Book Review: Brian May’s Red Special, The

By Ernest Barteldes

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Although not essentially a guitarist (my main instruments are the electric bass and the ukulele), for many years I have been a huge fan of Queen’s Brian May – not only his songwriting, which contrasts strongly with the style of his bandmates but also for the signature sound of his homemade Red Special guitar, which can be recognized immediately even if it is not on one of the band’s or his solo albums – for instance, its tone is distinctive on Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” at Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 even though there were other guitarists on hand.

Other examples include Brazil’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso’s “El Vampiro Bajo El Sol, and Lady Gaga’s “You and I,” where May was prominently featured – even if some fans were not aware of it.

His guitar has always intrigued me – built with hand tools because he couldn’t afford his much-desired Gibsons or Fenders, the Red Special is an essential part of Queen’s sound so much that when it is not present (in tunes like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which featured a Fender Telecaster) you can actually hear the difference in sound and texture.

Many stories have been told about how the guitar was built, but until recently it hadn’t been the whole story from the beginning – which finally happened with Brian May’s Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World (Hal Leonard, Hardcover – $ 22.40 on Amazon), which brings the whole story together with rich illustrations of every piece of the guitar, which was painstakingly taken apart and photographed for this project.

Written by Brian May with the assistance of co-writer Simon Bradley, we follow May’s initial days learning the ukulele and then transitioning to the guitar – which brought the necessity of going electric as rock music invaded the airwaves of Great Britain via Radio Luxembourg – the same station that inspired The Beatles in the days before there was any kind of young music on the BBC.

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A young Brian May with his guitar (from Brianmay.com)

The writing style is quite conversational, but this being a musician who also happens to be an astrophysicist, things get a bit puzzling for the layman when he goes into the physics of acoustic resonance or when he describes the formula of calculating the distance between the guitar’s frets, which he sorted out using a computer at EMI’s laboratories while he interned there as a teenager.

In spite of those few moments that might go over one’s head a bit, it is a highly pleasurable read, and the illustrations  – which include early pictures of a short-haired Brian May playing with some of his early bands prior to his career with Queen and his signature (now gray) mane.

There is also a section with the different copies made of the Red Special over the years, and a description of his historic performance on the rooftop at Buckingham Palace, which was clearly much harder to put together than it sounds like.

The book is recommended not only for Queen fans but also for guitar enthusiasts in general – it’s rich enough in detail that one might want to build your own Red Special someday.

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Remembering David Bowie

By Ernest Barteldes

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I think I was 13 years old when I first heard David Bowie’s voice.  The year was 1981, and a local radio station I used to hang out around (those were the days) got an advance copy of his collaboration with Queen. I was one of the first in the room to hear what was to become John Deacon’s iconic bassline that kicked off “Under Pressure,” the most memorable tune from the band’s “Hot Space” album, which would go into history as one of the least appreciated of the band’s career – except for this tune.

A couple of years later, Bowie released what would have become his most commercial album – the disco-inflected “Let’s Dance,” whose title track is still in rotation in many classic rock and oldies stations. I recall not being very impressed by that one song, but hearing the other songs on the disc showed me that he had not really sold out – he was just experimenting, as ever, with new sounds and textures.

Around that time, he was very much in the spotlight not as a musician but as an actor in films like “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger” and others. Those films were really unmemorable, and I am glad that he turned back to music after that, even if he never really quit appearing in film and TV – even SpongeBob Squarepants.

Though I was not a huge fan of Bowie’s canon, I did have great admiration for his body of work – how many musicians have been able not only to reinvent themselves but to remain relevant over a period of five decades without relying on crowd pleasers during live performances? The only equivalent would be Bob Dylan, who still raises eyebrows whenever he makes an album – that no longer happens to folks like Paul McCartney or Sting – and I am a fan of both artists.

David Bowie was an inspiring artist who was not a bullshitter in any way or form. Fellow journalists and musicians who were fortunate enough to meet him have said that he was a down-to-earth, unpretentious guy in spite of his musical genius – and this is not something you see every day

He will be sorely missed.

 

Album Review: Craig Greenberg’s “Grand Loss & Legacy”

By Ernest Barteldes

I first met Craig Greenberg about three years ago at a rehearsal studio in Brooklyn.  We were both part of the backing band for Roger Greenawalt’s “Beatles Live on Ukulele” at The Brooklyn Bowl – an event I participated in for three years. At the time, I was pretty oblivious of the New York independent music scene since I’d spent most of my time covering jazz and world acts (to a degree that is still true – even today, more West Coast musicians reach out to me for coverage than folks closer to my own ZIP code – but I digress) and had a vague idea of who was taking part of it. As far as I could tell, these were some musically gifted Beatles enthusiasts who were willing to be part of a charitable event.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized that Greenberg was actually an accomplished singer-songwriter with great piano and guitar chops (I’ve seen posts about his ukulele, but I haven’t heard him playing that one yet). In fact, one of my proudest moments from the three Beatles events I participated in is a version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in which I contributed bass and supporting vocals with Greenberg on lead vocals, Jeremiah Birnbaum on co-lead guitar and Greenawalt on uke – a the song came out great in spite of the fact that we only rehearsed it a couple of times.

In 2014 I heard Greenberg do his own music for the first time at his debut appearance at Joe’s Pub, which I reviewed for All About Jazz a few months ago – so it was natural that I wanted to listen to The Grand Loss and Legacy as soon as it came out – and let me tell you that his new tunes confirmed my initial good impression of his work as a songwriter.

I read reviews from other writers, and many make obvious comparisons between him and Billy Joel, which I completely disagree with. It’s too easy to pigeonhole a piano-playing rocker from New York to Joel, and I feel that even though Greenberg might have been influenced by him, he goes way farther than that.  What I like about him is his sense of humor towards the music and his jazz-like approach to his main instrument.

One of the highlight from the disc is “That Girl Is Wrong For You,” fast-tempo tune in which the narrator urges a friend to see that he is in a doomed relationship.  The friend spells it right out without any metaphors, making it clear that the woman will destroy his friend’s spirit and advising him to end it “before it’s too late.”  He makes a political statement on “Death on The Liberty Line” that makes a reference to the provisions of the Patriot Act (without mentioning it directly), warning of the dangers of giving up certain freedoms for the sake of fear. I enjoyed how guitarist Patrick Brennan contributed a Brian May-inspired guitar line that accompanies the vocal line and also the ominous-sounding solo towards the end of the track.

Another great moment comes with the uptempo “Weekend Holiday,” a story about a girl who dreams of stardom and once she makes to the top, she seems not to have achieved all of her dreams even though she has everyone at her feet – a cautionary tale about wanting a material life but lacking spiritual achievement.

Greenberg did a great job with this collection – the arrangements were carefully done (although I would have liked the guitars to stand out a little more) and the songs seem carefully crafted.  This is a guy ripe for discovery by a bigger audience – so catch him before he’s playing venues you can’t afford.

Listen to “That Girl Is Wrong For You” 

Visit his website http://craiggreenbergmusic.com/grandloss/