC: There are certainly some artists who’s main focus seems to be on making people uncomfortable in a sonic sense, but this is not our aim. We make music that we feel reflects and comments on the world around us, which at the moment is pretty uncomfortable. Our sonic palette is partly gathered from our surroundings and not based on standard ideas of ‘musicality’ (although harmony and melody can have their place at times). There is certainly beauty, and even musicality, in noise. Sound is just vibrating air and all objects that vibrate to make a sound when hit or plucked or bowed (or simply turned on in the case of mechanical objects) are potential instruments; its just about how one perceives or places them. What is comfortable for some is uncomfortable for others – before the C20th atonal music was considered uncomfortable (if not incomprehensible), now it is accepted as a mainstream musical form. It’s all down to perception and taste.



What are your thoughts on bands that people consider to be flag bearers of industrial music who came along after you like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails? Has your influence on them been acknowledged by them, or anyone else, and what do you think of what they’re doing in relation to what you’re doing?

PJ: Trent Reznor has made positive statements recognizing our influence (in fact he has said that NiN are not industrial but rather have industrial influences) but it is not something that really concerns us. In media terms we were pushed to the periphery having not had the majority of our back catalogue available for many years. That was why it was important to publish the ‘Total State Machine’ book to show our history and all the diverse projects that took us into many unchartered waters way beyond the industrial.

I think the majority of these American ‘industrial’ bands are more akin to traditional rock bands that have incorporated electronic and noise elements into their sound, which is fine. However I think we come from a different place, a very European heritage of found sound, electronic experimentation,  the classical avant-garde and noise aesthetic with a heavy load of tribal drums thrown in for good measure.


What can you say about Some Bizarre Records, in terms of how the label operated and some of your label mates. In relation to the last question, bands like Einstürzende Neubauten seem to be a more an apt comparison to Test Dept vs. a band like NIN, but is that how you see it, or do yourself as having nothing to do with any of these groups?

PJ: Some Bizarre were responsible for bringing many of the best experimental and alternative acts under one roof and were almost untouchable for a long period. All these acts were very different but shared a sense of creative adventure that is rare. We were always fiercely independent while recognizing that which we had in common with bands like Neubauten, Laibach and others, which was largely our sense of being European in the midst of the cold war.



As the world seems to get only more zany and steeped in various real and imagined conspiracies, how do you see your place in it today?

GC: We try to comment on what we see around us in the real world. Conspiracies used to be political or industrial cover-ups of power-plays or incidents involving subterfuge, mistakes or outrages; these days they are often whole world-views, propagated and expounded upon by a multitude of voices requiring little or no concrete evidence. Anything can be extracted and extrapolated to fit any theory if only limited and specific data is highlighted as proof. 

PJ: We have entered a new era of what has been termed ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, where every action, every click is monitored, captured and sold. Information is on the money. Avoiding Facebook or other capture vehicles only slightly minimizes the risk. Be under no illusions the Trojan horse is already within all of our firewalls. You have been Googled.


Test Dept – Selected Discography


History – The Strength of Metal in Motion (1982)

View on Test Dept website


Ecstacy Under Duress (1983)

View on Test Dept website


The Unacceptable Face of Freedom (1986)

View on Test Dept website


Terra Firma (1988)

View on Test Dept website


Bang On It (1993)

View on Test Dept website


Tactics For Evolution (1997)

View on Test Dept website

Chatting About Pre-Beatlemania British Rock ‘n’ Roll with Ex-Mod Bryan Rogers

In this article, I chat with my friend Bryan Rogers, self identified ex-mod, about his time growing up in and around the music of London, England, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, where he experienced the birth of rock ‘n roll in the UK first hand.  This was before Beatlemania, so pre-1963…

Bryan Rogers was born on the 10th December, 1940, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.

Here he is around age 2.

These were the pre-British Invasion days, and Bryan was there in person as bands like The Beatles, The Stones, and many more started playing small dance halls and theatres in and around London, before heading off to America to make it big.  

Venues like the Locarno Ballroom in Swindon, the Lyceum in London, McIlroys in Swindon, The Locomotive Pub, Farr’s, Gaumont State Kilburn Ballroom, and so forth…these were places that Bryan would frequent to listen to these rock ‘n roll groups, whether they played live, or a DJ was there playing records so the teens could boogie-woogie, as it were.

All this was happening around the same time that American rock legends like Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and many others were coming over to the United Kingdom to find new fans in the youth of England, and influencing those British bands who would later “invade” America.

In speaking with Bryan over the years, I’d heard tell of his adventures in and around jolly old England (particularly London), seeing all of these bands and having some first hand encounters with a few of them.  

Finally, I had a chance to sit down with Bryan Rogers, and chat with him on the topic of early rock ‘n roll in England in the early 1960’s, and what all went down back then – the way it was.

Bryan is, by nature, a curious cat, and usually cats live perilous lives, but this cat has fortunately survived to relate his tale to me, who was very interested to hear about his (mis)adventures and dirty deeds over across the pond.  

Hope you all enjoy our chat, and if you have any comments or stories of your own, please leave them below!


On 50’s music and the 1960 British pop music charts

Bryan: So back in the ’50’s, it was mundane music compared to what it is today, like Doris Day and Frankie Laine …for Chrissakes!  

And then there was The Shadows, who were the back-up group for Cliff Richards…they recorded a tune on their own called “Apache”, which was a knock off of an American group.

Anthony Newly was another English film star who became a singer, and then there’s Shirley Bassey…

Who else we got here?  <scanning the pop music chart from 1960> Roy Orbison’s in there with “Only The Lonely”.  

Presley started to pop up around then too.  Lonnie Donegan, Emile Ford and the Checkmates.  Cliff Richards and the Shadows again, yeah.  The Everly Brothers…these people are slowly coming on…yeah, these are the British, not the American charts, mind you.

And then there was people like Tommy Steele, who wanted to be American, like Elvis Presley, but he never was.

YTMS: Tommy Steele, never heard of him.  Was he really famous?

Bryan: In England, he was…he was on a merchant ship, and he learned how to the play the guitar, so he sung a few songs…became a big hit.  Because people like Bob Dylan were on the go, right?

YTMS: So he was a troubadour kind of guy?

Bryan: He was a folk singer…

YTMS: Big changes in music between 1960 and 1970…

Bryan: Yeah, the whole British Invasion happened.  The Animals, Freddy and the Dreamers, The Kinks, and all those groups.  I think The Animals come from Newcastle…

Seeing Rock Bands in the Early 1960’s (Pre-Beatlemania)

YTMS: When you were growing up over there in England, you saw a lot of these groups when they first came up?

Bryan: Yes, at the local dance hall, on a Saturday, they’d come and play, and we’d dance to them.

YTMS: What was the place called?

Bryan: The Locarno Ballroom, in Swindon.

YTMS: Locarna?

Bryan: Locarno.

YTMS: How big was it?

Bryan: Probably …

YTMS: 1000 people or so?

Bryan: Yeah.  I’d also go to the Lyceum Theatre, in London, just off the Strand, in the center of London.  It was all mainly records there.

YTMS: Just records?

Bryan: DJ’s, yeah.

YTMS: Any bands there?

Bryan: No.

YTMS: Ah, it was just a dance club, not really a venue for live bands to play. 

Bryan: Right.

YTMS: So where did you start seeing actual bands play, and when?

Bryan: Most of the people from that time, most of the bands…like The Undertakers, that was one of ’em…because of the success of The Beatles and The Stones, bands started coming around to the dance halls to play.

Some of these groups found success, like Freddy and the Dreamers.. I didn’t really like them, but there you go.  Uh, who else?  There was the Dave Clarke Five.

YTMS: They were a rock group?

Bryan: Yeah. “Bits and Pieces” was one of their songs. <sings a snippit of the song> “Glad All Over” was another one of their hits.  They come from Tottenham area of London.

YTMS: So they played at the Locarno? 

Bryan: No, but I saw them play in Tottenham.

YTMS: You’d travel around to see bands play?

Bryan: Oh yeah.  When I was livin’ in London, I had a scooter, and I’d tour around to the different city halls, dance halls…

YTMS: How far would you go to see a group?

Bryan: Half way across London.

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: Yeah, and London’s a big place.

YTMS: Just scoot on over?

Bryan: Yeah, Seven Sisters Road… just down the road from the stadium, there was a pub on the corner… at the pub, they’d have these dances, play all these pop songs…

YTMS: You were big on the clubs at the time around there?  You and your friends?

Bryan: Yeah…we’d hang out at Baker Street, which is in the book about Sherlock Holmes.  22B Baker Street. 

I used to go to a club called Farr’s.  F A double R apostrophe S, Farr’s.  We were about 14 or 15 then.  So we’d go there, and we used to have tailor-made suits.

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: Ok, here’s the scoop.  My friend Dennis and me.. Dennis lived down the road from me.. and he says, “Bryan, do ya want a job?”  Paperboy…I said “Sure.”  We had to walk two miles up the road, to this place called Ellington’s.  We go straight up Carlton Vale, and if you’d continue up Carlton Vale, at the end is a T junction, and that’s Abbey Road.  THE Abbey Road. 

So, prior to coming to Abbey Road, on Carlton Vale, we turn right on Maida Vale I believe it was, and we’d walk along there, and turn left, across from Maida Vale underground, and there was Ellington’s.  So, we were paid to mark up the papers, like, everybody in England had the morning paper.  We’d get the address for some apartment building, or “mansions” as we called ’em, take a Daily Mirror paper and a Women’s Own magazine, put them together, write the address down, fold them, put them aside, and a paper boy or girl would come and take them. 

So we used to mark up the paper rounds, and we also had a round of our own.  Now, let’s put it in dollars, it’ll be easier to understand.  They were pre-paid, say, 50 cents a week to deliver papers…

YTMS:  Ok…

Bryan: Dennis and I would get, say, 3 dollars a week to mark up the papers every morning to deliver a round, and our own round as well.  A suit back then, it used to be guineas, would be, say, around about 17 dollars for a tailor made suit.  So we were makin’ 3 bucks… what do you think we’d spend our money on?  Sharp linen.  So when we’re 14, we’d save our money.  And another thing, we’d have a con game going.  We’d go around to all these different apartment buildings, or mansions, that we knew were the other paper boys’ routes… knock on the door every Christmas, tell ’em we were the paper boy…

YTMS: <snickers>

Bryan: …and they would give us a tip.  Maybe 50 cents or a dollar. 

YTMS:  That’s pretty good…

Bryan: So that used to go towards our suit fund.  Twice a year we’d have tailor-made suits!

YTMS: Wow!

Bryan: Yeah.

YTMS: You bought more than one I guess…had a whole wardrobe full of ’em?

Bryan: Yeah.  Dennis had some overcoats made, but I never got those.

On Becoming A Mod

YTMS: What were you guys like you called? 

Bryan: Mods.  We had the short hair.

YTMS: You were trying to be a mod on purpose?

Bryan: We never thought about it at the time, but yeah.  We’d pick up some shoes, they were tapered.  Pointy, tapered shoes.  Fake crocodile skin…We had flared trousers…

YTMS:  Yeah…

Bryan: …with a little slit on the side at the bottom.  And maybe 2 or 3 covered buttons going up the seam on our jackets.  Single or double breasted, covered buttons, as well.

YTMS: Hm…This is what it was like to be a mod.  Any other defining characteristics?

Bryan: We had short jackets.

YTMS: Does that mean you were cool? 

Bryan: Yeah, we were with it. 

YTMS: Tough?

Bryan: No, no, no.  We had our own little clan, and we’d gyrate together, at these dance halls.

YTMS: Yeah, yeah.

Bryan: Now, if there’s any “teddy boys” around, or “rockers”…

YTMS: Is that what the other guys were called?

Bryan:  Yes. Now, they wore jackets down to their knees…black velvet collars…and had really tight jeans on.  And they had these boots called “chukka boots”.  They used to have crimped soles about that thick <gestures>, black or dark blue.

Bryan: So imagine – big pairs of boots and long jacket <laughs> with hair down back, like Presley, you know.. a D.A. .. Tony Curtis, you know.. film star.. he had that down there, and that was called a duck’s ass.  Parted down the middle, it all come down.. <gestures> and then a quiff over here <gestures>…So they were teddy boys, yeah.  And if we ever met… it was a punch up.  Sometimes, we’d get on our scooters, and we’d drive down to Bornemouth or Brighton..south end, that’s on the coast…and we see any rockers, it them or us.. we’d go for it.. like Quadrophelia. 

YTMS: Did you go looking for ’em?

Bryan: Nah.

YTMS: Were you worried about seeing them?

Bryan: No, there was usually more of us than them.

YTMS: Were there a lot of fights? 

Bryan: Just now and again, not that often.

YTMS: People get stabbed?

Bryan: No, no. But, prior to that, the teddy boys…they used to have razor blades, put them in their collar, or in their hat.  That was their weapon of choice – a razor.

YTMS: Sounds dangerous…

Bryan. So I come in at the end of the teddy boy era, basically, and at the beginning of the mod era.  Which was good…I prefer to dress smart than scruffy with messy hair.

YTMS: Did that work better with the birds?

Bryan: The birds, yeah…

YTMS: Did the girls like rockers or mods better?

Bryan: The mod girls liked the mod boys and same with the rockers.  You could tell by looking at somebody who was who.

YTMS: Did mods and rockers ever get together.

Bryan: Probably…well… I doubt it.

YTMS: So for bands at that time, who did you see?

Bryan: Prior to going down to the town Swindon where the Locarno was, I told you before I went to the Gaumont State Kilburn.  It could hold 4000 people. 

Guy Mitchell was in that early list here <from the 1960 hit parade>.  Singin’ the blues, we went and saw him.  When I was a young kid, every time I’d go by this theatre, I’d see Louie Armstrong would be advertised, Ella Fitzgerald, all the jazz people, yeah.

YTMS: Did you check them out?

Bryan: No, we were too young.  Maybe 10 or 11.

YTMS: Not interested?

Bryan: No.  And then we went up and we saw Guy Mitchell.  We went and saw Bill Haley.  I’ve told you this in the past.

Barging In On The Platters

And then, we saw The Platters.  You’ve heard of them?

YTMS: Yeah.

Bryan: So we said, let’s see if we can get in backstage and see them. Well, lo and behold, the first door we tried – it opened.  You don’t usually… We pushed on the door and it opened.  As we walked in, The Platters were there, as close as you are…there they were!  I thought the girl was pretty.

They stood and looked at us, we stood and looked at them.  Nobody said a word.  Then somebody goes, “Hey, what the f*** you doin’ here, get the f*** out of here!  And we were gone!

But…not only did they have this little stage at the state theatre, but they had this little dance area…and Gene Vincent came in…and he sung there.  Be Bop A Lula.  And that was another person who I told you before that you are aware of…The Beatles liked him.  They all followed these guys.

YTMS: This is pre-Beatlemania?  ’62?

Bryan: Maybe a little before that.

YTMS: Did you ever end up seeing those big British bands.  The Beatles, The Who?

Seeing The Beatles

Bryan: No, never followed The Who.  I saw The Beatles and The Stones in Swindon. It was like an Eaton’s store, and they had a restaurant on the second floor…and on a Monday night, they used to have groups there.  Or lone singers…and this was prior to The Beatles becoming famous, they were there…The Rolling Stones another week.  Long John Baldry was there. He was there, he was talking to this guy, he had a woman with him, and I was there with my friend Dave…and we could hear everything they were saying, we were standing by the bar…

YTMS: Didn’t you tell me some weird story about this guy?

Bryan: Yes, I did.  So after a long conversation, this guy says to Long John Baldry, “Who’s the girl?” and Long John Baldry turns to the girl and says, “What’s your name again?”  <laughter> So, all these singers at the time, they all knew one another… they used to meet up.  Elton John got his name…it’s allegedly said… they were lovers, Elton John and Long John Baldry.  I heard this many years later, on the radio.. and…they split up, Long John Baldry dumped Elton John.. his real name was something like “Jimmy”…

YTMS: Reggie…

Bryan: Reggie something-or-other, yeah yeah…so, he changed his name, and because he liked Long John Baldry, he called himself John…this is the rumour, anyway…where he got Elton from, I don’t know…but it’s been successful for him.

YTMS: Yeah…

Long John Baldry Reuinion (Many Years Later)

Bryan: So, fast forward to a few years ago in Cambridge. There was a bar over by Soper Park and Highway 8.  There was a little blues bar in there. 

YTMS: The Cave?

Bryan: No, that little plaza with the pizza place.  Around the corner, they had a blues bar.  And Martin says to me, cause he was workin’ there…he says, “Dad, come, Long John Baldry’s here! Why don’t you come and see him?” So I went and saw him…he had this hat on, he always had this thing for a hat… and long hair now…When he was at Swindon, he wasn’t wearing a hat when he was talking to that guy and that gal, and he had short hair…blonde hair…he was a tall guy, about 6’4″, maybe taller. That’s why they called him Long John, I guess.  He was in this blues bar here and Cambridge and I went to see him…And, as he walked towards the dressing room I went to speak to him…

YTMS: He didn’t remember you, did he?

Bryan: No, no…I just wanted to say “Hey, I saw you in Swindon!”, but he just poo-poo’d me away and went into the dressing room. So Martin spoke to him after the band were done for the night. He said “Yeah, I remember Swindon, yeah” But I didn’t know he was gay ’til Martin mentioned it. 

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: I had no f***** idea. 

YTMS: He came to Cambridge (Ontario)?

Bryan: Yeah, he came and sung in that bar.

YTMS: Wow.

Bryan: To me it’s the end of the road if you’re singin’ there.  But, he was known by a lot of people. 

YTMS: Yeah, he was famous.

Bryan: Yeah…I’ve got all these books here about all these different musical groups, and now and again they’ll cross paths. 

McIlroy’s in Swindon

YTMS: So what was that place that was in Swindon, the restaurant?

Bryan: Yeah, on Monday nights it was a dance club, and during the day, a restaurant. One night, we saw Jerry and the Pacemakers.  The place was called McIlroy’s.

YTMS: Was this a cool place to play?

Bryan: Yeah, and it probably held about 500 people.  And a lot of the performers came there just when they were getting famous, or prior to.

YTMS: The Stones played there?

Bryan: Yep. This was before they were locked in a room and told not to come out before you write a f***** hit song.

Bryan: If you look up McIlroy’s in Swindon, you’ll see some of the flyers of the Beatles and the Stones.

YTMS: You were allowed in to this place, at 14, 15? 

Bryan: Yeah, there was no booze.  Actually, maybe there was.  You used to be able to drink at the Locarno.  I was 19 or 20 then.  But you could drink when you were 16…there were no drugs back then.  No one talked about them, and they didn’t even really exist to us.  The only people doing drugs were the groups – the Beatles and the Stones.  In the circle of people I moved with within London, and within Swindon, we didn’t do drugs.  We didn’t have a clue.

YTMS: Probably for the best…

Bryan: I remember…I used to hang out with a guy named Eric Heaton.  We eventually had an apartment between us, and had all the birds over.  We had a friend, Willie, who used to hang out at Locomotive pub in Swindon. 

Eric used to go there more than I did.  One time, we finished drinking in there, they closed the bar.  Willie says “Come on boys, let’s go back to my place and have some carrot wine.” “No,” i said…I’d had some of my mother’s homemade wine, knocks the s*** right outta ya. “No, no,” he says, laughing like a crazy Irishman. So we go back to his place and have some carrot wine, on top of all the beer we drank.  Then we staggered up the hill, until we got to the flat we were livin’ in.  I laid on the bed, and the f***** room was goin’ round and round.  Then I had to throw up, so I fell off the bed, got on my hands and knees, and crawled round to the bathroom.  Oh, that carrot wine!

YTMS: I never heard of carrot wine.

Bryan: Brutal.  So those groups back then, we’d watch them, and after a while we’d dance to them.  They were pretty cool.

YTMS: Were you a fan of the American bands when they came to England?

Bryan: We might have seen a few of them.

Jerry Lee Lewis – No Encore?

YTMS: Didn’t you say you saw Buddy Holly?

Bryan: Buddy Holly was when I lived in London, and went to the Gaumont State Kilburn. 

Like I said, the first guy we saw was Guy Mitchell. “Singing The Blues” – that was his big hit song.  After that, it was Bill Haley and the Comets, and then Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and then there was Jerry Lee Lewis. I checked on this – he only sung in three concerts, and that was it.

YTMS: In the UK?

Bryan: Yeah, the press gave him a hard time, cause he had married his 13-year-old cousin. But I read many years ago in about 1980, in the Penthouse or Playboy, I was reading that, and here’s an article on Jerry Lee Lewis, and then there was a paragraph about Jerry Lee singing at the State Kilburn, and it said we boo’ed him off the stage, because he married his 13-year-old cousin.  It wasn’t because of that.  We listened to him…he did his bit, and here’s the reason why we boo’ed him…

YTMS: Why?

Bryan: Why do you think?

YTMS: He sucked?

Bryan: No, he was fabulous.  It was because he left the stage, and wouldn’t come back and do an encore.  NO ENCORE.  And another guy that would not play an encore was Roy Orbison. When I used to ride my scooter around London with my pals, we’d see tour posters with Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers…

But you know, they were the best of times, the 60’s, and all those groups.  There wasn’t 1 group, or 2 groups…we used to have parties at my house, with my parents. 

After the British Legion closed on a Saturday night, people come over and we’d play records like Little Eva “Locomotion”, The Beatles, The Stones, and whoever else was popular at the time. 

They were good parties, they really were, and then we’d sit around and play cards afterwards, drinkin’ my mothers’ home made wine.  Then I’d get up and say “Holy f***!  It’s broad daylight!” and everybody’d be gone…


And so concluded my chat with ex-mod Bryan Rogers.  Stay tuned, we may yet chat again!  

Read about Bryan Rogers’ life story – http://imnotadoctorbutillhavealook.com

History and Application of the Theremin

When it comes to the imagination, the human mind has no limit. The magic of the vision of man can be seen in the invention of musical instruments.

The purpose of the musical instrument is rhetorical.  What you may think is impossible is made possible by instruments. It is not just about the theory behind their invention; these instruments have the power and ability to speak to nature.

Also, the language of instruments is a mediation between what is to be observed and the observer.

You might think you have seen and heard the strangest music instrument until you come in contact with the theremin.

Curious about what this strange instrument is? This article will provide you with all the details you need to know about the theremin.

WHAT IS A THEREMIN?

The theremin will forever remain the first electrical instrument in history to be manufactured. It is one of the unique and unusual instruments in the world, having been invented in 1919 by Léon Theremin.

Is it possible to play an instrument without actually touching it? Yes, with the invention of the theremin, it is practically possible as it does not require physical interaction in order to be controlled. 

The theremin was initially known as an etherphone or a thereminophone. This instrument, by its very nature, set the foundation for the invention of all other electrical instruments to follow.

The Invention of the Theremin

The design of the theremin dates back to 1920 by a remarkable Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen. He is also known as Léon Theremin in the West.

Here he is playing his instrument, in 1954.

The invention of this instrument was as a result of research in relation to proximity sensors, and the government of Soviet-sponsored this research.

The study took place in Saint Peterburg in the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Theremin was invented just after the Russian World War 2 outbreak.  Wanting to free the performers from the use a fixed intonation and a keyboard, he created a theremin through the knowledge he had about the capacitance of the body.

Sergeyevich then made a tour to Europe where he spent some time demonstrating his invention of the theremin. He later moved to the United States and in 1928 he sought for a patent for his invention. 

Sergeyevich had also granted the Radio Corporations of America( RCA) the production rights of the theremin.

The RCA theremin was released after the 1929 stock market crash.

Although the release of the theremin by the RCA was not a success, a number of audiences in both abroad and within America were fascinated by this new instrument and it took the interest of many manufacturers.

In the early 1930s, Lucie Bigelow Rosen in partnership with her husband Walter Bigelow Rosen was amazed at the theremin and their interest in this instrument lead them to offer financial support to the development of the theremin.

In addition to this Lucie and her husband also provided artistic support. This lead to the popularization of the theremin to those who had no idea of this instrument.

In 1938, Sergeyevich is believed to have left the United States although the circumstances that may have forced him to leave are not precise. He then reappeared in 1991.

After the end of the second world war, the use of the theremin started decreasing and the popularity of this instrument declined rapidly with the introduction of new electronic instruments.

Many musicians preferred to use this new instrument as they were easy to play as compared to the theremin.

Although the use of the theremin may have become unpopular among musicians, persistence in the development of the theremin among electricians was still a topic of interest.

Robert Moog

One of the great enthusiast electricians is Robert Moog. Robert began taking an interest in the building of the theremin in the 1950s.

To the utter surprise of many, Robert was still a high school student when he began developing theremins. Also, he wrote several articles that were about building theremins.  He even went to an extent of selling theremin kits.

These kits were to allow the customers to assemble the parts together. One of the remarkable moment when Robert was selling theremin kits, Raymond Scott, an inventor of electrical instruments also purchased a theremin kit that he incorporated in the invention of the Clavivox.

How Is The Theremin Played?

The theremin is made up of two antennas that are sensitive to the hands of the thereminist.

One antenna is used to control the frequency by a sense of motion of one side, and the other antenna controls the amplitude based on the movement of the second hand.

Although the theremin has been used in orchestra and films, it was an instrument that was intended to be used as a signature in science fiction.

With the spooky and uncomfortable notes that the theremin produced was to be used to make the viewers of horror films feel uncomfortable.

Keeping in mind that the theremin is played without any physical contact, it is not as easy as it may look. Controlling the frequency and amplitude is very difficult, and hence practice is essential.

Both the volume and pitch of the theremin are controlled by the distance between the hand and the two antennas.  These two antennas are used to produce an electromagnetic field.

If the hand is moved closer to the antenna that is used to control the pitch, the pitch of the theremin rises.

On the other hand, when the hand moves closer to the antenna that controls volume, the volume decreases.  The note of the theremin is affected by any object that is within the playing field of the theremin or any motion that the body generates.

The early theremins volume and pitch were controlled through the use of foot pedal. This model was later developed to theremins that used the hand’s motion.

Here’s a great video showing the basics of how to play a theremin.

Diversity of the Theremin

Over the years different models of the theremin have been developed. These theremins range from those that can be played by beginners to those that are played by professional thereminist. 

These models include the Moog Music model, Matryomin model, RCA Victor model, TVox model, and Subscope model.

Moog model is the one that is commonly used worldwide.  It is through Moog that the theremins have survived in the market through his continuous production of these instruments.

Here is professional thereminist Lydia Kavina playing the Moog Theremini.

Theremin in Popular Music

The use of theremin as a music instrument began long ago in the early 1940s.

The first rock band to perform with a theremin live was Lothar and the Hand People in 1965.  By the way, Lothar was a theremin, not a person.

The release of Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys in 1966 lead to the revival of the theremin.

Through the use of the electro-theremin by this band in their song it increased awareness of the band.

The band also requested Moog Music to produce for them branded ribbon-controlled instruments. These instruments had a similar sound to the one that was created by the theremin.

Jimmy Page, a songwriter and founder of the Led Zeppelin rock band, throughout the performance of this band he used the theremin in different variations.

Other bands such as the Portishead and the Rolling Stones have used the theremin in several of their performances.

More Music Featuring Theremin

The theremin was first incorporated into orchestra by Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer. The theremin may not have been used in classical music, but it was used in several motion pictures such as The Red House, The Lost Weekend and The Spiral Staircase.

Here’s a composition called Lunar Rhapsody by Harry Revel.

The theremin has also been featured in video games such as Soul of the Ultimate Nation.

One of the most remembered thereminists is a student of professor Theremin, Clara Rockmore.

Being an accomplished violinist at age 5, Clara developed a problem with her hand. This lead to her being unable to use her hand to play the violin.

With the invention of the theremin, she had to give up playing the violin, and her only choice was to play the theremin. 

Clara developed an aerial fingering system that was unique and precise. With her incredible skills, she became one of the best thereminists in the world.

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine that an instrument that can be seen and heard but cannot be touched produces a sound that may make you a little bit uncomfortable, and yet so compelled to listen.

The theremin will remain to be one of the strangest instruments in the world that has stolen the attention and interest of many.

Don’t you want to play this instrument at least once in your lifetime?

Triangle Instrument History – The Grimley Memoirs

The triangle is one of the instruments that has gained a bit of a bad reputation over the years.  In fact, some people don’t even think it IS a musical instrument…the nerve!

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much or seem to do a whole heck of a lot. 

So, what is a triangle instrument, then, exactly? 

Well, it’s a simply bar of metal (usually steel but sometimes made from beryllium copper) bent into a triangular shape, that gives off a bright sound when struck.

It is termed an “idiophone”, which means, basically, that it has no strings, but, nonetheless, it gives off a sound when struck, shaken, or scraped.  A gong is also part of this family, and so is a bell. 

There is a view that we think that many a musician has, not to mention the public in general, which is that the triangle is the ugly duckling of the music world, and only used by the semi-autistics of the world.

In your average 9th grade music class, the most hopeless of the lot might be assigned the triangle as a way to occupy them without giving them anything too difficult to do, musically speaking. 

In the 21st century, the triangle is not exactly used liberally in Katy Perry or Lady Gaga songs.   And Ed Grimley (below) hasn’t helped matters much either, for that matter.

Percussion Family Matters

It is thought, whenever anyone does consider this oft-neglected instrument (which is rarely if ever), that the triangle doesn’t have any real special significance, and has little impact on any major piece of music. 

Disagree?  When was the last time you gave a care for the humble (and rather high pitched) triangle?

Maybe the last time you heard a triangle was when someone called you to dinner somewhere in the Southern U.S.A., about 40 years ago.

Let it be known that as a simple instrument as it may be, we think that the triangle deserves a lot better than the reputation is currently seems to have. 

So who do you think would be the first to stick up for the forlorn triangle, if anyone?  We suppose it is none other than your local percussionists and members of military marching bands.

Yes, if anyone knows its secret plight, it’s the percussionist who understands the important role the triangle has been playing since its advent.  This is because besides being an idiophone, the triangle is part of the percussion family.

Indeed, the triangle is a very unique instrument, as is its role in any ensemble of which it is a part.  It has been featured more than one might guess.

Is the triangle a musical instrument?

The triangle may be seen by many as a joke to your average music fan in the 21st century, thinking it inconsequential and an insult to the rest of the instruments.  It is rude to think this, but do not doubt that triangle bigotry is real.

“Do you even require ANY skills to play the triangle?” You may have probably come across people who have said this, who think that anyone can play the triangle.  Give it a whack once in a while, that’s all that needs to be done…or is it?

As simple as the triangle may appear, it is more technical than you can imagine. Any trianglist can tell you that playing the triangle is not easy by any means. 

The angle at which you hit it to make the proper tone, the timing, and the volume are but three considerations that are tougher than they appear.

Here are two videos showing how tricky it can be to wield one of these instruments.  It’s no cakewalk.

As you can see and hear from the above examples, not just any random person can pick up a triangle and make it sound less than a clinking clanking cacophony.  

Now, before you start playing the triangle to prove us wrong, you need to realize – this mission will take skill and lots of practice.  You can’t just practice once and think you are good to go with this instrument.  No reputable symphony will have you, trust us.

Playing the triangle requires consistency.

As difficult as it is to control the volume of the triangle, an expert can attain this, after hours of blood, sweat, and tears.

Using a knitting needle and otherwise using a lighter striking implement makes it easy to obtain quieter notes.  A wooden striker can also be used as it gives quiet and duller notes.  Your style of playing is up to you.

The invention of the triangle (whose “bright” idea was it?)

As many may assume, the triangle was not invented by Pascal.

Blaise Pascal is a known mathematician who is believed to have invented the concept of the triangle properties. Pascal is thought to have invented the triangle shape in the 17th century, and so also erroneously labeled as the father to the triangle instrument. 

Voicing such an assumption back in those days was liable to have you laughed out of the local drinking establishment and pelted with rotten fruit.  That’ll teach you to behave like such a ninny!

In contrast to this common misconception of Pascal’s paternity to the triangle, we have evidence that the triangle was an instrument that was seen used long before Pascal’s time.   

To recap, and just as the name suggests, a triangle is a metal bar that has been bent into a triangular shape. So between the triangle shape and the triangle instrument, which one was invented first?

The triangle instrument was invented a little bit earlier than the triangle shape, oddly enough.

The triangle instrument’s history can be traced all the way back to 3000 B.C.  A number of scholars believe the origin of the triangle can be traced musically back to the sistrum.

A sistrum is a rattle that is comprised of an arch and an attached handle. It was an instrument that was used in religious and traditional ceremonies, mainly in Egypt.

Did the triangle evolve from the sistrum or was it an independent development?

Yes, we know this question has kept many a triangle fan awake at night, tossing and turning until they fall asleep from sheer exhaustion.

A few scholars have written that the triangle is a direct descendant of the sistrum.  The main assertion for a lineage between the sistrum and the triangle is that both were used in religious ceremonies.  Hence, they must be close relatives, one might suppose.

This is an unfounded idea, however.  There is no link that connects the two, and it is clear that the development of the triangle was independent and not as a result of the evolutions of the sistrum! 

If the sistrum was to evolve into a triangle, it would lose a number of its properties such as the size and how it produces its sound.

Pictures from the seventeen century show the sistrum and the triangle together, sharing the stage. Therefore, both of these instruments existed differently from each other.

Here is a video showing how the sistrum is played, if you are curious to hear it.

What are some of the instruments that looked similar to the triangle?

Instruments such as the spurs and trapezoid dulcimer have a some resemblance to the triangle, although their resemblance is merely passing, at best.

Here are the spurs being played by David Valdés.

These instruments were used in the early fifteenth century, or thereabouts.

Although the trapezoid dulcimer and the spurs have a passing resemblance (in the case of the trapezoid) or percussive function (in the case of the spurs) to the triangle, they are not really the same at all.

It is believed, however, that the early makers of the triangle could have gotten ideas from these two instruments.  Of this, we concede, it’s likely.

Here is the sound of a hammered trapezoid dulcimer.  

When was the first triangle instrument seen?

The triangle instrument was first mentioned in a manuscript dating back to the 10th century. 

A number of drawings depict triangles with rings,  though the early triangle from the 10th century had no rings, and had a slightly different and more decorative shape with some interesting almost floral motifs and curlicues.

Hebrew culture also featured what were called “tuning triangles”, which is another purpose for which triangles may have been created, to use as way to tune other instruments.

Another image of the triangle can be seen in the 14th century, slightly different again.  This iteration of the instrument is found in religious paintings, stained glass, manuscript and much other religious symbolism.

The triangle always appeared with sacred instruments and icons depicting Christian symbolism.

Looking back to that time, it was a time when the church was struggling with the incorporation of instruments into the church. Being a simple instrument with its rhythmic nature, the triangle was the likely candidate for use.

The popularity, such as it is, of the triangle seems to be holding steady since the 14th century.  Design modifications to triangles through the centuries were less documented than other instruments that arrived on the scene, and so there is much mystery to the triangle’s evolution.

Development of the triangle

In the 15th century, the triangle seemed to have gained some additional popularity. The triangle is seen with jingling rings that are located at the horizontal bar. Most of the instruments in that century had either two or three rings attached.

Due to its short sustain and particular quality of sound, the triangle was considered as a supportive instrument.

In contrast, today’s triangles are considered as instruments which have more sustain to their sound.

Description of the early triangles?

Due to the construction process, the triangle of the 19th  had pointed corners as compared to the modern triangles which have rounded corners. The pointed corners were as a result of forging the metal on an anvil.

Comparing how the modern triangles are constructed there exists a great contrast. The modern triangles are created by folding the metal around a jig. 

As illustrated in many images over the century, the was consistency in the size of the triangle. 

The triangles were between 8 to 12 inches although there were some triangles which seemed to be bigger than this.

The bigger triangles were estimated to be between 16 to 18 inches in size.

The modern triangle

The modern triangles are constructed in a way that the left angle is left open.  The ends of the bars do not touch. But why leave an opening? The opening is not there by accident.

This opening is important as it prevents the triangle from having a certain pitch rather, it allows scintillating overtones to be generated.

The triangle is always suspended by a piece from the other adjacent corner.

The commonly used piece is a fish line it can be hooked over the hand. This suspension allows the triangle to vibrate freely. The triangle is then struck using a metal and the resultant sound is a high pitched tone.

Here is a video showing how to play the triangle.  Kalani knows his stuff.  Great technique!

Which music style can you use the triangle?

Since the middle of the 18th century, the triangle has been used in a number of orchestra performances.

Franz Liszt, a teacher of music, a composer, and a conductor was the first to a triangle at a piano concert.

A number of composers such as Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven also used the triangle in the 18th century in classical music.

Check out Symphony #100 (“Military”), played by David Valdés.

The triangle has also been used in Brazilian music styles and also in folk music. In the Brazilian music style, the triangle is used together with the zabumba.

Here’s a cool video where the zabumba and triangle are both featured, by soundamusica.

Triangles are also used in some cultures to call people to dinner – a noble purpose indeed, if ever there was one.

Here is a video showing the creation of a dinner bell triangle by a blacksmith by the name of Chandler Dickinson.  This video is rather long, but worth a watch!

Although you may not think of it often, the triangle has gained popularity over the years and, due to it’s sporadic nature, is often used as a dramatic accent to certain pieces of music.

Dating to more than 1000 years, the triangle can be considered the purest metal instrument in the percussion family.  Our hope is that it will one day be the dominant instrument in every culture.  

The History of the Saxophone

Reading through the history books, the saxophone remains one of the most remarkable instrument ever to appear on the music scene.

It has been many decades since its invention, but the sax still stands out. The relaxing, sophisticated, romantic, and sensual sound the sax produces strokes your nervous system in an exciting way that you can’t get enough of it.

Here’s a classic sax album to kick things off by the “colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins.

Although music has continued to change over the years, the saxophone has consistently enriched the music scene. The sax is one of those instruments that fascinates you even if it is lying around, not being played.  Just the look of it is intriguing.

Sax music is not just about the external sound that is produced by the saxophone; it’s a piece of the soul. Its an expression of what is felt from deep within. The sax has many of the same characteristics as the human voice, with a great deal of character and diversity of sound.

Adolphe Sax & The Invention of the Saxophone

The saxophone was invented more than 170 years ago by Adolphe Sax.  This would have been in the 1840’s (patented in 1846).

Adolphe was one of the most renown instrument makers of his time. He was also a clarinetist and flutist.

Sax’s father was also a skilled instrument maker and had passed this skills to his son. Being a skillful instrument maker, Adolphe had made some improvements and changes to existing instruments.

The improvements that Adolphe had made in the bass clarinet through the extension of the lower range and creation of the ophicleide helped him to acquire the experience that he needed to make the first saxophone.

Being a student of clarinet and flute in the Brussel’s Conservatory of Music, he made an observation that only a keen student would have seen.

He noticed that the typical woodwind had a missing range and he believed that just a brass instrument would fill that void. He then began to develop an instrument that would overblow the octave, and he made an instrument that had both clarinet and horn properties.

Adolphe created saxophones in various sizes both small and big. He then applied for a patent for this instruments and was then given a 15 years patent. This patent was a composition of the fourteen different designs that he had created.

The fourteen original designs where then categorized into two groups each ranging from contrabass to soprano.

 The two groups were E and B and F and C. The set E and B were used in military bands although it is the most commonly used set in today’s saxophones.

The set F and C was often used in the orchestra. Throughout the 15 years he had, he experimented on this instruments to find the right key. He finally settled on an instrument that was alternating in between Bb and Eb.

The Evolution of the Sax

After his patent expired in 1866, various instrument makers arose and made some improvements and changes in the sax.

Although Adolphe may have tried different modification such a lowering the range, a French instrument maker was the first one to be able to make this kind of adjustment.

Minor changes such as the addition of keys for alternate fingering were made. This made the saxophone easy and fast to play it. Bending the pitch was also achieved through this modification.

Various developments were made on Adolphe’s saxophone such as operating the tone holes with one key. Initially, the saxophone had two separate octave keys that helped to play the upper registers. This advancement made it easier to play the sax.

Buffet, one of the largest saxophone manufacturing company, immediately after Adolphe patent expiration, together with other companies such as Millereau, began producing licensed saxophone.

In 1881, shortly after Gautrot had been dismissed, he renewed his patent and made more innovations on the sax.

This aim of the new patent was to extend the saxophone bell so that it could produce the A and Bb notes. He also added another octave key to make a total of four. The addition of the octave key was to enable the production of G and F notes.

Pierre-Louis Gautrot

When it came to manufacturing and designing instruments, Gautrot was a genius.

Just after Adolphe patent expired, he applied for his patent in 1868.

After carefully making observations on the challenges the saxophone was faced with, he realized that pad leaking was the most significant problem. His patent was aimed at producing saxophones that were leak proof. 

Although the system Gautrot introduced was not perfect, it had a great impact and minimized the problem of a leaking pad.

Although Gautrot was a genius he also had his weaknesses. He had poor management skills when it came to business and this lead to him being declared bankrupt.

Henri Selmer and The First Modern Saxophones

Seimer is one of the known manufacturers of clarinets and other mouthpiece instruments.

He founded a company named after his name that is located in Paris.  He won a number of medals such as gold and bronze for the instruments that he had manufactured. 

He made various development on Adolphe’s sax in the early 1940’s. This included the renovation of the octave key, and the best of the development was offsetting of the tone holes.

His company was the first one to create a modern saxophone.

Most of the modern saxophone trace their origin to this model. He invented the balanced action of the sax that leads to a significant improvement in the sax world. His mechanism was straightforward and it made it easy to play the lower register in the same speed you could play in other parts.

Mark VI

Mark VI is the most remarkable saxophone that Selmer created. This model was available in alto, soprano, tenor, and bass. Salmer’s Mark VI saxophones were transitional and incorporated both the design that he had seen in the preceding saxophone and also the element design that was found in the current saxophone.

All these instruments were manufactured in France and later imported to other countries such American and British markets. This model set a standard that all manufactured use. There have been modifications over the years of the saxophone, they are all variations of Selmers Mark six model.

Charles Houvenaghel

Understanding the technical difficulties that could confront an instrument, the life of Charles Houvenaghel was devoted to improving the saxophone.

His knowledge of the manufacturing processes gave him an upper hand as compared to other competitive manufacturers.

He had those rare qualities that once come along once in a while. He was so brilliant in instrument design, he had an ear for music and a background in engineering. All these qualities combined made him redevelop the mechanics of the saxophone system.

He used the tone placement principle of the Boehm system. Although the regular fingering system of the sax is used, addition of new fingering can be used.

The most distinct feature of this modification is that it lowered the tones and you do not need to use the side keys to produce both the tone scales.

This instrument was expensive to build and many saxophonist players were unable and unwilling to learn the newly introduced fingering despite its advantage.

Only a few numbers of this instrument were able to be produced into the market. This model was only used for a few years and is not currently in the market.

Parts of a Saxophone

The sax consists of a conical tube and a bell. It also contains 20 to 23 tone holes at intervals, and they vary in size. To play the upper register, two vent holes are placed along the tube. Soft leather cups cover these holes.

Although the saxophone is categorized as a woodwind instrument, it is made of brass which is different from what most woodwinds are made of.

In contrast to brass instruments which produce sound when there is contact between the mouthpiece and the lips, the sax produces sound through wooden reed which is oscillating.

Another significant feature that makes it be classified as a woodwind is that pitch is produced as a result of breath going through the closing and opening keys.

The yellow brass is mostly replaced with copper for tonal and visual effects.

Little significance is given to the type of material used in the manufacturing of saxophones. All the attention is focused on the sound that is produced. Different materials such as polycarbonate and plastic have been used to a certain degree in the production of saxophones. 

A silver plate or an acrylic lacque coating which can either be clear or coloured is used to cover the brass before the final assembly of the saxophone parts.

Applying lacquer coating is very crucial in preventing oxidation of the brass. This maintains the shiny appearance of the sax. Over the years, different surface colours have been used. It’s just a matter of preference.

History Continues…

The saxophone is a versatile instrument. It adds a sensational moment to all music genres.  From rock to blues to folk to jazz.

The saxophone sound is very unique and cannot be ignored when its played in a mix. As is the custom of many bands when trying to find their rebellion by experimenting using different instruments, the saxophone has been a stable rock in an ever-changing sea.

The magic in bringing your emotions to a standstill can only be found in the saxophone.

The History Of The Clarinet

Instruments have always played an essential role in music since their advent, tens of thousands of years ago.

As much as music can be done with simply the human voice, there is just a magic about instruments accompanying the human voice that only your heart can understand. 

Much of the knowledge behind older instruments is shrouded in mystery, as we see images in old books and paintings, and have little to no knowledge about what exactly they are. 

It doesn’t help that these odd instruments are being played by mythical (and dare we say fictional) creatures.

We can only postulate that certain instruments of today somehow trace back to these ancestral instruments, and we need to dig deep into the dustiest of history books, to find out more details on just what these instruments were.

Today, we will be talking about the history of the clarinet, a unique instrument from the woodwind family, and the result of a revolutionary development that was built upon another instrument called the chalumeau (pictured below).

Difference between a clarinet and a chalumeau

Although the clarinet and the chalumeau are somewhat similar in appearance and, to an extent, the way they are played, they are two separate instruments.

The chalumeau, which is nearly identical to a recorder, was in existence before the invention of the clarinet.

The sound of chalumeau, at lower registers, worked fine, but it lacked vibrancy at higher registers. 

Another instrument, called the Baroque clarinet and sometimes called a “mock trumpet”, could cover the higher notes.  Both had a limited number of notes they could play.

The development of the clarinet created a high-quality sound at both high and low registers.  In this way, the arrival of the clarinet was born out of a certain need for a fuller range of notes.

Here is a quick video review of the chalumeau and the Baroque clarinet to hear their respective sounds.

In addition to the tone holes of the chalumeau, their distance for the lower octave is similar for the upper octave.

The first clarinets (once the instrument was invented and its structure was decided upon) also had two extra holes as compared to the chalumeau.

Due to certain practical and theoretical restrictions, the instrument makers prior to the 1700’s could not manufacture the particular effect the clarinet producesd, and had to rely on these other instruments to get those sorts of sounds.

Who invented the clarinet?

Johann Christoph Denner, an instrument maker from Nuremberg, together with his son, invented the clarinet. 

Denner was experienced with making whistles and hunting horns, and just 10 years prior to 1700 is when he moved towards oboes and recorders, and, in time, came up with something new and exciting – the clarinet!

A few of his originals still exist today, dating back over 300 years now and demanding hefty sums at auctions.

The arrival of the clarinet came after a long period of experimentation with the chalumeau, which Denner was busy examining with and working on improving.

As a maker of instruments, he knew what instruments had and also what they lacked.  You can be sure, in speaking to the players at the time, that he often heard an earful in regards to whatever issues they were experiencing with their instruments back then. 

It was the time of music which involved many huge concerts, and all of the big names in what we now call “classical” music were living and breathing like Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Bach, and so many more, and so there was an emphasis on producing the utmost quality instruments at the time for these composers, and the players who supported their works.

Denner wanted to build an instrument that could play both the upper and the lower registers without much sacrifice in terms of clear intonation. Two extra holes were added to the duodecime key to achieve this.

The first clarinets to be invented were very simple and had a similar look of a great recorder.

These early clarinets had two keys, and, with time, another key was added to make three keys.

With this addition, the newly minted clarinet instrument had a wide tonal range as compared to trumpets and oboes of that particular time. 

Being relatively loud and able to perform difficult jumps, the clarinet had an ease of playing which could not be obtained on other instruments like the trumpet, due to its various mechanical restrictions.

The fact that the word “clarino” was used to mean a small trumpet is an interesting twist on things, and, it so happens, that the word clarinet may have originated from it.

With enough small tweaks, and the addition of the two holes to the chalumeau, this new instrument basically became what is now known as the clarinet. 

With time, and more tiny alterations, the clarinet became more and more itself.

The sensational sound that the clarinet produced made it find usage in the orchestras of the day sooner than expected.

In the year 1740, Vivaldi had written a concert and Händel had composed an overture in 1748, both of which demanded the use of the Clarinet.

The development of the clarinet attracted various instrument players looking to try this new and exciting sound. The most widely known instance is from the Mannheim Orchestra, where two oboe players transitioned into clarinet players.

Further development of clarinet

Just like any instrument, the clarinet had its challenges and technical difficulties as it evolved.

The clarinet had only five primary keys by the 1760’s.  People of the time wondered if it was even possible to play music with that kind of instrument?

Clarinet players, loyal to working with this new instrument because of its entrancing sound, found ways to play this new instrument even with the limitations of developing models.

With each new technological jump and musical challenge, craftsmen and clarinet players strived to improve the instrument, and, if possible, to achieve perfection. The progression was in small steps which sometimes could lead to dead ends.

Eventually, however, the demand for greatness was at hand and entire concertos were being produced with the clarinet at their center.

Types and versions of clarinet over the years

Many clarinet types emerged, over the years, but only a few have survived to date. The development of these particular varieties of clarinets were as follows.

In the year 1710, the Denner’s was the first type of clarinet to be established in any way as a standard.  After all, it was his invention, so people looked to Denner for the template of how the clarinet was to be made.

Iwan Müller’s Clarinet

As time progressed, Iwan Müller’s version of the clarinet was established as a new benchmark for the instrument.

Being an instrument maker and a clarinet player himself, Iwan Müller developed a spoon-key with sunken holes, a conical ring, and an airtight pad.

This is because the old keys were unreliable, since they had a felt pad simple pivot-mechanism. Müller developed a ligature and changed the reed to what is commonly used today.

Altogether, Müller’s clarinet had 12 keys.  His development was not accepted by the Paris Conservatorium, as they believed in the characteristics of each specific scale not be tampered with.

Clarinets by then were only able to play one scale, and an introduction of a clarinet that could play chromatically would destroy this particular characteristic of each scale that they wanted to see upheld.  Also, they were a little bit snobby.  

In 1939, another development was made and was attributed to the name Bhoelm.

Theobald Boehm’s Clarinet

Theobald Boehm, a flute maker and composer from Germany, brought changes in the instrument world by making two changes.

The first change that he made was able to create a mathematical basis that could be used in determining the exact construction of the tone holes. This applied to the concert flute as well as the up and coming clarinet.

The ring key was his second invention. Covering of a hole that may have been larger than the finger that lies on it, the ring key was made possible through his creativity.

Here is a sample of the man’s work – a beautiful flute piece.

Hyacinthe Klosé

Hyacinthe Klosé, a Frenchman, developed a model of this clarinet and, being a Frenchman, he knew how to deal with the finicky nature of the Parisian Music Academy because he himself was a composer and also professor at the Conservatoire de Paris.

As one might expected, his fellow Parisians were convinced of his assertions about the clarinet.  Hence, his instrument was accepted and is currently played worldwide today.

But the progress didn’t stop there.  In 1900, a new German system was developed by improving Iwan Müller’s system. This type of clarinet is attributed to the name Oehler.

Although the German system did not make the Bhoelm system its standard, the Oehler standard is just as good as the Bhoelm system.

Although, in their opinion, any German will tell you that the Oehler system is far much superior to the Bhoelm system.

Although the two instruments look similar, there exists a difference between the two instruments. The significant difference can be seen in the keys that are meant for the little finger.

The Oehler system has a half-round key ends with a wooden roller and flat two levers, where the Bhoelm system has four levers.

What are clarinets made of?

The Clarinets can be made using different materials.

Classical instruments are commonly known to have been made from boxwood.  To send notes far and wide that are part of difficult passages, the instruments have undergone a dynamic change.

Grenadilla has become the most widely used material in making the clarinet. Grenadilla is commonly used because it has a higher density than boxwood.

The use of grenadilla makes it more comfortable during the performance to support the clarinet with body hence allows more air volume. This makes the sound to be more gentle and soft.

Here is a video by Yamaha talking about the difference between ABS resin and grenadilla.

The clarinet family

The family of clarinets is made up of similar instruments, although the sizes vary.

This includes bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto clarinet, and piccolo clarinet. 

The bass clarinet can trace its origin to France. 

There are also instruments in this family that differ slightly in construction, such as the basset horn. 

The clarinet and jazz

Since 1910, the clarinet has continued to play a central role in the jazz music.  It could be said that jazz music was made for this instrument moreso than classical, but that would be splitting hairs.  

The attraction between jazz music and the clarinet is not surprising, in retrospect.  Jazz music has a mysterious sound that is quite beguiling, and that same description could be used for the clarinet’s tone itself.

The Bb soprano clarinet is one of the most commonly used instruments by jazz pioneers such as Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds.

Here’s the best of Sidney Bechet, just to give you a taste of his incomparable clarinet styles in the old New Orleans jazz mode.

A number of bands have actively used clarinets from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, but this is generally found outside of the realm of the the rock, pop, and blues genres that dominated the radio starting in the 1940’s.

The usurping of the clarinet from the jazz ensemble by the saxophone, made the clarinet seem to disappear partially. This is because the saxophone was a louder and more forceful instrument, that did not have as complicated of a fingering system.

Also, modern jazz required an increase in speed and this did not also favour the clarinet, which was not built for the same blinding ferocity as the sax. 

That said, you can rock out on a clarinet (examples below) and it can be played quite fast.  But, if you look at a saxophone, you can see that by design it is designed to really wail if you push it, whereas clarinets are a more demure instrument by nature.  

As you can hear, it is possible to “riff” on a clarinet, but at the same time, it always has that “nice” and rather calming breath-y sound that basically precludes it from being a full-on rock instrument.

Now, you might say, “Why don’t they just electrify a clarinet like you would a guitar?”  Well, they have.  If you are interested in this concept, please check out the following video on the subject of electric clarinet.

Because it is naturally a rather lively instrument, clarinet is found everywhere in a wide variety of musical styles.  Modern styles, older more obscure styles – clarinet has a wide berth in terms of appeal.

Samba and choro, both of which are Brazilian music style, use clarinets quite liberally.

Clarinets have also been featured in the folk music in Macedonia, klezmer music and Bulgarian wedding music.

In conclusion, the clarinet is one of the instruments that is indispensable to the vocabulary of music, due to its exotic and unique nature, ability to play speedy runs, chromatic embellishments, and generally lighter touch.

The uniqueness of the clarinet still stands today as its prime feature, and we can’t imagine that the clarinet is going anywhere anytime soon.  All hail the clarinet!  Leave us a comment if you also love this instrument, or if you know about something that we may have missed!

The Controversial History Of The Banjo

History can be a hard thing to discuss, because, inevitably, you probably weren’t there to see the events unfold as they did. 

This is especially true when we’re talking about the history of one particular musical instrument with a somewhat checkered past – the banjo.

The banjo, as we know it, dates back 400 or so years to the Carribean in the 1600’s, when and where it was first documented.

By documented, I am referring to the only way anything way typically was documented centuries before now, and that is to say – in books, by way of either sketches or more detailed drawings, since cameras weren’t yet invented.

Sir Hans Sloane – First Documented Picture of a Banjo

For instance, here is an image taken from a travel journal from 1707 by Sir Hans Sloane, called “A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica”. 

This shows the first documented image of what appears to be a banjo, or something like it, in the Carribean isles.

It should be noted that the book from which this picture was taken, was based on events that occurred in 1687, and then transcribed into book form in the 1700’s. 

Sir Hans Sloane was a noted Irish physician, and his purpose in the Carribean was to assist the new Governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albemarle, as his personal physician.

While visiting the islands, he collected plants for study and also documented other things.  He also invented drinkable chocolate (chocolate milk), so you have him to thank for that, apparently.

As you can see from the drawings in his documents of the islands around Jamaica, these “banjos”, as it were, didn’t really resemble the banjos of today.  This is because they weren’t, strictly speaking, banjos.

These instruments were, at the time of documentation by Hans Sloane, considered to be simply the instruments the peoples of the Carribean were playing at the time, and in the text you can see them referred to as “lutes”.

One of the defining characteristics of a banjo, which is present in the above example, is the drum-like body.

I should mention that, around this time in history (mid-1600’s), there were dozens of variations of stringed instruments that all appeared slightly different.

With the increasingly large migration patterns of people in 1600’s, it was certainly a difficult task to document what each was called, and what unique traits each one possessed.

Stringed instruments themselves date back 40 000 years, so it’s not as though stringed instruments themselves were new.  Humans have been playing stringed instruments for thousands of years. 

Plucked lutes, in particular, have been documented in Mesopotamia from around 6000 years ago.

Today the word banjo is loosely defined as: A stringed musical instrument (chordophone) with a round body, a membrane like soundboard and a fretted neck, played by plucking or strumming the strings.  

The origin of the word “banjo” can be traced back to several places, including “banja” from Jamaica, “banza” from Brazil, and mbanza from Angola.

I’ve also seen the word “banjo”, used as a verb, meaning “to beat” or “to hit”.  As in, “He banjoed that guy in the face.”  This usage is, apparently, of British decent.  I don’t believe it is commonly used nowadays, but only the Brits know this for sure.

Where Did The Banjo Instrument Originally Come From?

Although the first documented picture of what could be considered a banjo dates back to the 1600’s in the Carribean islands (ie.(the one at the top of this article), this doesn’t mean banjos were “invented” in the Carribean.

Again, if we define a banjo as a stringed instrument with several strings and a drum-like surface, we can trace its origins back even further, and to other continents.

There are many popular perceptions surrounding precisely where the banjo originated, and there are logical reasons for each of these presumptions. 

For example, most people who live in North America don’t think first of the Carribean as the birthplace of the banjo.  To some of us living in North America, suggesting that the banjo came from the Carribean doesn’t really sound accurate, and I think this is understandable.

The more dominant association that Westerners, I think, tend to recognize between the banjo and a particular geographic location, links the banjo, at least in the Westernized mind, to the southern United States.

This is a fair guess, as much of the lore, not to mention the majority of the popular media from the past 50 years, associates the banjo with styles of music that originated in the southern U.S., such as bluegrass, dixieland, and country music.

In addition, southern banjo players have been prominently been featured on various television shows and movies over the past 50 or so years, and that leads many of us to simply assume that banjo must come from the southern U.S., not the Carribean, as most research points to quite clearly.

Indeed, I’d say that there is a deep association between the instrument we call the “banjo” and states in the U.S. which are considered to be Appalachian. 

Appalachian states include: West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In turn, the history of Appalachian culture traces back to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, when those peoples moved to North America and began living there in the 1800’s.  And so, there are those who might guess that the banjo may have come from these countries, originally. 

For example, it would seem fairly logical to think that the banjo may have come from Ireland, where the banjo is still popular today, when Irish peoples migrated into the mysterious and mountainous Appalachian rural regions, when the potato famine and general starvation prompted them to leave their homeland.

As many of us are aware, there are various stigmas attached to the idea of the someone who is from Appalachia, both good and bad, which I need not elaborate on here. 

Suffice it to say, Appalachian peoples are considered to be of the land, and there is certainly a connotation that links banjo playing to a more rural type of folk. 

In other words, an impoverished people, and this is fact is very much line with the reputation of previous peoples who played the banjo in past decades, where they were of a lower caste.  

Here is that famous scene from the movie Deliverance, featuring the classic “dueling banjos” bit, although one “banjo” is clearly a guitar.

The interesting thing about the boy from Deliverance, Lonnie, who was presumably chosen for this unusual appearance (the book depicts an albino negro), is that he didn’t even know how to play the banjo, nor was he recruited from the backwoods of northern Georgia.  

This next clip interviews the “boy” himself (now in his 50’s), played by Billy Redden, where he talks more about his role in the movie and his lack of skill on the instrument.

The clip also includes an interview with Ronny Cox (who played Drew Ballinger) talking about the cultural significance of the famous banjo scene, as being one of the defining movie moments of all time.

As more research is done about the history of the banjo, an interesting but rather dark narrative began to emerge from the gloaming of the past.

All that is needed to put this in perspective is a proper view of history and the slave trade in the 1600’s, which historians, by this point, have illustrated rather conclusively, to the point where any educated person would have trouble refuting it.

When it comes to the banjo’s true origins, all research points to it originating from Africa.  Specifically, countries such as Senegal or The Gambia (ie. Senegambia), which were the focus of the slave trade.

The original picture which I shared at the beginning of this article, from 1707, shows a version of the banjo that does not yet appear in its modern form.

Banjos made from gourds

When the banjo was beginning to catch on in the Carribean, it still showed some evidence of its past where it was fashioned sometimes out of gourds, serving as a shell for the body.  This was then attached to its characteristic long neck, and strings were added.

Before banjos took on the appearance we know them to have today, with a circular body shaped that almost looks like a snare drum, their precursors from Africa were often made from different materials than were available in the Americas in later centuries. 

Here is a reproduction of a colonial era banjo made with a gourd for a body.  As you can see, this has influences of a style of instrument popular in Africa over the centuries.  At the same time, you can see how this instrument below does have characteristics of the modern banjo.

Next, we have an image of a banjo that seems to bridge the gap, between a banjo body made out of a gourd, and one that more resembles a wider circular drum. 

Even though it still has a primitive look, like it wasn’t “professionally” built, this banjo begins to take on a more “modern” shape.

The image most of us conjure up when someone says the word “banjo”, was not yet in existence in 1707, and wouldn’t be for at least 100 years.

Here is an old banjo from the 1900’s.  By this time, banjos were fully Americanized, one might say.  It has the modern fretboard, the modern tuning pegs, and the unmistakable body and neck shape.

To reach its modern form, history would have to wait until the late, great, and controversial Joel Sweeney came along in the 1830’s and “invented” it, or so it has been said.

Joel Sweeney, “Inventor” of the 5-String Banjo

Joel Walker Sweeney was a popular minstrel performer from the first half of the 19th century hailing from Virginia, who was perhaps the first popular white man to famously play the instrument.  At the same time, he was said to have been taught by African Americans, which is partly why he could play so good.

Joel Sweeney has been credited with raising the profile of the banjo from an instrument associated with the unwashed masses, and bring it up to a level of sophistication which could be eventually be accepted, and then firmly embraced by the middle class.  

Claiming that Joel Sweeney somehow single handedly raised the stature of banjo playing on a global level is almost too ludicrous to say, but it may in fact ultimately be true. 

The reason the claim is contentious, is because Joel Sweeney was not just a talented performer who ended up making the banjo more famous because of his adept abilities on the instrument.  He certainly was that, but that was only part of how Joel Sweeney shined the spotlight on the banjo, and “brought it” to the higher societal castes, as it were.

Here is a book on Joel Walker Sweeney, if you are interested in getting the full story on the man and what he did for the banjo.

Feature Pick

Feature Pick

The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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It is more accurate to say, I think, that Joel Sweeney was a multi-talented circus performer who, according to rumour, played the instrument with his feet, while fiddlin’ with his hands, and then playing mouth harp all at the same time, when the mood hit him. 

He was also highly skilled at imitating animals, as one of his primary talents for which he was known.  Basically, the guy was just a son of a gun who was, by all accounts, very entertaining to everyone who happened to catch his performances.

His influence spread as he and his troupe toured America, as well as Europe, and even played for Queen Victoria in 1843.  He then went on and played and showed off his formidable banjo playing skills with his brothers, called Old Joe’s Minstrels.

Joel Sweeney’s influence on the popularity of the banjo cannot be underestimated.

The controversy, which occurs more in retrospect than it did at the time it happened, comes now from the fact that Joel was a blackface performer, a practice which is now practically forbidden in Western society today.

To be specific, blackface is the theatrical practice where non-black performers painted themselves up to look “black” with greasepaint, burnt cork, or shoe polish.

The last time we saw people performing in blackface wasn’t all that long ago.  One more recent instance was The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1978.

Consider this – slavery didn’t end until 1865, with the introduction of the 13th Amendment, which declares: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Of course, it is not difficult to see the connection between the racial stereotypes that blackface seemed to promote, and the mistreatment of blacks through the centuries.  In fact, the idea of the old style minstrel show, complete with blackface, is a quick reminder to many people, to this day, of the existence of slavery, and various caricatures of black culture.

Of course, where you had minstrel shows in the 17th century, onward, you had blackface, and so then you had banjos.  Banjos, the instrument which was beginning to see acceptance worldwide, and detaching itself from various prejudices of the times, was still very much embroiled in what I can only call “racism”.

It is understood that, in the context of the times, minstrel shows were quite normal.  Then again, so was slavery. 

Perhaps the most famous blackface performer people know today is Al Jolson, who was the highest paid entertainer back in the 1920’s and was, at the time, proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” at one time.

Al Jolson, although he didn’t play the banjo himself, helped popularize one of the most well known banjo songs ever – Oh Susanna. 

To me, this song represents, in large part, why the banjo is thought to come from the southern U.S., as the lyrics reflect this, and the song is maybe the best known banjo tune of all time.

As you can see above, Al Jolson used blackface makeup, which he often did. 

This practice of blackface dated back to, reportedly, the 1400’s, but had become very popular in colonial America at the time in the 1800’s.  There are many pictures of blackface performers holding or playing banjos.

The association between minstrels wearing blackface makeup and the banjo itself is a strong one, but I don’t say this to indict the banjo as being part of the history of racism, even though it essentially is a part of that history.  That said, you can’t really “blame” an instrument for anything, can you?

Of course, there’s no denying that the banjo probably wouldn’t have made it to the Carribean, to be used by slaves in the Americas, had it not been brought across the seas along with the thousands of slaves who played similar instruments, and who were sold to slavers at the time, in the 1600’s, when the trade was in full swing.

It is worth mentioning that at this time, the banjo was not called a “banjo.”   I mentioned some of the other names of the banjo that were used previously, but, back in 1687, when Sir Hans Sloane was travelling in the Carribean, writing his now-famous journals, he referred to the instrument as the “strum strump”.  Nice name!  

Akonting

In these African communities in Senegambia, from which slaves were being captured and brought to the Americas by the thousands, there was (and still is) an instrument known as the akonting, which is said to be the precursor to the modern banjo.

Other African instruments said to be precursors of the banjo include the ngoni and xalam, but for now I’ll focus on the akonting, a hide-covered instrument said to be the most similar to the banjo. 

The akonting (also known as the ekonting to the Jola tribes who first created them) is a strummed folk lute style of instrument which is similar to a banjo, traditionally made with a gourd for a body, along with two strings for melody, plus one drone string played with the thumb.  This makes the akonting similar to a 5-string banjo. 

The akonting can be traced back to the village of Kanjanka, Senegal.  It can be tuned in different ways, similar to a 5-string banjo, and its tuning, called kanjanka, equates to kan (5th note of a scale), jan (root note of a scale), and ka (the flatted 7th), or 5/1/-7. 

Here is a picture of a Jola village, the originators of the akonting / ekonting instrument.

Up next, we have a man named Daniel Jatta, playing a tune written by his father on the akonting in the traditional style. 

The downstroke style here, called “o’teck” or “to strike”, is very similar in style to the very first banjo styles in the Americas, the “stroke style”, which was a precursor to the clawhammer or frailing style.

While all of this seems very plausible, that the akonting was brought over to the Americas by slaves, and that is the instrument upon which the modern banjo was based, there is still some controversy around this topic, making it unclear at which point exactly what happened during those harrowing years when the slaves were brought to the Americas.

Banjos on the Plantations

By 1807, there were over 3 million African slaves in the Americas, where they harvested crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Once the slaves were living in the Americas, they lived on the plantations, worked, and, above all else, suffered.  For a more detailed history of what this was like, go here.

As much as the African slaves suffered, their music never left them, and they looked for opportunities to express it, as anyone would.

Although they basically were brought here with nothing, the African slaves were eventually able to have some small respite from their masters, at first through the singing of gospel music, which is something that was impossible to take from them completely and helped them cope. 

Then, if they were able, they would produce the occasional musical instrument that they were able to build by hand.

This is where their memories of their favourite native African instruments came back to them, and they were able to make these banjo-esque instruments, in order to accompany their singing, and put voice to their struggle. 

That is, if their cruel slave masters allowed it.  Some plantation owners certainly did not accommodate their wishes, regardless of how modest they were.

Here is a recent “lynching memorial” erected in Montgomery, Alabama.

William Boucher

In the midst of the tumult that was America in the 1800’s, due to slavery, wars, and other factors, a Baltimore man named William Boucher was busy building instruments, including drums and minstrel banjos.  He was the first ever commercial maker of banjos in the U.S.A.

Here is a video which shows a replica of a Boucher banjo being played.  Not surprisingly, there’s a little Oh Susanna thrown in for good measure. 

You can still purchase original builds of these banjos, although they will can cost upwards of $10 000 nowadays.

Conclusion

While there is plenty more to say about the development of the banjo up through the years, I think it’s alright to stop here.  

As we know, the banjo went on to become an instrument that is a major part of the broader musical landscape around the world. 

Despite its confusing and controversial history, I can say that in 2018, if a young person wants to learn the banjo, they can do so without having to ponder all of the heavier historical baggage that comes along with it and just enjoy the music.  

That said, sweeping history under the rug is never a wise thing to do, especially when we know some of the facts.

The Revolution – The Story Behind Prince’s Band

prince and the revolution

Almost everyone has heard of Prince, but perhaps not everyone has heard of his tighter-than-otter’s-pocket band, The Revolution.

With Prince being as famous as he was, it’s easy to overlook the backing band that played alongside him. But the members of the Revolution were all very talented and contributed a substantial amount to Prince’s music.

Sly Stone, frontman in the band Sly and the Family Stone and notable funk musician, used a diverse backing band during his musical career. Prince, being a huge admirer of Stone, took a page from his book and assembled an equally diverse backing group. The Revolution became known for its diversity.

Prince formed the band after his first album. The band was mostly assembled in 1979, however, at this point, they were not yet known as The Revolution. 

The Revolution was made up of musicians of different races and different genders which contributed to a rich and varied sound and a full musical experience.

The original members of the band were as follows: Prince on lead vocals, guitar and piano; Dez Dickerson on guitar; Andre Cymone on bass guitar; Bobby Z. on drums; and Gayle Chapman on keyboards and Matt Fink (also called “Doctor Fink” as he was known for wearing scrubs on stage) on keyboards.

However, the lineup would see some changes over the years.

The Revolution’s Members

Let’s take a brief look at some of the longest-standing Revolution members.

Bobby Z

Bobby Z

Bobby Z (Robert B. Rivkin) was the original drummer of the Revolution, from 1978-1986. As Prince was adamant about the diversity of his band, he was in search of a white drummer. This was when he decided to audition Bobby Z.

In later years, Bobby Z had to adapt his drumming techniques in order to play electric drums, which Prince was using more and more of in his songs. Talented drummer that he is, Bobby Z was able to master the electric drums as well, in studio and on stage.

Bobby Z also contributed to the composition of Prince’s albums “Purple Rain”, “Around the World in a Day”, “Parade” and “Sign O’ the Times”.

Here’s an awesome interview with Bobby Z by thefivecount, taking you all the way back to the beginning.  Super interesting stuff!


Matt Fink (Doctor Fink)

Matt Fink was the keyboardist for the Revolution.

He is better known by his stage name, “Doctor Fink”, because wore doctor’s scrubs on stage during performances.

Originally, he used to wear a jailbird outfit in the live performances around 1979. However, musician Rick James was also wearing this costume on some of his performances.

Dr Fink

Fink, not wanting to copy this, started looking for a new outfit to wear. This was when he came up with the idea of wearing scrubs. Prince loved the idea, and from then on, he was “Doctor Fink”.

Doctor Fink also helped co-write a handful of songs with Prince. These songs were “Dirty Mind”, “Computer Blue”, “17 Days”, “America” and “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night”.

Here’s an interesting interview going deep with Doctor Fink with Prophets Of Rock TV.


Lisa Coleman

Lisa Coleman was only 19 years old when her good friend who was working with Prince’s manager introduced her to Prince. Up until this point, Coleman had  been playing keyboard in her bubblegum pop band, Waldorf Salad.

Coleman auditioned and won Prince over. She was hired to the Revolution in 1980 to play on the “Dirty Mind” album, as well as on his upcoming tour.

Coleman replaced Gayle Chapman as one of the keyboardists.

Lisa Coleman

Soon after, Prince met Coleman’s partner, Wendy Melvoin. Upon hearing her play guitar, he asked her to join the Revolution as a replacement to Dez Dickereson.

Coleman and Melvoin also started their own duo. They called it Wendy and Lisa and over the course of the years released 5 albums. 

Lisa Colemand and Wendy Melvoin

Check out Our Destiny by Prince & Lisa Coleman from the channel PRINCE 4EVER.


Andre Cymone

Andre Cymone and Prince were friends from childhood. In fact, Prince stayed with their family for a while when he had conflicts with his own father at home. 

In their youth, the two were in a band together, also with Cymone’s sister.

In the late 1970s when Prince released his debut album “For You”, he recruited Cymone as bassist for his tour. This would be his last tour with Prince, however, for the two later had conflicts.

Although they were resolved, Cymone continued to work on his own projects, and the Revolution continued on without him.

Here’s a way in depth interview with Andre Cymone from the Prince Podcast.  Check it out!


BrownMark

Brown Mark played bass guitar for the Revolution.

He was especially known for his unique style of funk-influenced bass guitar playing. He played with the Revolution during the recording of “Purple Rain”, and left the band in 1986.

He rejoined, however, in 2016 when the band reunited for their tribute and reunion tour. He now sings most of the songs during performances. 

Here is a sweet interview with BrownMark from Bass Musician Magazine.


Purple Rain

Purple Rain album cover

The members present when Prince and the Revolution released the album “Purple Rain” were Bobby Z, Doctor Fink, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, and BrownMark.  

“Purple Rain” was Prince and the Revolution’s best-selling album. It was released in 1984 and instantly went to the tops of the charts.

“When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Purple Rain”, and “I Would Die 4 U” all made it to the top 10 of the Billboard’s top 100 list.

You can listen to the title track below. In the music video, Prince gives some credit to Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin for writing the song. 

The album “Purple Rain” won two Grammys. The first was for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The second was for Best Instrumental Composition Written Specifically for a Motion Picture. The album was written by Prince, but with valuable input from his band members.

“Purple Rain” was a milestone for the Revolution, because it was the first album that Prince recorded with the band, and the first album in which he credited them.

Because the album was recorded with the band, it had significantly more focus on the full band and their different instruments and sounds, resulting in a more intricate album than Prince’s previous one-man albums.  

Guitar was a huge focal point of the album, as well as keyboard and synthesizer. The album was R&B but with rock and psychedelic touches, influenced by the Revolution. It was praised for its stylistic experimentation, crossing over many genres.  

For example, “When Doves Cry” was an experimental and unique song because it didn’t have a bassline. Dr. Fink says that when he first heard the song, “my immediate reaction was ‘Hey, there’s no bassline in this song. Aren’t you going to add one?’”

He continues, “I wasn’t ready for it and it tricked the hell out of my ears. But […] when you listen to “When Doves Cry” today it still sounds so ground-breaking and unique. It never gets old.” This song really has stood the test of time. You can listen to it below.

The same lineup featured on the “Purple Rain” album plus some new additions performed on Prince’s Hit N’ Run Parade Tour.

These new additions were Miko Weaver, Susannah Melvoin, Eric Leeds, Matt “Atlanta Bliss” Blistan and Jerome Benton. They played the jazzier side of things during the tour, such as the horn sections.

The Rebels

In 1979, the Revolution and Prince experimented with a side project. Although it wasn’t named at the time, the side band has since been called the Rebels. It featured vocals by original Revolution members Dez Dickerson, Andre Cymone and Gayle Chapman.

The side group recorded music in Colorado during 1979. However, the project was abandoned, perhaps to focus again on the Revolution. Years later, two of the tracks from the Rebels were rerecorded and given to other artists by Prince.

The track “U” was released by Paula Abdul on her album “Spellbound” and the song “If I Love U 2nite” was added to the albums of both Mica Paris and Mayte Garcia. 

The Revolution Today

The current band members include Bobby Z. on drums, Matt Fink on keyboards and vocals, Lisa Coleman also on keyboards and vocals, Brown Mark on bass and vocals, and Wendy Melvoin on rhythm guitar and vocals.

the revolution today

After the sudden death of Prince in 2016, the Revolution reunited and began performing Prince’s songs together again. It started with them playing tribute concerts to their friend, and gradually turned into a reunion tour that has lasted the past couple of years and will continue into the foreseeable future.

Keyboardist and vocalist Lisa Coleman says that at the beginning of their tour, the Revolution tried not to stray too far from the original arrangements of the songs.

However, as their tour has progressed, the band is starting to go in new directions, shaking things up now and then. Coleman says this was always the way when they used to play with Prince on stage.

She says, “When Prince was around, every night was a different show, really”.  Bobby Z adds, “Every time you play it, there’s something you can add”. Here is a video of them performing live at First Avenue in Minneapolis.

This creates a really complex and exciting performance. Every show is authentic and genuine.

Conclusion

The Revolution continues to be an influential band.

Their diversity and talent make their music unlike any other band, because each member brings their own original style to the table.

They continue to share Prince’s music with the world on their reunion tour, and are well received by their innumerable fans.

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West German Underground – A Brief History of Krautrock

krautrock band

Sauerkraut (literally “sour herb” or “sour leaf”) is a salty cabbage dish from Germany that’s really quite delicious. It’s often eaten with mashed potatoes and ham or sausages. From this popular cabbage dish, the term “kraut” arose as a slang word for a German person, usually in a derogatory sense.

The term “Deutsch-Rock” (German Rock) was used until 1973 for the rock groups coming out of West Germany.

But in the early 1970s, the British music magazine known as Melody Maker coined the term “krautrock”.

It was first used more to ridicule or make fun of the bands, but as krautrock caught on in Britain the term lost any negative or mocking connotations it once had, though many German “krautrock” bands still rejected the name.

It is thought that krautrock was more of a British phenomenon that focused on how the music was received in Britain, rather than how the West German music scene felt about the music.

Characteristics of Krautrock

Krautrock may sometimes be referred to as “Kosmische Musik” (meaning Cosmic Music), which suits its sound in my opinion, because there are aspects of this music that feel otherworldly, like they can’t have been composed here on Earth by other humans.

There are elements of the unexpected – it is unpredictable, slightly strange, a little bit out there. I think it’s also interesting to note that the word “komisch” means strange in German, which is not a far cry from “kosmische”.  You could always call the music space-y, and that would fit as well.

night sky

But what does Krautrock mean, musically speaking?  It is, essentially, a genre of experimental rock which pulls from psychedelic rock, funk, jazz, avant-garde, and electronic music.

It arose from West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The genre deliberately tries to distance itself from the American rhythm and blues genre and instead draws on German influences, while still keeping a distinct rock rhythm.

A band member of the popular krautrock band Faust stated that they tried to forget everything typical of the rock and roll genre, including the three-cord pattern and the usual lyrics. They wanted something totally different.

Here’s a little taste of Faust…

Krautrock is a very experimental genre, breaking out of old, tried-and-true habits and delving into the untouched, the unthought of, the new and strange. 

A 4/4 rhythm known as “motorik” is common of the krautrock genre. Motorik means “motor skills” in German. This drum pattern was pioneered by Jaki Liebezeit, drummer of the popular krautrock band Can, and was also used early on by the band Neu!.

The motorik 4/4 beat was later used by many other krautrock bands.

Early Beginnings

In the 1960’s, the hippie movement and political activism that was rampant in North America and Europe demanded a new type of music.

Avant-garde music was emerging, droning on with ambient synthesizers and other psychedelic sounds. This genre of music largely inspired the krautrock movement.  

In 1968 in the city of Essen, a rock festival took place, and this was one of the first places that krautrock was performed and heard.

From here on, the krautrock genre took hold and many bands began producing music with this spacey, ambient and electronic sound.

A Closer Look at the Pioneering Bands

Let’s take a look at Can, one of the pioneering bands of krautrock. Can was formed by two students of the famous and praised composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen was called one of the most influential and also controversial composers of the 20th century. He was well educated in music, having attend the University of Cologne and the University of Bonn.

He was known for his influential compositions, his work with electronic music and his theories.

Can

Evidently, his students learned a lot from his unique teachings, and went on to form the krautrock band Can, which was using techniques that were, at the time, very new and unheard of.

It is one thing to see a new genre of music after it has been invented and think, “that doesn’t seem so hard to come up with, the idea was sitting right in front of them”, but it is another thing entirely to create a new genre from thin air.

Of course, Can was not the only band pioneering the krautrock genre, but they certainly had a big hand in it.

Can band photo

For a super detailed history of Can, go here

Can was formed in 1968 in Cologne. The band mainly consisted of four members: Holger Czukay on bass and Irmin Schmidt on keyboard (the two members who studied under Stockhausen and formed the band), Jaki Liebezeit on drums (from whom the motorik beat originated) and Michael Karoli on guitar.

The group did not have one permanent singer, but rather many temporary ones.

Tago Mago album cover

Schmidt, the band’s keyboardist, had been heavily influenced by avant-garde musicians such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young on a trip he took to New York.

From this, he began to see the new and different possibilities of rock music. In 1968 the band released their first album “Monster Movie” with vocals by Malcolm Mooney.

Then in 1971, they released another revolutionary and unconventional album, “Tago Mago” with vocals by Damo Suzuki. “Tago Mago” was a very influential album, featuring great tracks such as the dreamy “Paperhouse” and the hypnotic “Oh Yeah”.  Have a listen to the song “Paperhouse” below.

Neu

Another band that helped lay the groundwork for krautrock was the band Neu! (meaning “New”).

If you’re wondering why the band was named “new!”, it was inspired by the rise of advertising in the bigger German cities at the time, and “new” was one of the most powerful words for selling different things to the public.

Neu! was formed in 1971 in Düsseldorf by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother. Dinger and Rother were two former members of the popular band Kraftwerk in its earliest days, but left to start Neu!.

 Although Neu! had less commercial success than Can, it was still a pioneer of krautrock and inspired many punk, rock and electronic bands in the years that followed.

The band’s first album, entitled “Neu!”, was released in 1972 and sold 30 000 copies, which was not very much when compared to mainstream competitors, but a decent amount when considered that they were an underground, off-beat band.

This album has come to be praised by many big names in music such as David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. Songs like “Hallogallo” demonstrated the quintessential motorik beat.

During the production of their second album, Neu! 2, Rother and Dinger began to run out of money. Therefore, on the second side of their album, they simply remixed and played with their already recorded single “Super”, sometimes slowing it down, sometimes speeding it up, and manipulating it in other ways.

The song “Super 16”, one of the manipulated versions of the original song, was used in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill Volume 1.

The duo Dinger and Rother were quite different from each other. In their third album, “Neu! ‘75”, they decided to each pursue their own personal style, making half the album a solo album for Dinger, and half the album a solo album for Rother.

This album is seen as a very diverse krautrock album. After its release, the duo split up and went their separate ways.

Kraftwerk

As mentioned before, Dinger and Rother were originally in the band Kraftwerk in its early days, before leaving to form Neu!. Kraftwerk was another influential band of electronic music.

It was formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. The band experimented with krautrock in its early days, featuring instruments such as the synthesizer, drum machines and self-made instruments.

Kraftwerk really helped to popularize the lesser-known krautrock genre and make it available to a wider audience.

kraftwerk

They released three albums in the early 1970s: “Kraftwerk” in 1970, “Kraftwerk 2” in 1972 and “Ralf und Florian” in 1973. They performed as a duo during the years of 1972-1973, as their lineup was not steady.

In 1974, they had commercial success with their hit album “Autobahn”, which they were able to tour with the financial help of Phonogram Inc.

After this tour, they began working on their next album which was released in October of 1975, entitled “Radio-Aktivität”, or “Radio-Activity” in English. Kraftwerk is still active in 2018, working on new projects.

You can listen to the album “Autobahn” below.

Faust

Lastly, we’ll take a look at Faust, who we gave a sample of near the top of the article. 

Faust is a band named after the protagonist of a classic German tale. Faust was a popular band that was formed in 1971 in Wümme. Faust paved the way for many other krautrock bands. Although their debut album had poor sales, it did attract a small but loyal fan base, and was praised for its innovation. Their second album, “So Far”, did better than the first and was one of the albums that made krautrock accessible internationally. Here is the title track from that album.

Some other notable krautrock bands include Tangerine Dream, Embryo, Cosmic Jokers and Cluster, among many others.

The Influence of Krautrock

Krautrock had a considerable influence on many genres, including electronic, post-punk, rock and British new wave. A notable musician who was inspired by the krautrock scene was David Bowie.

Bowie, who began living in Berlin in 1976, later created the “Berlin Trilogy”, a sequence of three albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” as a tribute to the music scene he experienced in Berlin, which included krautrock and kosmiche musik.

Conclusion

Krautrock, while it may have been named so as a mockery at first, has actually become a highly influential and fascinating genre. It features cosmic, dreamy and ambient sounds and often uses the 4/4 motorik rhythm.

I think the krautrock genre is commendable in its non-conformity and innovation of the rock genre.