Allan Holdsworth: In The 80’s (Overview, Facelift 1990)

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Allan Holdsworth: In the 80's

Facelift, issue 3

Martin Mycock

The 1980's were a period during which Allan's musical ideology was finally realised. Many years of being a side man and featured soloist in a variety of bands had obscured the fact that he could do more than just lay down a breathtaking solo. Hitherto hidden chordal and melodic talents were to be revealed as the decade progressed, together with the further development of his fluid and scalar leadwork.

Following the sessions in Paris during June & July 1979 with Gordon Beck for the "Sunbird" album, Allan returned to Paris in December and during that month and January of the New Year put together the "The Things You See" album again in collaboration with Beck. Unlike "Sunbird" only the two musicians played on the album and there were four new Holdsworth compositions sitting alongside the Beck material. The title track went on to feature on Allan's "I.O.U." album. He toured Britain with Beck a year or so later with Gary Husband (drums) and Jeff Clyne (bass) after Jean Francois Jenny-Clark and Aldo Romano pulled out at the last minute.

It is interesting to note that there are other examples of reworked material besides "The Things You See". "Golden lakes", also on the 'The Things You See" album, was originally on the "'Igginbottom's Wrench" album with Allan on vocals. "Where Is One" (later on "Road Games") was first heard on a BBC Radio 2 Jazz Club session broadcast in late 1978, where Allan led a band comprising his old friend Pat Smythe on piano, Darryl Brunswick on bass and Harold Fisher on drums. The melody for "The Things You See" on "I.O.U." started life as the guitar line from "Wish" on "Velvet Darkness" (named from a line in "Golden Lakes"). More recently "54 Duncan Terrace" appeared on "With A Heart in My Song" as well as "Secrets".

During 1980 Allan started to hatch plans for his own hand. He formed the ad-hoc free improvisation hand Handlebars with Gary Husband, Steve Topping (guitar) and anyone they could find on bass. He played for a short while with a larger configuration, Holdsworth & Co, comprising Gordon Beck (piano), John Marshall (drums), John O'Whey (bass) and Ray Warleigh (Sax). This hand played at the Camden Jazz Festival and also recorded three numbers for BBC Radio 3's "Jazz In Britain" programme. These were "The Things You See", "Every Little Breeze" - a two guitar solo piece which celebrated the recent birth of a baby daughter, and "Sunday". He also appeared at the Bracknell Festival with the band Turning Point and in October of l980 toured Britain with them. The concerts featured a short set played by a trio comprising Allan. Gary Husband and Jeff Clyne. The other members of Turning Point were Brian Miller (keyboards), Pepi Lemer (vocals), Phil Todd (saxes) and Neil Ardley (synthesizers). Allan also found time to contribute to the last Soft Machine album "Land Of Cockayne".

By this time the project most dear to Allan's heart, his own regular trio False Alarm, had come together with the recruitment of Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael on bass. They became known as I.O.U. when vocalist Paul Williams joined the band. It was now that Allan found how unresponsive record companies were to real talent. This along with his refusal to follow anything but his own musical path led to major problems getting a recording deal. To some extent these problems continue up to the present day, and had even beset him a couple of years back in 1979. A band with Jack Bruce and Jon Hiseman ground to a halt when the trio, not wanting to trade on past reputations, sent out a demo tape without any written indication of who the players were. The result - not a single record company came up with a deal. The solution to the problem in 1981 was to finance and record an album himself. The album "I.O.U." was recorded at The Barge (which was actually just that) and was initially sold at gigs and by mail order, but was eventually picked up by one of his later labels, Enigma. The original pressing is easy to spot as it has a black cover rather than the red one of the reissue. The album didn't appear until 1982 by which time having met with total disinterest from British labels to even license the album, and usable to get gigs, Allan and his band decided to try their luck in the U.S.A. He had become so depressed that he'd seriously considered giving up a full-time career in music and taking a day job in a factory, allowing him to play what he wanted in the evenings.

The "I.O.U." album revealed for the first time the full extent of Allan's virtuosity. Compositions carefully nurtured since the days of Bruford finally came to fruition. Complex, densely voiced chords swirled and shimmered while Paul Williams sang lyrics as if he were another instrument rather than just the vocalist. As ever Allen layed down another collection of killer solos. Underpinning everything was the powerful rhythm section of Husband and Carmichael.

Once in the U.S.A. the band found work easier to get and played a series of gigs around New York along with some dates on the West Coast. Most of the "I.O.U." album was performed at these gigs, along with early versions of "Was There?" and "Water On The Brain". The latter incorporated vocals unlike the instrumental "Road Games" version. "Prayer" (a solo piano piece by Husband) and "Song For My Father" (sung by Williams and backed by Husband on piano) were two unrecorded compositions also played during this period. In May 1982 Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Berlin joined I.O.U. on stage at the Roxy Club in Los Angeles for an encore jam. Van Helen, a self confessed Holdsworth fanatic, was to figure in the events surrounding Allan's next release, "Road Games". However before work started on it Husband and Carmichael left the band in August 1982. According to interviews one member of the hand consistently blamed Allan for everything that went wrong. It got to the point where he didn't even want to get on stage to pl ay because of 'the evil vibe'. Former Bruford partner Jeff Berlin was drafted in on bass along with ex-Frank Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman. New material by Holdsworth and Berlin was mixed with "I.O.U." tunes to form the new set, although none of Berlin's material was ever recorded by Holdsworth. Allan had by now decided that his future lay in the States and during the summer of 1983 moved to a new home in California.

Through Van Halen's patronage Allan was signed to Warner Brothers for a two album deal. The original plan was for Van Helen to produce the album although this didn't transpire. Things then started to turn sour. Warner Brothers wanted Allan to use a different drummer and vocalist and threatened to shelve the album if Paul Williams was used. Allan was adamant he knew who was best for his music and the battles continued. Eventually in an effort to get the album out and not waste all the time expended upon it Paul Williams appeared only on one track with Jack Bruce singing on the other vocal tracks. Ted Templeman of Warners still refused to release the album. but eventually relented and the album appeared as a six track mini-LP in 1983. However Allan was subsequently sacked from the label and paid off. On a happier note Allan followed up his appearance on Jean Luc Ponty's "Enigmatic Ocean" by appearing on the violinist's "Individual Choice" album recorded in Los Angeles during Spring 1983.

Five string bassist Jimmy Johnson replaced Jeff Berlin and along with Williams and Wackerman, Allan continued to tour. This included visits to Japan in 1984 and 1985. During the first of these a Tokyo gig was filmed and released there as an official video. A mixture of material from "I.O.U." and "Road Games" was performed along with four tracks later to be found on the "Metal Fatigue" album: "Panic Station", "Home", "Devil Take The Hindmost" and "Metal Fatigue".

With the pay off from his Warner Brothers contract Allan was able to finance the recording of the "Metal Fatigue". allowing him to look around for a licensing deal. The album eventually; came out on Enigma in 1985. Gary Husband had returned to the fold to play on one track and guest musicians included former Tony Williams Lifetime colleague Alan Pasqua on keyboards, bassist Gary Willis and vocalist Paul Korda.

Around this time a new guitar synthesizer, the SynthAxe, came to Allan's attention. This revolutionary British invention was not based upon existing pitch to voltage technology which produces a debilitating 10th of a second or so delay between striking a note and hearing it, but on a complex series of sensors within the fingerboard. The sensors are able to detect such nuances as string bending, muting and damping. The instrument can even be played by just fingering the fretboard without having to pluck a string. Once Allan tried this new machine he was hooked. Having often said that he really wanted to be a sax player, suddenly here was an instrument capable of taking him closer to the legato reed sound than he had ever imagined. The arrival of the Synthaxe also coincided with his decision to aim for a more jazz orientated market. Previous releases had fallen between the rock and jazz camps so he decided to dispense with vocals and go for a 'jazzier' instrumental approach.

As soon as he acquired his first Synthaxe instrument Allan set about writing for his next release, Atavachron. The new device was featured on all but one track on the album which was released in 1986. Jimmy Johnson was the only bass player on the album but three drummers, Gary Husband, Chad Wackerman and old friend Tony Williams were featured The only vocal on the album were on "All Our Yesterdays" sung by Rowanne Mark. Alan Pasqua and Billy Childs made minor contributions on keyboards.

Prior to the release of "Atavachron" Allan had returned to the Britain to play a couple of gigs at the Bass Clef club in London. The small capacity venue had been chosen because the last gig played in Britain had been attended by only a handful of people. He should have had no worries about the interest of the British public this time. With minimal publicity the gigs rapidly sold out and on the first night a massive queue formed hoping to gain admission on the door. Inside an enthusiastic crowd gave the band a fine reception. Allan was accompanied by Jimmy Johnson, Gary Husband and ex-Airto/Flora Purim keyboard player Kei Akagi. The crowd were treated to two one hour sets of old and new material with guitar and Synthaxe featured equally. On the second night Steve Topping joined the hand for an impromptu jam. They went on to tour Europe including an appearance at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival

Allan and his bend returned to Europe in June of the following year supporting the Stanley Clarke Band. Chad Wackerman was back behind the drums and was accompanied by his brother Bob on bass. Clarke sideman Steve Hunt added keyboards to some of the numbers performed. Hunt was to become a member of the Holdsworth inner circle of session players, all of whom see their work with Allan as the ultimate in playing terms. The tour was also scheduled to have a British date at Putney Half Moon. However on the night the gig was cancelled. Allan was later to say that there had never been any such booking.

In 1987 a sixth solo album "Sand" was released. Again Synthaxe was heavily featured. Allan was backed by Johnson, Husband and Chad Wackerman with Alan Pasqua on one track. Although mostly recorded at Front Page studios in Costa Mesa California some recording was done at the intriguingly named The Brewery. This turned out to be a rudimentary studio built in Allan's garage! Mounting studio costs persuaded him a more economic way of recording would be to lay down rhythm tracks at Front Page, which with the aid of his session non collaborators could be rapidly recorded, and record solos at leisure at home. This recording was aided by two Holdsworth inventions. The first was a soundproof speaker enclosure into which a speaker and a microphone could be mounted to give a consistent sound and more importantly could be used anywhere. The other was 'The Extractor' a device which allowed effects to be plugged into the amp output as well as enabling a driven sound to be produced at low volume.

Last year Allan collaborated with Gordon Beck on another duo album. Playing almost exclusively Synthaxe with Beck on various keyboards. the pair produced "With A Heart In My Song" at The Brewery during May and June. Allan also briefly contributed to two other albums, "If This Bass Could Only Talk" by Stanley Clarke and "Radio Free Albemuth" by Stuart Hamm.

Allan's latest solo release is "Secrets". Guitar is featured more frequently then on the previous two solo albums, the use of a Steinberger seemingly rekindling his interest in the instrument. Many of Allan's fans will probably welcome the return of guitar orientated material. Again the album was recorded at Front Page with additional recording at The Brewery. Jimmy Johnson remains on bass, but the set introduces a new drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, on most tracks. Steve Hunt contributes keyboards to the two tracks he wrote, while Gary Husband wrote one track although he does not play on the album [Note: Gary did indeed play keyboards on this tune, City Nights]. Other players are Chad and Bob Wackerman. Alan Pasqua and vocalists Rowanne Mark and Craig Copeland.

A country wide tour of Britain has just been announced backed by Guitarist magazine. Allan will play 8 dates with a hand comprising Jimmy Johnson, Gary Husband (back from his stint with level 42) and Steve Hunt.

Allan may never achieve large scale commercial success with his music, but you can be sure that he will continue to push back the frontiers of the guitar. When music encyclopaedias of twenty years hence are written we can but hope that he receives the accolades he so richly deserves.