Visions of the old Johanna

piano-02I’ve long been of the opinion that the very best rock bands had a keyboardist. These players are often the best musician in the band, the muso, and can bring an added dimension of competence. Although the presence of a proper musician in any band can be a source of conflict (“Let’s do this in 12/8 time”), the pleasure they bring to the music is compensation enough. Consider three bands:

  • The Band actually had two keyboard players, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Hudson was considered the music teacher in the band, though Manuel supplied the soulful voice as well, and could double up on drums when Levon was playing the mandolin or something.
  • The E Street Band also had two keyboard players. The late Danny Federici supplied the glorious hammond organ (and was responsible for the horrid synth sounds that popped up on Born in the USA), but it is ‘Professor’ Roy Bittan who gives Springsteen’s band that sense of wide open space.
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are also a class act, helped in no small part by Belmont Tench’s in-demand piano and organ chops. Watch the video of Bob Dylan performing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with the Heartbreakers and you see what his playing can bring to a performance. There has been conflict. Mr Tench famously objected to being asked to play simple block chords when he would rather play notes (I suppose), but that’s why you have frontmen like Tom Petty.

I could go on. There have been great bands without full-time keyboard players, but they usually sneak one in somewhere. The Beatles had both John and Paul who could play piano, and George Martin could fill in in the studio. One of my favourite tracks is “Rock and Roll Music” from Beatles for Sale, which features (according to the sleeve notes) all three of them on one piano. You need look no further than Hey Jude and Lady Madonna for evidence of how important piano was to the Beatles’ sound. Billy Preston also added organ and electric piano to the tracks recorded for Let it Be.

Preston also played with The Stones, who famously kept another piano player in the wings, deeming him too ugly to be a full-time Stone. Nevertheless, Ian Stewart played on a lot of their records before his untimely death in 1985. Nicky Hopkins also shows up in the credits on many occasions.

The Who’s classic synth loops were created by Townshend in the studio, but, since the late 1970s, John Bundrick has supplemented the band on the stage.

My daughter is in a band, and I’ve been encouraging her to recruit a keyboard player. My own band fell short in this respect, and apart from my complete lack of charisma and talent, I’m sure this is what cost me my big break.

Notwithstanding the acts referred to above, here are a few individual songs by other artists I think stand out because of the piano playing on them:

Evil Woman (Stripped Down Mix) – ELO. Taking the string section away lays this one bare with excellent results.

Every Mother’s Son – Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is a guitar track, but the piano interlude in the middle of the song is superb, carrying that ‘rolling’ feel you get from skilful expression pedal use.

Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. Talking of pumping that expression pedal, watching Tift Merritt perform on piano is an education in how piano playing is about much more than the fingers and thumbs.

Still Rollin’ – Gretchen Wilson. A great track from one of her recent albums that features that same rolling, country-style piano.

The Fuse – Jackson Browne. You could pick any number of Browne tracks, but this one in particular put the piano in the foreground on the outro.

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