Devil Take The Hindmost – an Allan Holdsworth biography

Devil Take The Hindmost – The Otherworldy Music of Allan Holdsworth – Ed Chang – Jazz in Britain412 pages

with John Taylor – photo: Uli Rohde

It’s perhaps surprising that until now there hasn’t been an Allan Holdsworth biography: for many guitarists (and fans of guitarists) he simply is ‘it’, a phenomenally gifted and idiosyncratic player whose abilities, temperament and ideas took the guitar to places never before seen. Ed Chang’s comprehensive account of his work is a 400 page+ epic which follows an unusual format, but leaves few stones unturned in its seeking out of Allan’s (and others’) thoughts on his journey from working men’s clubs to adulation and critical acceptance. Around the time of his death he was voted the best guitarist of all time by the readers of ‘Guitar Player’ with 10 times as many votes as any other player(!), but seemingly any success never extended to material wealth or an exalted sense of self-worth.

The book is the second printed release on the roster from Jazz in Britain, whose stated role is as “A not-for-profit organisation, whose aim is to collect, curate, preserve, celebrate and promote the legacy of British jazz musicians”. The irony is that Allan in latter years gained the acceptance his talents deserved principally over in the States, coinciding with his movement towards more solo material. His CV was an extraordinary one prior to that, as almost unwittingly he passed through any number of bands with direct or loose connections to the Canterbury Scene: Nucleus, Tempest (latterly with Ollie Halsall), Sunship, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford and UK.

‘Igginbottom – photo: Dave Freeman

Chang’s approach is an unusual one: each chapter concentrates on an album or a band stint (particularly in the Seventies, Allan’s sojourns with projects were generally brief), sets the context, and thereafter the narrative is largely quote-based. The analysis is saved for notes on each release which accompanies that chapter as Chang painstakingly describes, minute by minute, each musician’s roles, piece by piece. This format reflects the book’s web-based origins at http://threadoflunacy.blogspot.com/  – where particular periods in Allan’s musical history were assembled post by post in an ongoing blog. These analyses can also include additional quotes from musicians involved providing further commentary, increasingly so as the book progresses (the section on Allan’s late Eighties solo album ‘Secrets’ for example, extends to 8 pages!), presumably because there are many more contemporary interviews available from the late Eighties onwards. Personally I tended to skip these blow by blow accounts with the promise to myself that these might form an invaluable reference tool in the future when re-visiting the relevant albums. Which indeed they did when reviewing the accompanying CD release ‘Warleigh Manor’.

What comes across despite the heavy reliance on external quotes is that Chang really does know his onions: the introduction alone where the subject’s style was broken down into harmony, melody, rhythm and articulation is expressed in succinct understandable explanations for us musical Luddites, as close an explanation as possible as to why Holdsworth’s style was unique and strikes a chord with us, even down to an illuminating description (supported by quotes throughout the book) of Allan’s embracement of ‘wrong’ notes and chords, and his overarching approach to shifting time signatures which allowed him always to maintain his place within a piece. Chang’s writing style at the start of each chapter is fluid but not overly verbose, and therefore always accessible.

with Bill Bruford, photo: M Coralnick

What is particularly interesting for me (and presumably for readers of the blog too) are those chapters on those Seventies collaborations – and whilst a ’94 Facelift interview proves to be a major primary source for that period, there are other insights into Igginbottom, Nucleus, Sunship and Soft Machine in particular which I’d not seen before.  The book also brings into focus various connections with other, mainly British jazz musicians which continuously reoccur, not just Gordon Beck from the Sixties through to the Nineties, but also Ray Warleigh, Jack Bruce, John Marshall, Alan Pasqua, Gary Husband and many more.

For the Canterbury completist, it’s slightly disappointing that the odd relevant collaboration is only briefly referenced (e.g. the Gongzilla project is only alluded to in the discography, a shame as it was a reunion of old collaborationists with some particularly seismic solos, plus a clear reference to the book’s subject in ‘Allan Qui?’; Soft Machine’s ‘Land of Cockayne’ receives similar treatment); but frankly the scope of the book is so far reaching that this is nit-picking. And such is the all-embracing nature of the chronology that reading through the book had me reaching for a pen to note down new curios to explore: such as the ‘Sherwood Forest’ demos with Jack Bruce in the late Seventies, or a version of ‘The Abingdon Chasp’ with Ray Warleigh, Bill Bruford, Francis Moze and Jeff Young from around the same period.

with UK – photo M Coralnick

I’m guessing that as a personal fan I would have welcomed more in-text information about Allan’s progressions between bands (this is saved until a later appendix) and some more personal insight into a man who on a single meeting I found to be engaging but a severe perfectionist –  ‘allergic to compliments’, as Dweezil Zappa put it. The fact that the initial biographical notes on the circumstances of his upbringing stopped me in my tracks brought it home to me that I was yearning at times for more information about Allan the man. There are hints everywhere that when he was not happy with projects he tended to lay waste around him – and there are numerous inferences to personal hardship which we can deduce from the fact that he frequently appeared to be without record deals, equipment, or even money to get home at various points in his career. Plus, dare I say it, a love for the finer things in life evidenced by numerous song titles referencing ales and spirits (as well as mention within one section of him going on stage after ‘at least 10 pints’, his playing seemingly unaffected). Another quote mentions a ‘6 year hole’ which we can guess the timeframe of but not the context. In that respect the book is a function of its format, where chapters clearly concentrate on specific events rather than the overall flow of events.

The latter part of the book is a series of appendices which are illuminating in their own right: a summary of the ‘gear’ Allan used throughout his career, an analysis of his ‘musical style’ which again, in describing the initial appearance of a  ‘swooping, floating tremolo bar style’ on ‘Gazeuse!’ finally helped me understand the trademark sound I’d loved all these years; and a detailed chronology of musical events in Allan’s life from the early Sixties onwards which does much to address that overall progression. There’s also a fascinating compendium of the regular sessions Allan did with others for the BBC (featuring amongst others John Marshall, Ron Mathewson, Tony Coe, Ray Warleigh, Gordon Beck, John Stevens, Jeff Clyne, Pat Smythe and Geoff Castle) –  there were 13 in total between 1972 and 1981, which best contextualise Allan’s freejazz alter ego alluded to on the recently released ‘Warleigh Manor’ CD. Plus of course a comprehensive discography and the publication of two extensive interviews from 1991 and 2000 respectively.

As with all the best biographies, the reader emerges with something of a better understanding of the history of a musician, and a yearning to revisit the music which drew one to the biography in the first place; plus a desire to seek out some of the missing pieces in one’s own collection. And a satisfaction that this is a job well done, deserving of the considerable talents of its subject….

Order your copy of ‘Devil Take The Hindmost’ at DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST – The Otherworldly Music of Allan Holdsworth

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