Listening to Michael Chapman

“We’re all getting older” is something I tend to hear pretty often from my peers these days.  In fact, for me it’s rapidly acquiring the axiomatic blandness of similar clichés – ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps!’ – and other such brain-numbing public domain doggerel.  Wretched though it may be, it does at some level function as a kind of unspoken code that – for now, at least – renders unneccessary those excruciating litanies of ailments, aches and pains, details of hospital appointments and trips to the doctor, lists of medications and suchlike that seems to be the province of people somewhat closer to the exit door than (hopefully) we are.

How much more difficult it must be for our generation of ageing rock and rollers, who are still out there raging against the dying of the light on CD and in the clubs and concert halls of the 21st century…

Having given this some thought, I’ve decided that piano players have, in general, got the best deal here.  Firstly, you can (by and large) sit down whilst performing.  Secondly, you don’t (necessarily) have to sing.  Thirdly, you don’t have to blow into anything.  Fourthly, the manual dexterity required to hammer out a tune on the piano is markedly less than guitarists or cellists need.  This perhaps explains why people like Stan Tracey, Professor Longhair and Duke Ellington (to name but three) are or were able to perform quite happily at an age where many singers and trumpeters had just run out of puff.

Consider the case of Robert Plant.  In 2007, Led Zeppelin reformed for a one-off gig at London’s O2 arena to raise money for a fund sponsored by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.  Forget Michael Jackson or Glastonbury or the Gentle Giant Reunion Tour; this was quite simply the hottest ticket for any event of the last 25 years.  In all probability, only a reunion of the remaining Beatles could have topped it. 

Led Zeppelin at the O2 Arena in 2007

I will confess that whilst I have heard/seen bits of audio and video from this show, I found it impossible to watch and/or listen to it for long.  OK, so Planty looks a bit raddled and Jimmy Page’s hair has gone white, but that’s OK.  Where it all fell down for me was in one area – the vocals.  You would have to say that when Zeppelin recorded ‘Immigrant Song’ back in 1970, it’s unlikely that anyone said to Robert Plant “Better watch it with all that wailing over the intro, Planty, because you won’t be able to reach all those high notes when you’re 63.”  Although by 1970 it was probably beginning to dawn on the likes of Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Dylan, Wilson and other 1960’s heavy hitters that their back catalogue just might ensure them a comfy middle age, I suspect that few of them envisaged that they would still be out there as rock and roll pensioners.

Robert Plant went into that O2 gig off the back of a critically-feted album and a highly successful World Tour with Alison Krauss which seemed to provide his career with a whole new chapter.  Then, suddenly, he’s back on stage with LZ, trying to reach all those ludicrously high notes and, of course, it just wasn’t happening – in fact for those of us who remember the original recordings, it was pretty painful listening.  What was equally inevitable was the clamour for the band to follow up this one-off gig with a mega-tour across the USA for which they were no doubt offered gazillions of dollars.  Around the world, there’s a whole generation of Zeppelin fans who were probably still in nappies when the band broke up, but who grew up listening to all those albums – in fact, it would be interesting to know just how many hard rock and heavy metal bands around the world took their inspiration from Led Zeppelin.  I suspect the tally would run into thousands.

Anyway, by all accounts the rest of the band were up for one last big payday but Planty said ‘No’.  Quite why that is, I couldn’t tell you, but at least one of the reasons surely had to be a recognition on his part that too many of the original vocal parts from the Zeppelin songbook were now beyond his range.  That much was clear from the O2 and even beforehand on the faux-Moroccan album (‘No Quarter’) he’d done with Jimmy Page in the mid- 90’s, where he was clearly finding it a struggle to hit those top notes.  Personally, I admire Robert Plant’s decision to favour dignity over cash, but there again, I was lucky enough to see Led Zeppelin several times in their prime.

All of which rambling and ruminating brings me (finally) to Michael Chapman, who I am looking forward to seeing at the Moseley Folk Festival this coming weekend.  Last time I saw Michael was at Manchester University when he toured to promote ‘The Man who hated Mornings’, which would probably have been about 1978.  On that occasion, he played largely in an ‘electric’ trio with Rick Kemp on bass and Keef Hartley on drums, but these days, he tends to play alone.  Michael Chapman is in his 70’s now and has been playing music for a very long time.  Although his origins are in Yorkshire, he first surfaced on the Cornish folk club scene in about 1967.  Like many others,  I first became aware of him thanks to the late John Peel who played his albums and featured him on numerous sessions from 1969 through into the early 70’s. 

Michael Chapman in the 1960’s

Chapman’s inspirations were clear enough; blues greats like Big Bill Broonzy, contemporaries like John Fahey and Bert Jansch and – of course – Bob Dylan, but he brought a rugged, world-weary sensibility to his singing and songwriting that made him a great deal more than just the sum of his influences.  He was also a terrific guitarist and the four albums he made for EMI’s Harvest imprint in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s are sprinkled with a number of short and often jaunty instrumentals, the most renowned of which is undoubtedly ‘Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime’  from his best-known and possibly most accomplished album, ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’.  Released in 1970, ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ was Peel’s nominated ‘Album of the Year’ for that year and one of the best folk-rock albums of all time.  The album features some of Chapman’s strongest songs – ‘Kodak Ghosts’ , Postcards of Scarborough’ and ‘Stranger in the Room’ and is enlivened by the likes of Paul Buckmaster, the late Johnny van Derek, Mick Ronson and Rick Kemp.   Ronson was soon to surface in David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band and though it might seem a long way from Chapman to Ziggy Stardust, you have to bear in mind that Bowie and Chapman shared a producer (Tony Visconti) and a cursory comparison between ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ and Bowie’s more or less contemporaneous ‘Hunky Dory’ reveals a smaller gap between the two than you might expect.

According to Chapman, Ronson was near-neighbour of his in Hull and he tried to recruit him to his ‘road’ band.  However, Ronson was already playing with the other ‘Spiders’ in a local rock band and wanted Chapman to take them on as ‘a package’ whilst Chapman only wanted Ronson.  Bowie was more amenable to Ronson’s thinking and thus were the Spiders from Mars born.

Michael Chapman in the 1970’s

After Chapman’s Harvest contract expired in 1971, he moved to Decca and between 1972 and 1978 made a series of 5 albums where he probably plays more electric than acoustic guitar.  With hindsight, I’m not sure that this did him any favours.  All of the albums have their moments – ‘Firewater Dreams’, ‘Northern Lights’, ‘It didn’t work out’ etc  but his slightly jagged electric guitar playing somehow lacks the clarity and precision of his acoustic picking.  In this era, he would usually appear in the aforementioned ‘electric trio’ format, usually with Rick Kemp and Keef Hartley in tow.   After the 1978 tour where our paths last crossed, Chapman’s Decca contract expired and he largely sank from view as a ‘major artist’.  Recording for a series of independent labels, he produced instructional discs for guitarists and a series of obscure and out-of-print albums that few outside of the UK folk circuit got to hear, though he always seemed to retain a strong following in Germany.  In 1988, See for Miles released a CD compilation of his work at the BBC between 1969 and 1971, but this failed to produce a full-on rediscovery of his work.  Another problem was that his albums were so bloody hard to get hold of; copies of the original Harvest vinyl albums would change hands for sizeable sums and nothing else much seemed to be available on CD apart from the BBC album.  I did manage to pick up a re-release of ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ on C5 Records in the late 80’s, but the other Harvest albums remained unobtainable until Repertoire began to re-release them in 1997.  The Decca albums were similarly hard to track down, though they, too, have eventually re-appeared. 

Through all of this, Michael Chapman was operating below the radar of most people.  He toured as a duo with Rick Kemp during the 90’s, owned and ran a studio in his adopted hometown of Hull and released the occasional album on independent labels, but it seemed as though there was to be no major revival in his fortunes.  Then, a couple of years back, his old buddy Bridget St John decided to return to live performance in the UK after hiding away in the States for the last 30 years.  Chapman appeared alongside her as support act and second guitarist and this presaged a relative flurry of releases of both re-packaged material from the 1960’s and 1970’s and newer compositions as well.  The release that has probably attracted the greatest interest is ‘Trainsong: Guitar Compositions, 1967-2010 ‘, a double CD of solo guitar instrumentals recorded for the specialist US folk imprint Tompkins Square,  who have released (or re-released) albums by a diverse range of artists, including  Robbie Basho, Tim Buckley, the brilliant Richard Crandell and Prefab Sprout.

‘Trainsong’ sees Chapman revisiting numerous old chestnuts and updating them for the digital era.  Of course, this is a dangerous game but, for me, the only track on the set that doesn’t work is the re-recorded ‘Naked Ladies & Electric Ragtime’ – to be honest, I know the original too well and this new version just doesn’t cut it. Otherwise, the album is a largely triumphant revamp of former glories and there are some newer tracks – ‘La Madrugada’, ‘Elinkline’ and The Last Polish Breakfast’ to name but three, that are right up there with any other instrumentals he’s recorded at any time during his career.

I also managed to get hold of an excellent recording someone made of Chapman live at a Brighton venue earlier this year.   What this shows is that not only is his bluff Yorkshire  banter still in good nick, but so are his fingers, because the performances of some of the more challenging pieces from ‘Trainsong’ are right on the money.   Also, the passing years haven’t discernibly impeded his vocal style; he’s perhaps a little hoarser than in his heyday, but his vocals always sounded slightly gruff  anyway.  He now seems to be as close to a major renaissance as he has ever been.  He toured in the States with the late Jack Rose and seems to have acquired a major fan in Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – in fact they have toured and recorded together. 

 Michael Chapman during a recent performance

All in all, his return to the public eye has been free from the issues that Robert Plant had to wrestle with.  Chapman looked and sounded 50-ish when he was in his 30’s,  so as long as the arthritis doesn’t kick in, he should be fine for a few years yet.  It will be good to see him again.

Michael Chapman is appearing at the Moseley Folk Festival in Moseley Park, Birmingham this coming Saturday (4th September).  Desert-rock specialists Tinariwen top the bill.  Tickets for the day are now sold out, but you may be able to pick up one outside from a tout (at a premium, no doubt).

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