An interview with
Beppe Colli (2015)

By Beppe Colli
Jan. 29, 2015

Given the fact that Clouds and Clocks had not been updated since the end of last year, and with a rumor mill that rivaled the brouhaha in the wake of Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident... Well, what better occasion for getting some real info, right from the horse's mouth?

So, what's new?

At the end of November, while doing a routine check totally unrelated to the matter at hand, a very strange-, quite ugly-looking dark spot was located in my left lung. It looked quite serious, and unambiguous - within the usual confines, of course, of modern science.

But you don't look like a sick person!

That's because I'm healthy - as it was agreed after one month and a half of thrilling medical tests.

Phew... What did you do during that time? Did you get religion? Did you sing any thematically related songs such as, say, No Time To Live by Traffic?

Great song! But no. About my public work, my main preoccupation was that my mental state - as I'm sure you'll understand, I was not in a very serene state of mind - could colour my perception of the music I had to review. Fortunately, my editorial for the twelfth birthday of Clouds and Clocks had already been written, and my interview with Peggy Lee was done. As I'm sure you've noticed, I just reviewed two books - something that, compared to my reviewing an album, I thought would need a lower degree of empathy on my part.

But your webzine has not been updated since the end of last year.

Right. Of course, during that time I had a lot of time to think. I have to clarify that not everything goes as planned in "ColliLand". See that tall cabinet? I bought it in a hurry more than one year ago, hoping to fill it with many vinyl albums I had lying around, which I still had to clean, listen to, and file. Well, as you can see the tall cabinet is still empty, and those LPs are still sitting on the floor. Just a for instance.

Are you in low spirits?

Of course. A thing like Clouds and Clocks is not something you do because you have nothing else to do, and so there's a sentimental price to pay here. It goes without saying that the website will always remain fully accessible, out of respect for music and musicians. And there are quite a few Clouds and Clocks articles, reviews, and interviews linked to from all over the world, and seeing the tag "dead link" on Wikipedia is something I really, really dislike.

Something you're gonna miss?

A sense of discovery. Having worldwide visibility has given me the chance to get music by artists whose existence I would otherwise ignore. Which, come to think of it, given the sheer amount of sources currently at our disposal, sounds somewhat paradoxical.

This makes me think that your decision to close shop is quite stupid.

Well, in a way, I agree. But I did it for twelve long years. Don't forget that - now that a lot of barriers have fallen down - looking for fine music increasingly resembles looking for precious things in a landfill, and given time you begin to smell an unpleasant odor inside your nose.

What are you investigating at the moment?

Nothing in particular. I regularly read Krugman's blog, and I always have an umbrella by my side.

Talking about music, is there something you've thought about recently?

To tell the truth, Joe Cocker's death made me think about a few things.

Like Woodstock and his famous cover of that Beatles song, I suppose.

Sure, and if we consider the iconographic value of those, it's probably inevitable. But if you listen to his first album you'll see that first track, side one is a cover of Feelin' Alright by Traffic. I seem to remember that it was the last track to be recorded, but in a different place - the United States, not the United Kingdom - and with different musicians than the rest of the album. It's a "funk" take on the song, with a rhythmic veneer that to me has a Cuban tinge (a fantastic musician, Carol Kaye, sits on electric bass), and it's an arrangement that at the time just leaped out of your radio. What I mean is that, in order to get that groove, Joe Cocker had to go to America, and find the right American musicians.

Why are you telling me this?

Well, at that time a lot of music had "regional" traits. And the "colour" of those rhythms and chords was based on performing techniques that were transmitted "orally". I've got a picture of Al Kooper and, I think, Otis Spann - I seem to remember that at that time the Blues Project were on tour with Muddy Waters, so every day Al Kooper paid for Otis Spann's lunch in exchange for lessons about chords and voicings. I think there's more than a pinch of truth in the much-ridiculed motto that goes "in my days, there was a lot more variety on the radio", even if - as we all know - this sentence is quite often only a cover for a feeling of nostalgia for one's long-lost youth. In those days if a musician wanted to know how to achieve a certain sound or effect, well, s/he could only formulate conjectures, experiment, and maybe go and check things in person. There were a lot of "regional" rhythmic variations - the last time I witnessed a reformulation on a mass scale was when, thanks to Bob Marley, reggae became very popular, and re-thinking the instrument's hierarchy wasn't easy for drummers. This is a side that's not properly taken into consideration - because it's not really understood, especially today - of what we put under the umbrella name "experimentation".

Don't you think you could write a fantastic article on this topic?

Maybe. But who would find it interesting?

I may be wrong, but I think that at least a few of those who'll read the transcript of this conversation would find the idea quite intriguing...

You really think so? Sure, maybe as a part of this conversation the idea could look appealing on paper, but I think that something like "The importance of regional idioms in the music of the Sixties" would have few takers.

Well, maybe not under that title...

But it's not the title that's the problem. This would need people who are willing to look for songs on the Web, listen to them and draw comparisons, which is something quite difficult for people who mostly listen to music absent-mindedly. What's more, you know perfectly well that nowadays the only place where people are happy to sweat is at the gym. Furthermore, nowadays doing this kind of "intellectual" work is perceived as "fatigue". Well, when I spotted some points of difference between Barriemore Barlow's and Clive Bunker's drumming approach it was because I just liked to listen to music, so I had to notice those things!, it was not like I was doing my homework!

You always so nostalgic about the Sixties and the Seventies!

It's not that. There are so many patterns of change that are not understood anymore! Just as a for instance, think about this: Before the days of discos - in the "modern" sense, i.e., places where records were played - you had live groups playing.

But what did they play? The Top 40! Talk about quality!

Don't think about quality now. Think about having to find the chords to that new song by The Beatles, or having to find a certain sound that comes from an instrument that looks just  like yours, but that you can't seem to find on the one you play. Or the struggle of having to "unearth" those bass parts from the grooves of a 45 single.

Well, is today any different?

Simplifying a lot, today you have four friends who all like, say, Slint. They start a group, and they learn all the songs off Spiderland. After one year they have Spiderland down cold, so they compose eight songs in the Slint style. Then they record a CD, and perform twenty concerts for free. Then? They only know how to perform that specific style, so...

Back to The Top 40!

Every track that enters The Top 40 offers players a different challenge. For the moment, leave all questions of quality aside. Let's go back to the Sixties. If Samba Pa Ti by Santana enters the charts you have to learn how to get those "sustained" notes that Carlos Santana plays. If 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago goes up the charts you have to learn how to mimic those wind instruments with a Farfisa, and you have to buy - and learn to control - a wha-wha pedal in order to play that solo. In order to play Come Together, your drummer must be able to perform those tom rolls in time. To play Hotel California you have to have a feel for reggae. I could mention something by The Cars. Let's not consider  Conservatory for now. Where do you think those "Prog" musicians came from? Keith Emerson played in P.P. Arnold's backing band!

Are there any social changes in the background?

You mean, involved in my decision to close shop? Well, I think so. A friend of mine - a wise man whose deep wisdom is rooted in the millennia of the Orient - told me that those things I lament are just a part of the background of today's ordinary life. But this, to me, means that one's efforts are bound to fail.

I'm afraid this doesn't make any sense to me.

Well, in a way this is just a poor man's version of the notion of "social capital" as formulated by Robert Putnam. Picture a city which has a very large square at its center. Picture a giant pot at the center of the square. All those who pass, they put something inside the pot, or take something from the pot. It's not strictly necessary to give a name to those things, they are not necessarily "objects" - they could be things, or types of behavior, or writings, or pieces of information, or works of art... you could also see them as something very abstract - and it's not really important to have a precise calculation of what everyone gives and takes. When the pot is full, everything's OK. However, with the passing of time, fewer and fewer people put something inside the pot, while more and more people take something from the pot. At a certain point in time the pot is only half-full. At that point, those who take - a group that incrementally features individuals who never put anything inside the pot - start lamenting the fact that the pot appears to be more and more empty, so they kick the pot and spit inside it. Now the pot is more and more empty, and those who take, they do it only because they can - in fact, they now throw things on the ground and step on them, since these are things they have no real use for. At this point they also start insulting those who still put things inside the pot, for two reasons: because, when compared to the emptiness of the pot, what those people put inside is just meager food; and because what they put inside the pot is not what those "takers" would like to find, and take.

You're really in a fun mood today!

Let's go and listen to Nicky Hopkins's piano intro to The Kinks' Death Of A Clown.

Beppe Colli 2015 | Jan. 29, 2015