THE ORBITING GUITAR STRIKES A CHORD FOR EARTH BELOW
'Procol Harum are looking for a guitarist. Telephone: 493-7785.' It was July 1971 and the modest ad in Melody Maker was the first indication that one of the most innovative guitar forces in recent rock history was about to attack the ears of a music world desperate for a dose of vital energy.
'I turned on the radio in the car the other day and I thought, 'that's weird, that's Jimi, and I've never heard that track before. And it turned out to be a guy called Robin Trower,' said a person of no less eminence than Eric 'Slowhand' Clapton.
Robin Trower was on his own.
Three years and a few months later, in a crowded lobby a pale Mick Ronson lookalike was flexing his knees, nervously staring at his silvered nails, not quite believing what he'd just seen and heard. The denim hordes clawed their way through an asthmatic's nightmare of smoke clouds that were attacking the last vestiges of the Boston Orpheum's gilded tacky splendor. They had just witnessed a concert that would leave Boston raving for weeks afterward. Robin Trower had injected a heavy dose of high energy into a cold New England winter, and had literally blown everyone away.
Until very recently critics argued that he was nothing but a successful imitator, a Hendrix rip-off with a capitol R, cashing in on a dead superstar's riffs. Such claims tend to obscure the fact that, even before leaving Procol, Robin has consistently produced exciting and original music in his attempts to explore every frontier of his instrument, in his effort to take rock guitar into another dimension.
'It's just a bit of a yawn,' said the guitarist with regard to the Hendrix comparisons, as he relaxed backstage while the purple and red-lipped Boston ladies clustered on the other side of the doorways, sipping Margaritas. 'I guess it gives people something to talk about. People like to put you in a pigeonhole if they're uncertain. Maybe it makes it easier for people to accept what I'm doing, the Hendrix thing gives them something to hold on to.'
For Earth Below (on Warner Bros) should give them something to hold on to all right, as well as put an end to unpleasant accusations once and for all. Earth should allow the public to deal with Robin Trower for what he is, and not as 'The guy who sounds just like Hendrix.'
Unlike many performers who stagnate after reaching a certain success, content with tried and true formulas, Robin Trower has grown immensely with every step in his career, with every project he has undertaken. Were he a musician of lesser talent, or a slavish imitator, Trower could have satisfied a public over-eager for regurgitated Hendrix the moment he plugged in his wah-wah. He would not, however, have fulfilled his own exacting demands. For Earth Below is a logical progression in the refinement of his unusual technique, the development of his personal style.
'The whole album is gonna be much more blues-oriented,' he confirmed, 'an extension of some of the things I've already started. I think it'll be a bit earthier because that's the direction I'm heading toward. I feel I'm becoming less superficial.'
Whatever criticisms have been leveled in Trower's direction, 'superficial' could not be included. Fans and musicians alike were thrilled with Bridge of Sighs. Upon its release it was the main topic of conversation in musical circles around the world. Trower, in typical fashion, was never thoroughly satisfied with it. He continued to challenge himself, striving to play something he'd never played before, constantly searching for new form, of musical expression.
A lighter shade of Procol: and although in this dressing room as he poured rounds of icy white chablis, Trower was more eager to discuss the future, he thoughtfully acknowledged his debts to the past.
'Procol was very restricting, ' he admitted, 'but on the other hand it taught me a lot. The discipline was good. I learned about composition, things like that, you know. It gave me a sort of shelter where I could start to write from within and gain confidence on that level, which has been sort of invaluable.'
Trower's confidence grew to the extent that the last album he made with Procol Harum, Broken Barricades, was nearly dominated by his urgent, driving guitar. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Robin did not receive more attention at the time. Song for a Dreamer and Poor Mohammed are nearly as exciting as his recent efforts. Yet no one expected Procol Harum to deliver the sound that Robin Trower was serving up. Just a listen to any of Trower's compositions from Barricades will quickly reveal that Robin had no choice but to strike out on his own, to fulfil his musical destiny. Leaving Procol was not an easy decision and there were some lasting recriminations. Robin hasn't seen or spoken to Procol guiding light Gary Brooker (with whom he had started his career at age 16, in the R&B based Paramounts) since the fateful day of the split. They do record for the same record company, however, and Robin admitted he was a little nervous that they might bump into one another in the elevator.
Trower had undertaken something of a risk in abandoning one of Great Britain's most successful bands. And although Robin was armed with a revolutionary guitar style, he was inexperienced in organizing a band that would do it justice. Jude, his first group venture, was, in his words, 'a non-event.' [picture here]
The one salvageable product of Jude was Robin's discovery of bass player Jimmy Dewar, former Stone the Crow, who also assumed vocal chores, and whose pulsating bass now creates the smooth bottom over which Robin lays his amazing guitar.
Determined not to make the same mistakes, Robin spent two years searching for the correct complement of musicians. The combination was Jimmy Dewar and Reg Isidore who helped breathe life into his first album, Twice Removed from Yesterday, and Bridge of Sighs.
Unfortunately, Isidor [sic] was a casualty of Robin's American tour last summer.
'He just started to drift a bit. I run a very tight ship,' Robin said, as if he were imitating the tone of a once-detested former schoolmaster. Another ex- Stone the Crow, Colin Allen, now on leave of absence from Focus, filled in on part of the LP.
'Colin gave us a slight shift in direction. He's a great drummer, I love to work with him. His style is more straightforward than Reggie's. He was more ... positive,' he added, rather tactfully. But even during the first recording sessions Trower was planning a trip to America to search for a drummer. 'I don't think British drummers are into what we want,' he stated, at the time.
Dream drummer: All of Colin's tracks were scrapped, however, when a few months later Robin found his 'dream' drummer, Bill Lauten [sic passim] who had formerly kicked out the backbeats for Sly Stone, Robin explained, while a huge man in a cowboy hat and a Warner Brothers inscribed football jacket directed the lacquered ladies down the rickety iron staircase and away from the star's quarters.
'It's still Robin Trower, it's just gonna be a whole lot better. Bill's a great drummer, y'know. He's got to be one of the best drummers there are. I mean, you can't play with someone like that and not have it change you. I feel a lot better about the whole thing. These are our first gigs we've played with Bill, and y'know, the first night was classic! We went on, he was right for us. He knew he was right for us before we did. He'd been into us from the time the first album came out and he's been trying to get hold of me ever since, cause he knew he was The Drummer. He phoned me up and said, 'I'm the guy you want. Don't listen to anybody else.' And he was right. He was absolutely perfect. See, he's been into it right from the first album. Bill, on drums, has added so much, a completely new dimension, not to say that it's shifted anything I'm doing, it's just added a whole new dimension.
You know, Bill, in actual fact, did play with Hendrix, him and Willie Weeks ... before Band of Gypsies. Well, him and Willie Weeks were together for years, they were an inseparable bass and drum unit. And Hendrix wanted just Bill, so they split. 'Cause he just wanted Bill.'
At this point, a local musician wandered in to offer congratulations for the 'absolutely phenomenal performance,' and Robin went on to talk about a question that has been on a lot of people's minds – his collaboration with Robert Fripp.
'There will definitely be an album,' Robin said, his marvelous hands punctuating every sentence, 'but I would never tour with him because I like what I do. He can play with me, but I couldn't really extend myself to that. Bob and I have a very strong relationship, a mutual respect. He's helped me a lot and I've helped him a lot, and I think we should do an album together because we love each other, y'know. Bob's the only other musician I've ever struck up anything with, that mutual respect thing.'
Robin revealed that his real idol (despite all those who make nasty accusations about his Hendrix like style) is Donny Hathaway.
Influenced by Stevie Wonder: 'He's a very big influence on me,' he smiled, 'You may not realize it, but for instance, there's a song on Bridge of Sighs – In this Place – that wouldn't have existed without Donny Hathaway. But I get influenced by everybody, in varying degrees. Stevie Wonder – everybody, whether they're musicians or not, has been influenced by him. It's like James Brown and Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, all these very, very big geniuses, they've been a bigger influence than people realize. But there are a lot of good people now, their presence is just starting to be felt,' Robin offered a very positive outlook.
'It's something that happens worldwide. When it happens, everybody shifts together. We're gonna hear a lot more real music, instead of bulldroppings music. We're gonna finish the album in LA, the studios in England just aren't good enough. And this is where it's all happening. This is where it's all about. This is where music lives. We don't even play in England a'tall. People are more receptive here, they're quicker to pick up on new ideas. Popular music in Britain has just regressed. But I had a vision today. It's the dawning of a new era, where the music is gonna shift to the right – the right as opposed to wrong. Rock and youth and everything that goes with it is gonna move to what's right. There was a shift 10 years ago to the right, and then it became decadent. Well, it's gonna happen again. Music is gonna take over again, and the business is gonna be pushed to the side. Everybody is starting to get together on one thing.'
For Robin personally, energy poured into For Earth Below, assuring that the newest album would surpass his previous work. 'You have to progress to stay alive in a three-piece band. It's a demanding rôle. If you want to be musically valid, you have to progress very rapidly. It's savage, music,' he laughed.
Yet few people realize just how demanding a three piece unit is. It requires that the guitarist play a special rôle, one that can be incredibly draining – both emotionally and artistically, as his weaknesses as well as strengths are subject to constant exposure, and intense critical scrutiny. When it works, however, it can be the most satisfying and rewarding of musical experiences. Those who criticized Cream did so for their repetitive riffs, which they found boring, not realizing that the only way to maintain the heaviness of the overall sound, and sustain any kind of momentum, was to utilize those very riffs. Hendrix himself grew increasingly frustrated with his three-piece Experience, but never found a reasonable alternative. Robin has not yet exhausted the potential of his unit, and he continues to pour out pure, undiluted rock, shouldering a burden that most guitar players would he terrified to handle. His guitar lines just seem to get stronger and stronger, the naked intensity of their strength overpowering the listener.
'Earth contains my best guitar playing on record,' he said, and one must bear in mind that Trower is nothing if not unbelievably modest.
Bill 'Lauten' [Lordan]: The 'dream drummer' formerly kicked the backbeats with Sly and the Family Stone.
It includes several songs Robin performed on the last American tour, such as It's Only Money which he described as 'a very savage piece.' Alethea ... 'also rather cynical, that's a very up piece of ... nonsense.' And 'A Fine Day – 'it's a love song, a very ... sensual ... love song.'
Matthew Fisher is again at the dials, imprisoning Trower's explosive guitar work on tape. It is always remarkable that the former Procol organist manages to capture the feeling and essence of Trower's sound so exquisitely, when his own orientation is quite different.
'He's got a great pair of ears,' explained Robin, who has nothing but praise for his ex-Procol mate. As to whether Fisher would change musical horses, he said, 'I think he's probably being influenced in his own music by what I do. I'd like to see him have a go that way. But it may take some time till he gets it together!'
Whatever the case, Fisher has helped the guitar player create a natural sound, as devastating as the effect produced by his live concerts.
'My music is more and more relentless,' Trower said simply. The tremendous success of Bridge of Sighs and the subsequent tours have given him the confidence and faith to assure that it will grow ever more so. Yet Trower is a surprisingly quiet man whose passion is reserved for his music. He no longer has to prove himself. He is simply in. tent on playing the guitar in a way no one has ever played before. And Earth is guaranteed to outrage all ears.
Jimmy Dewar, bass: The former Stone the Crow assumes the vocal rôle as well as pulsates the smooth bass bottom over which glides Robin's load.
[See also the Dewar / Fisher album]
Thanks, Doug: three goes to get this to us by snail-mail, but it was worth it!
More about Robin Trower