Slick, incisive, derisive, merciless, cold, vicious, funny, very very funny, intelligent, elite, audacious, sophisticated, biting, sharp and ultimately perfect. That is Steely Dan for me. Their sound and style stands alone. You can’t compare them to anyone because no one else does what they do. They are the masters of the studio, the masters of the obscure and the masters of the ideal.
It was, once again, my dad’s record collection that first introduced me to the band. He owned one LP, and that was The Royal Scam. He had been driving, listening to the radio, and had heard Haitian Divorce. Always a fan of outstanding guitar playing he was immediately hooked by the mesmerising way the lead guitar in the song talks to you. It really does. It’s as key to the track as the main vocal is. He subsequently bought the album, only for his two sons to discover it and claim it for their own some years later!
As usual, it was my older brother who then explored the band further, buying other albums and playing me the gems he had discovered. We would sing along together, trying to harmonise with the tracks wherever possible, but finding it a little more difficult than the usual Top 40 tracks of the day because of the complex chord structures and that unique blend of jazz and rock that just never went where you expected it to go. These guys were the scholars of popular music, if that’s what you call it, and to learn from them would be like being taught the Quran by Muhammed himself. And so I set about my studies.
But, aside from the music itself there was very little to study. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen shunned the spotlight. There are in fact, even today, very few publicity photos of the two of them. It wasn’t until Brian Sweet’s 1994 ‘Reelin’ In the Year’s book that I really begun to know anything about the duo’s lives. Two odd-bods who didn’t fit in with the crowd. They found each other through a shared love of jazz and the avant-garde, through beatnik poets and highbrow literature, through music. And what music they were to go on and produce. Every bit as highbrow, beatnik, avant-garde and wonderful as the world they inhabited as youngsters.
I hope that one day I will write a song that can match anything in their catalogue, but I fear my limits as a musician will not allow it. Still, I strive for their perfection and expertise on every record I make. In 2012 I began work on my debut album, imaginatively titled, Michael Armstrong. I had a song on it called The Cola Paranoia. It’s a blues-based number, like many Steely Dan tracks, and I wanted to find that twist they always managed, to make it so much more than a 12-bar repeat. When I sent the demo to my producer my email read “Think Steely Dan, and you’ll know where I’m coming from.” In a bizarre and wonderfully fortunate turn of events (maybe even destiny) I was soon to be introduced to one Elliott Randall, guitarist extraordinaire for The Dan on so many of their tracks and world renowned for that solo on ‘Reelin In The Years’, described by Jimmy Page no less, as the greatest guitar work of all time. I played Elliott my track and he said that he would love to play on it. Died and gone to heaven comes to mind. I still smile every time I hear that song. His playing is amazing and I quite honestly could not have dreamed that it would happen.
Elliott went on to play on several songs on my debut album and has recently joined me on the new album #LookingForTheWorld, where his performance is as first class as ever. I am extremely proud to count him as a friend and still get goosebumps when he calls or texts me and his name appears on my phone!
By the time I really began to appreciate Steely Dan the dream seemed to be long over. It would have been the late 1980′s, as I officially became an adult, and there was apparently ‘no gas in the car’! The last album had come in 1980 and even Fagen solo hadn’t released anything since his 1982 masterpiece ‘The Nightfly’ - surely one of the greatest albums of all time? Then, come the turn of the decade, there were murmurings. In 1993 we were presented with a 2nd Donald Fagen solo album ‘Kamakiriad’ and this one was produced by none other than his old partner Walter Becker himself. And then the reunion…
I caught wind of the release of ‘Steely Dan Alive In America’ and was gobsmacked. Not only had Don and Walt reunited The Dan, but they had taken to ‘the road’. Steely Dan were on tour. Something any student of the band would surely never believe could happen. They didn’t even tour in their heyday! I couldn’t get to the US to see them so I remember booking the day off work (or maybe bunking the day off work) on the live album release date. I waited for the local HMV to open, bagged my copy and headed home for some serious listening. Hearing those opening strains of ‘Babylon Sisters’ will be something that I will never forget.
Thankfully, over the intervening years they have brought the show to Europe and I’ve been lucky enough to see them several times, most recently with only Donald at the helm, following the sad and sudden death of Walter. Perhaps the most memorable time was when I found myself in the 2nd row at The Hammersmith Apollo. When the band returned to the stage for the encore they announced the arrival of a certain Mr Elliott Randall who found his way damn near note perfect through ‘Reelin In the Years’. The crowd were ecstatic. I was ecstatic. The year was 2009. Little was I to know what the near future would hold…
Yes, there’s gas in the car.
Bob Dylan changed the world. There aren’t too many music artists that you can say that about. There aren’t that many people in history that you can say that about. I sometimes wonder if, as a young boy growing up in Minnesota, he set about doing just that? I, as a young boy growing up in South London, certainly dreamed of doing that through music, and that dream hasn’t left me. I suspect it never will. The difference is…he DID IT! How much must that very notion weigh on your life, your outlook, your person and your future?
I’m not sure that I have ever met a songwriter or musician that doesn’t count Dylan as a major inspiration. He is held in the very highest esteem amongst my fellow brethren. More so than The Beatles or Elvis. Yet I still meet people (not musicians) who don’t get it. Sure, he can write a song, they’ll say, but he can’t sing! I, for one, count Dylan up there with the very greatest singers of all time. His voice, particularly in later years, can convey emotion like no other. He can sing irony with a smile and it makes me grin from ear to ear. He can sing pain and it makes me shiver all over. He can sing love and my very heart flutters. He can sing anger and I’m ready to charge into battle. He can be forthright and then fragile, boisterous and then alone. I know of no-one else who can do this as good as he.
I have two instances of remembering the first times I heard Dylan and can’t quite recall which came first. My guitar teacher, Andy Brookes, played me ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ mainly to highlight the phenomenal guitar work of Mark Knopfler but I was lost in the voice and the lyrics and the whole groove of the record. I’m pretty sure I went out the following weekend and bought ‘Slow Train Coming’ and was immediately converted, not to Christianity but to Bobdom! The other instance was when visiting my Uncle John, who over the years has introduced me to some of the finest music on the planet. I guess I was around 15 years old when he sat me down, put a set of headphones on my ears and said ‘OK, if you’re gonna be a songwriter, you need to listen to this’. The strains of Bob sucking on his harmonica started and I was lost for what seemed an age in the strangest, yet most wonderful world I had ever encountered. ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’. The title itself broke every rule I had learned up to that point!
My obsession and collection had begun. Bob Dylan CD’s are to this day by far the most numerous in my collection, taking up several shelves in their own right. His output has been incredible although not always up to an equal standard! As a young songwriter his influence on me was immediate and continues to this very day. I even hear him in my own voice sometimes when I’m listening back to a recording. The way I’ve phrased something or just a slight inflection with my throat and I know it wouldn’t be there without Bob. My new album #LookingForTheWorld (released 23rd November 2018) has various instances of this. I’m very proud of that.
Equal to the music, at least for me, is the character himself. Bob Dylan is an enigma. He’s never played by the rules of the music business, instead choosing to ridicule it. He’s his own man. I would imagine that I speak for most musicians when I say that, as much as we love music and what we do, the music business itself is a despicable beast and not a place for the faint-hearted or conducive to the creativity we most desire. I suspect that the adulation poured upon him in the early 1960′s when he was such a young man, created the persona we now know…although we don’t know it at all. That’s the key. Us fans don’t know him and that’s the way he wants it. You can think you know him through his music but you don’t. He’d laugh in your face if you tried to tell him any different. Except you won’t ever get face to face with Dylan. Very few ever have. I worked with Mark Knopfler a few years back and he had just come off a double-header tour with Dylan. He said that Bob didn’t even speak to his own Tour Manager and couldn’t comprehend how that was even possible with his crazy schedule! As for communicating with his fellow musicians…forget it!
What makes Dylan so enduring has been his ability and sheer nerve not to rest on his laurels. Any one career could live on his early 1960′s output, the folk singer and protest songs in a time of great upheaval in the United States. Another career could survive on the ‘electric’ period, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ is a masterpiece. Ten years later he releases ‘Blood On the Tracks’, an album that would be enough for any of the great songwriters to retire and tour for their remaining days. A lull in the 80′s would leave most concluding that his candle had burnt out or that he was indeed living off the fruits of his previous labours and who could blame him? But then ‘Oh Mercy’ and his resurgence with the Traveling Wilburys put paid to that notion. And then comes the 21st Century Dylan. A series of self-produced albums that in my opinion rank amongst his very best. ‘Modern Times’ for me is the pinnacle of these. With Dylan it has been masterpiece after masterpiece, decade after decade. This cannot and will not ever be matched.
In 2017 I went to The London Palladium to see him perform. I have seen Dylan live more than any other artist. I would guess this gig was around the 30 mark. He is 75 years old. He is an old man. He is the best I have ever seen him.
It’s only as I’ve come to write these blogs that I realise just how much affect having an older brother and parents with a decent record collection has had on me. For it is once again, that the first time I heard The Beach Boys was as a young boy at home. My dad had a Greatest Hits LP and I can distinctly remember my brother playing Surfin’ Safari over and over agin and raving about it’s qualities. As I write this blog I hear Tinie Tempah blaring from my 15 year old sons room and wonder where it all went wrong…?
I’m not sure I know anyone who doesn’t like The Beach Boys (and that includes my children). How could you? The music that Brian Wilson and the boys produced just makes you feel good. It warms the very soul. It’s uplifting. It’s magical. It’s wonderful. It may just well be perfect. I never get bored of The Beach Boys. I think I could listen to ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ on repeat for a week and still be singing along without a care in the world. I’ve never known a time without their music and thankfully, I never will.
And then there is the mystery. Why is it that all these rock n roll greats have this intrigue? The music alone would be enough. Just one of those songs alone would be enough and yet the Brian Wilson story is beyond most imaginations. You really couldn’t make it up. Was it simply drugs? Was it the jealous father? Was it too much too young? Was it the wafer thin line between being a genius and a madman? It is Shakespearian in its proportions and it remains a fascination with any serious students of this man and his quite brilliant music. The modern day Mozart, the Michelangelo of the studio…God Only Knows.
In the first of these blogs that accompany my new album #LookingForTheWorld I spoke about my incredulity at the announcement of Jeff Lynne’s ELO performing again and being there to see it. Surely no-one in the late 20th Century thought that they would EVER see Brian Wilson perform again? To even dream of such a thing would just mean certain heartbreak and disappointment. It couldn’t and wouldn’t ever happen. Sometimes being wrong is the best thing in the world.
I suspect that if everyone who says they were at The Royal Festival Hall in London for the premiere of ‘Smile’ were really there, it would have to hold 500,000 people. But I was there (and have the ticket to prove it) with my wife, my brother and his wife. I remember seeing Jonathan Ross hanging around and at the interval I was standing next to Paul Weller in the queue at the bar. I later heard that McCartney was also in attendance but I guess he thought he’d be better off avoiding the public bar. Shame…that acquaintance would have to come later. The atmosphere was electric and the band were exquisite. Brian himself was still showing signs of his illness and continues to, to this day, but the crowd were with him and willing him on, and frankly, just ecstatic to be in the same room as him. It is night that shall never be forgotten.
Just a few years ago, I was introduced to a really lovely guy who takes care of Brian’s PR in the UK, called Steve. We got chatting and he soon realised that he was face to face with a crazy fan who would need calming before he would ever escape my clutches. He produced an early print of Brian’s then new autobiography, ‘I Am Brian Wilson’ and said I could have it! It wouldn’t be available for public consumption for many months. Anyone who is a collector and lover of music and memorabilia like I am will know just what this meant! It even says on the cover ‘Not Proof Read - Promo Copy’! This is gold dust to loonies like me and it remains strapped to my chest with the strongest duct tape at all times. On parting, I cheekily threw in that ‘if there were any tickets for the Pet Sounds Tour going spare, they would find a very comfortable and loving home in my pocket’.
Several months later, on the morning of 28th October 2016, I received an email from my benefactor in kind and new hero Steve. It said, in two simple lines, that a pair of tickets were waiting for me at the box office of The Royal Albert Hall for that evenings performance. They were on BRIAN’S PERSONAL GUEST LIST! Now, the more hard-hearted of you may think that Brian himself had nothing to do with his own guest list, but I like to believe that he personally selected each and every name (of which there were only a small handful), wrote them down with quilted feather, and personally handed them to the box office staff in a gold leaf envelope.
That evening, ever the Englishman, I approached the box office and stated softly, so that only the closest 200 people or so could hear, that I was on Brian’s guest list. The tickets were duly handed over along with my passes for the AFTER SHOW PARTY! Now…we’ve established that I’m a fan of his music, but I can honestly say that I have never wanted a concert to be over with so quickly. The music and gig became an irrelevance as I longed for my meeting with The Man.
And so, with the final notes of ‘Love and Mercy’ still ringing across the auditorium, I hot footed it out of my seat to locate the private bar. Introduced to Blondie Chaplin, I barely gave him the time of day as I searched for greater Gods. Next up was Matt Jardine who had put on a fantastic performance in the band that evening and I tried to be as graceful as I could. I faltered for a moment when introduced to his dad and Beach Boys legend Al Jardine and yet still couldn’t concentrate on what should have been a tremendous occasion as my head inadvertently swivelled and scanned the small room for the hero of the hour. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I guess Brian doesn’t do after-show parties. No surprise really.
Steve….if you’re reading this, you know what to do next time!
It was 1987 when my dad and brother went out shopping together one Saturday morning and returned with our first ever CD player. I cannot stress enough how pivotal that single day was in my development as a musician and songwriter. By that time I had a steadily growing collection of records but at just age 13 the Compact Disc was to become my thing. Like a generation before me had collected and treasured their vinyl, I would take to the CD like it was meant for me an me only. I still, to this day, love the feel and design of a CD. I am immensely proud of my collection. To my utter horror, I bought a new car in December of last year to find that they no longer come with CD players as standard. Following this I was in LA in March of this year and handed someone a CD, only to be looked at like I had three heads! I know things have to change and move on but I guess I’m just not ready for that yet.
So…back to 1987. In purchasing the CD player the buyer was entitled to a selection of CD’s - after all, it wouldn’t be much use without them! My brother had chosen ‘Bothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits, ‘Tango In The Night’ by Fleetwood Mac (more about both of these in later blogs) and ‘The Autobiography of Supertramp’, a greatest hits collection by the band of the same name. The only track from the album, and indeed the band, that I was vaguely aware of was ‘Its Raining Again’ as it had been a minor hit a few years previously and I’d seen the video on Top Of The Pops. This album changed my life. Within a week or so I had pretty much mastered the guitar chords to ‘Give A Little Bit’ and would perform it at every opportunity, which basically meant every waking hour.
Flicking through a newspaper just a month or two later I was astounded and unbelievably excited to see an advert for Supertramp’s 1988 Tour and it’s arrival at The Royal Albert Hall on 18th & 19th April 1988. Thankfully my parents didn’t need too much persuasion, and within minutes we had tickets for the first night in London. This would be the first gig I ever went to (I had previously thought that my first gig was T’Pau but I just checked the dates and Supertramp came first). For an aspiring musician I don’t think I could have chosen a better introduction to live music if I tried. They were incredible and had a screen behind them that would show movies and clips that all interacted with the songs. I was mesmerised and I was hooked for life. And yet, come the encore, they still hadn’t played ‘my song’. Surely they would play ‘Give A Little Bit’? No. ‘Crime Of The Century’ and it’s haunting outro ended the evening as the hands gripped to the prison bars emerged from the blackest of outer space on the giant screen…and then they were gone.
It would be 1997 until the band toured again. By that time I had long realised that the reason ‘Give A Little Bit’ wasn’t performed was because the singer and writer Roger Hodgson had left the band before I’d even heard of them! They had played some of his songs in 1988 - ‘The Logical Song’ and ‘Breakfast In America’ with Mark Hart (later of Crowded House) on lead vocal duties but it would be some time before they attempted GALB without Roger. In the intervening years I had, in true Michael Armstrong style, collected everything the band had ever recorded, bootlegs and all. I had rare VHS videos of concerts and interviews that I watched endlessly. I had read up on the very little there was on the band - ‘The Supertramp Book’ being my main source of knowledge (there wasn’t any internet then kids), and I had learned pretty much their whole catalogue on either guitar or keyboard as was written. They performed 5 consecutive nights at The Royal Albert Hall in September 1997. I was at 3 of them. The first night I went alone as I had managed to get a single FRONT ROW seat. I was sat right in front of Rick Davies at his grand piano. This time I knew every word to every song. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced. The 2nd night my family had hired a box and we partied in there, and the final night I took my long suffering girlfriend to see my heroes in action. By then she knew all the words too.
As I don’t particularly sing like either Rick Davies or Roger Hodgson, both of whom have somewhat unique and very different voices, their influence on my music may not be immediately obvious. But look closer to the rhythmical structures and the odd chord progression here and there and all will be revealed. Then just listen to the saxophone. Supertramp songs rarely feature guitar solos instead favouring the wonderful woodwind expertise of their front man John Helliwell. My instructions to Ed Barker, who plays saxophone on both my last and forthcoming album, are simple. Make it sound like Supertramp. He hasn’t let me down. On the new album #LookingForTheWorld there is a song called ‘Periscope’ which is my nod of thanks to the band that I’ve always considered my own, somehow.
Supertramp returned to the UK sporadically for a number of years and I was always there but I had never seen the original member and singer/composer of most their biggest hits Roger Hodgson. He seemed to have become a recluse and shunned the music business for a peaceful family life in California…
In 2005 I heard that he was to perform a one-off show at The Shepherds Bush Empire. It was November 30th, some 22 years since his last UK show. My brother, the guy who had selected that fateful CD all those years ago, accompanied me to the gig. Whilst standing in the queue, the stage door on a side street opened and out stepped John Helliwell, Supertramp’s saxophone player and main man on stage, whom I had seen and watched and worshipped on so many occasions. Myself and some other sharp eyed fans accosted him immediately and got him to sign whatever we were holding (I had an envelope with my tickets in, on which he duly scribbled his name). Incredibly, after the initial bunch had left him in peace, he joined my brother and I in the queue and said he was a ‘punter, just like everyone else.’ I had assumed he was playing with Roger but he had just come along to support him and was in great spirits as he had just that day become a grandfather. I’ve had some surreal moments in my life, but this one was up there with the best of them.
Inside The Empire, the atmosphere was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before or have ever felt again. 2000 people had waited close to a quarter of a century for this gig. I had waited my whole life. Roger walked on stage to a deafening noise and hit the opening chords of my song ‘Give A Little Bit’…some things are worth waiting for.
I can’t remember the first time I heard ELO. My dad had a greatest hits album on vinyl, so I suspect it was one Sunday afternoon when he would treat my brother & I to some selected tracks from his vast collection. My dad isn’t the slightest bit musical, but he loves his music. Moreover, in those days, he loved his stereo and it held pride of place in the living room. He lived his teenage years through the 1960s and I think a lot of that generation valued their hi-fi equipment and record collection. A far cry from these days where kids listening to music they haven’t paid for on mp3s on tiny headphones or computer speakers. But that’s a different subject.
In 1981 my brother came home with a copy of the new album, TIME’. We’d been hearing ‘Hold On Tight’ on the radio and loved it. He played that album over and over. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this album was the first step in Jeff slimming down the line-up, laying off the strings, and eventually becoming a one man band. Although it’s not perhaps recognised as one of the classic ELO albums, I still love it to this day.
By the time ‘Balance Of Power’ came out in 1986 I was music-obsessed. I had learnt to play the guitar, was teaching myself to play the piano, and had begun writing & recording my own music. I had a Tascam 4-track tape machine and was bouncing down tracks endlessly so I could add more harmonies and get that sound. Jeff was the ultimate role model for me. He played everything bar the drums on the new album, wrote all the songs and produced it. I considered myself a 12 year old Jeff.
To add to this was the mystery surrounding the man himself. By the time I was on board, Jeff didn’t appear in newspapers & magazines. ELO didn’t perform on Top Of The Pops - the songs were played and danced to by Legs & Co, there was no sign of any band. All there seemed to be was an image of a beard, big curly hair and the dark glasses. This guy was cool and it was about to get even better…
I’m a musician and a songwriter and therefore I’m a Beatles fan. Who couldn’t be? By the age of eleven I had every album and had read most of the books on them (and there are a lot). I was and remain to this day an expert on the subject. When I heard that Jeff was working with George Harrison on a new album I was overcome with excitement & anticipation. When I heard ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ I probably cried. It was the perfect pop song and dripped in Jeff’s production topped of with George’s unique voice and a great video to accompany it. The album ‘Cloud 9′ didn’t leave the turntable for several months.
So, by this stage I’m really developing as a songwriter and searching out different music to soak up and explore to help me make the next stage of the journey and improve my skills. Inevitably I’m introduced to Bob Dylan and, like the many other discoveries I’d made up to that point, I immerse myself in his music and culture. To then find out that a supergroup was to be born including Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty (I didn’t know who he was at the time) and Roy Orbison was Biblical in it’s proportions. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. ‘Traveling Wilbury’s Vol.1′ did not disappoint. It is a thing of beauty.
And there started the ‘Production Years’. Jeff was a much in-demand producer and sometimes co-writer and delivered some of the greatest music there has been. Many of the artists he worked with and albums he worked on will be the subject of future blogs so I will not expand on this for now. What did remain however, and for many years, was the mystery of Jeff. In the intervening period I has seen all the surviving Beatles perform live. I’d seen Dylan on countless occasions, I’d seen The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, James Taylor, Pink Floyd and almost all my other heroes and influences. I honestly believed that I would never see Jeff…
I was in the Radio 2 VIP enclosure (perks of the job my friends) on 14th September 2014 at Hyde Park when Jeff Lynne’s ELO took to the stage. It was a moment. It was the moment. It had finally come. It was a celebration and it was a joy. Earlier in the day I had been introduced to Jeff’s PR guy by my manager who told him what a huge fan I was. “Have you spoken to him yet?” he asked. Spoken to him! What? I tried to keep my cool as he led us to the back stage area where we were stopped by security who said I didn’t have the correct pass. “Sorry” said the PR “I thought you had backstage passes too. Never mind, maybe next time.” So close yet so far…
The concert at Hyde Park sparked off a whole new chapter of Jeff’s incredible career. A new album ‘Alone In The Universe’ was to be followed by a World Tour. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the two small warm up gigs in London where I watched Jeff and the band perform so many hits to an audience of just a few hundred. They remain amongst the greatest gigs I have ever seen.
You can hear Jeff’s influence in my music and my production. On the new album #LookingForTheWorld there are one or two tracks in particular which pay homage to the enormous legacy he has given us. Although I haven’t met him yet, a close friend of mine did work with him on a track in the 1990′s. He said he was great and very down to earth. After the session they all went out for a curry and upon finishing his Madras and taking a swig from his bottle of ale, Jeff muttered the immortal words…”There’s only 3 things you need in life. Beer, birds and Beatles”. A man after my own heart.