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Allan Holdsworth

The Innocent Abroad

Musician (Working Musician), 1984

Jock Baird

A guitar giant who fled techno-trendy persecution in his native U.K. comes to America and finds a new lease on life - and new problems.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched guitar refugees from your teeming, techno-trendy shore; send these, the homeless haircutless, tempest-toss't to me."

Thus did America beckon to one Allan Holdsworth, legendary electro-jazz guitar stylist who, by 1980, was unable to find gainful employment in his U.K. homeland, either as a guitarist or leader/composer of his own appropriately named trio, I.O.U. Holdsworth was even preparing to hang up his guitar strap forever: "I was broke, couldn't make any living at all in music. I would've had to retire; in fact, I was just about to take a job in a music store. I had accumulated a lot of equipment over the years, and I basically paid the rent by selling a few things each month. Eventually, when we came to mix the I.O.U. album, I sold the last guitar I had. Then I came over to America on vacation and met someone who said she could get us gigs, so we all came over."

Ellis Island for these gifted immigrants consisted of the Orange County living room of veteran British vocalist and I.O.U. member Paul Williams (no, not the short, geeky guy from Hollywood Squares), who had moved to California some time before (and whose home still serves as a drop zone for migrant British fusioneers). "We were more or less all staying at his house, which probably drove him crazy. Then we did really well at the gigs. I was amazed how many people came out to see us - I didn't know that many people knew we existed."

Indeed, fans of Holdsworth's dazzling playing with Tempest, Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tony Williams, Bill Bruford, and, more famously if less artistically, Soft Machine and U.K., came out of the woodwork in droves and packed the small houses. Then came gigs in L.A. and suddenly Holdsworth was, if not red-hot, at least looking at a modest but nonetheless welcome positive cash flow. Even America's reigning Emperor of Guitar, Eddie Van Halen himself, came to pay homage, telling the world Holdsworth was in fact the rightful owner of the scepter of speed. Eddie's label, Warners, took him at his word and inked the artful refugee.

But the vagaries of language and comprehension afflict even modern-day immigrants to America, and the next eighteen months would propel Allan Holdsworth into some of the most imaginative and horrific musical misunderstandings that inhabit this wonderful, wacky record business. How could such a talented and unassuming guy get into so much trouble? Well, the whole problem was that people saw in Allan exactly what they wanted to see and not what Allan really was. And that problem had been happening to Allan for most of his career.

Born thirty-five years ago, Allan Holdsworth was raised in the grim Northern mill town of Bradford, Yorkshire. Although he didn't pick up guitar until age seventeen, he quickly made up for lost time due to a distinguished tutor: Allan's musical tastes and later his knowledge of theory came entirely from his father, Sam Holdsworth (no relation whatsoever to the editor of this journal). The elder Holdsworth had been a professional piano player who made the ultimate sacrifice: "He was really a monster musician. He retired and went to work in a factory because he couldn't stand playing all the tunes that people wanted him to play. He made a conscious decision to only play music on his own at home, for his own pleasure. So he really put all his energy on me."

The result of Sam Holdsworth's tutelage was twofold: young Allan developed an ear for good jazz, a taste that now firmly underpins all his playing and composing; secondly, and more importantly, Holdsworth's music has a striking individuality and originality, a whole separate channel on the rock guitar river.

For all his jazz influences, Holdsworth began by playing rock 'n' roll-and God knows what else: "I first played out in local bands, doing pop music, top twenty tunes. I listened to jazz, but I couldn't play it. After a few years of that, I met Glenn South, who had a band that worked a chain of ballrooms...top forty, foxtrots, quicksteps." Despite these humble beginnings, Allan evolved quickly; legend has it that several London musicians were knocked out by a demo tape Allan had done and went to Bradford to recruit him only to discover Holdsworth working in a shoe factory. Fortunately, Allan was persuaded not to follow in his father's footsteps (at least so soon), and the short-lived but impressive Tempest was born. Soon, Holdsworth's reputation as one of the most impressive wielders of altered state electro-flash brought him into the circle of musicians that were embarking on the first fresh drafts of what would become known (and later reviled) as fusion. A valuable currency of the era was speed, an d Holdsworth's ability to incorporate dissonant modes and scales into flat-out rock scronch made even his earliest recorded solos truly arresting. His enormous hands gave him a unique ability to, as he told Guitar Player's Tom Mulhern, "juggle the scales around. Most of the time, guitarists play the notes in a scale consecutively. I avoid that by playing intervals that are farther apart. They're the same scales and chords, it's just that I wanted them to be juggled around more."

Unlike most speedsters who give the genre a bad name, though, Holdsworth instinctively understands the tension-release principles of soloing and possesses a strong command of melody. As Bill Bruford notes, "When I hear Allan play, I'm just left with a very warm feeling. The passionate, lyrical side of him is the stuff that particularly got to me, and I used to love trying to write slow, long melodies, which he would then embroider like crazy. I love his choice of notes. I mean, apparently he plays fast, but I don't notice that. There are terrific melodies. Things happen a little quicker in his music than other people's, which is all to my taste." Holdsworth confirms the suspicion that speed is not his real intent: "After a while, technical things are just technical things. I don't want to be involved with flash; I just want to be involved with music."

Holdsworth balanced his meat 'n' potatoes "progressive rock" bands like Gong, Soft Machine (Bundles-era) and Tempest (which included Paul Williams) with less commercially feasible projects like Jean-Luc Ponty's Enigmatic Ocean, a duet LP with Gordon Beck (The Things You See) and most notably, a two-LP stint with the Tony Williams Lifetime. Bill Bruford waxes, "Somehow the two of them had a spirit which just combined really well. And it is a difficulty getting Allan in a setting that he is happy with and that everybody else around him is happy with." Allan remains happier with the first of his two Lifetime LPs, Believe If, which was freer and less genre-tied than the subsequent Million Dollar Legs

A better clue to Holdsworth's ultimate intentions came when George Benson and Joe Farrell became goggle-eyed by him at a Manhattan club and dragged CTI president Creed Taylor down to hear. The resulting 1975 LP Velvet Darkness, felicitously matched Allan with the tasteful but ennervated Alphonso Johnson and Narada Michael Walden; though all too short, it is one of Holdsworth's best early dates, ablaze with Hendrixian fission, virtuoso precision and genuine emotion.

Having worked with the likes of Tony Williams, Jon Hiseman (in Tempest) and Narada, it seemed only logical that Holdsworth would fall in with another great drummer; he joined Bill Bruford to make Bruford's solo classic, One Of A Kind. The two enjoyed working together so much, Bill brought him along to help found art-rock power players U.K., something which Bruford now has second thoughts about: "It's obvious that U.K. was split into the pop half-with John Wetton and Eddie Jobson the potential Asia-type superstars-and Allan and I on the other side. I had hoped Allan would reinforce my side of the discussions, counterbalance the rock aspects of the thing. But it was a painful counterbalancing, it wasn't understood, and I kind of put Allan on the spot."

To Holdsworth, the dearth of improvisatory opportunity and compositional input (other than the song "Nevermore") left a permanent bad taste in his mouth for rock stardom:

"U.K. was a pain. All I ever had to do was just solo, just waffle really, and it was a nightmare. I was just bored. I had no contribution. It was like playing with a tape; there was no spontaneity, no one would hear anything. I was the wrong guy for the band. So that's why Bill and I were fired simultaneously. We both agreed to differ. So Bill got his old band together and we agreed to do that."

Despite his affection for Bruford and his composition-based project however, Allan decided it was time for a change: "I basically got fed up with playing in other people's bands. All my life I've worked as the guitar player in someone else's band. There just came a point when I decided to bail out and do my own thing."

In search of a rhythm section to call his own, Holdsworth "met this really amazing drummer, Gary Husband, and I more or less saw it as a musical partnership with him. We tried to find a bass player - with great difficulty - and eventually found Paul Carmichael. We tried to get someone interested in the band, but we couldn't, so we borrowed the money and made the album on our own and tried to sell it. We couldn't even give it away." It was around this time that the redoubtable Paul Williams re-entered our story. Williams' long career as a rock singer/bassist included four years in the trenches with Andy Summers in Zoot Money's Big Roll Band and stints with Alan Price, John Mayall, Aynsley Dunbar, Juicy Lucy and, of course, Tempest, where his work sounded noticeably like Cream-era Jack Bruce ("Well, maybe he sounds like me...," rebuts Paul).

That first I.O.U. album was done mostly in one take, but Holdsworth maintains, "I came out smiling. It was the only real time I had control over the music." Rather than a self-indulgent display of his coveted technique, Holdsworth used a bank of digital delays to create glistening chordal swirls, then darting into concise lead passages which at times barely resembled guitar.

I.O.U. then made their tabled emigration and Americans greeted the band as long-lost old friends, which at that point they were starting to feel like. Still, for all the buzz, they were unable to interest anyone in the LP so they decided to put it out themselves, pressed it and worked it as best they could. It was then that Holdsworth was "discovered" by Eddie Van Halen. Edward had actually met Allan in the U.K. era, so he came down to the Roxy to catch I.O.U. After a post-gig chat, Van Halen was invited to come to sound-check the next afternoon and they had "a bit of a blow." For an encore that night, they worked up one of Eddie's tunes, which went over big; very big. Van Halen immediately began working on his producer, Ted Templeman, and his label, Warners, to sign Holdsworth. What exactly was understood between Holdsworth and Van Halen was never pinned down, however. Allan logically assumed that Warners wanted the I.O.U. band. Paul Williams maintains that during all the negotiations for the deal, no on e at Warners corrected that impression:

"When Allan signed the contract, we had a band. Then they turned around and said to him, 'Well, we don't want the band.' But as it happened, the band changed."

Indeed, Paul Carmichael and especially Gary Husband were unable to get used to living in a very foreign land. As Williams relates, "Gary was having trouble dealing with his own head, so to speak. He wasn't very well; his father died and he was suffering a lot, so it was affecting us. So he went back to England." Holdsworth filled their chairs with journeyman bassist Jeff Berlin and Zappa alumnus Chad Wackerman (great name for a drummer, eh?).

Meanwhile, Ted Templeman and Van Halen had very different plans for the upcoming album. Williams reports, "They wanted to put all stars on it, change the music completely, do a guest artist trip. It was like an arm-twisting situation, as far as I could see. Eddie really admired Allan, had gotten him on the label, and said, 'I want to play with Allan!' And Allan said, 'Well no, not on this record, because I'll just be selling Eddie Van Halen and I want to do my own thing. Maybe on the second record....' So of course Eddie got very upset, basically sulked, I suppose, and that's when it started falling apart, immediately after that. Well, you know, Allan's an artist. He doesn't like to be told which way to do it, and I think they would've torn the whole concept to pieces."

What began then was a determined war of nerves. The plan called for Van Halen and Templeman to co-produce, but scheduling a time when both were free became insurmountable; for month after month, Allan was left hanging. "They were obviously busy people. First of all it's really difficult to get hold of either of them; I can spend weeks just trying to reach one of them on the phone. That gets to be a nightmare!" Finally it seemed Christmas of '82 was it, but it got postponed again. Then an April date was set, but two days before, Templeman had to cancel. Says Allan, "That was it for me, the old steam whistle, with the lid open at the top of my head. I couldn't cope with that; I just said, 'Forget it, let's not even bother.' Then, after a bit of hemming and hawing, they called back and said, 'Okay, do it on your own.' As far as I was concerned, I would've had a walking stick and crutches before the album came out!"

Holdsworth must have by this point been regarded as the trouble-making type ... "I' m not a trouble-maker!" cries Allan. "I just want to be left alone. But you're right, that's probably how I'm visualized."

With Holdsworth in command, a whole new set of problems began: "As soon as the record company found out they weren't involved, it turned into as (sic) little story-'oh shit, shall we let this guy do this, is he going to hang himself or what?'" Paul Williams continues, "It was a constant hassle; everything had to be approved, everything was going along in steps. Ted would pull us out of the studio and say, 'You can't have any more time until I've heard the material,' and then they'd put us back in again. It was driving Allan crazy!"

Despite Holdsworth's victory in keeping his band and the material, Templeman insisted Williams could not sing on the album, surprising since Paul had not only written the words, but the melody lines of the songs, making him one of Allan's first real collaborators. "Ted didn't want me. He never gave Allan a reason for it. It got really ridiculous, down to the fact that he told Allan he hopes he never sees me in the street. It's a bit sad; it just made me sick."

Thus began the search for a Famous Person to sing Paul's songs. Says Allan, "The famous people they were suggesting I just didn't want. It would've made us sound more like anybody else. I hate fashion, so I said I knew someone who just might fit the bill, who also happened to be someone that I loved: Jack Bruce."

Considering how it came about, it is nothing short of a miracle that Road Games sounds as good as it does. A fine variety of jazz-rock styles make up the six-song "Maxi-EP" (a way for Warners to cut its losses?), from the Methenyesque impressionism of "Three Sheets To The Wind" to the metal of the title cut to the cinematic, street-scene textures of "Tokyo Dream." The three vocal tunes lend an accessibility to the record, with Bruce's familiar passion articulating ambitious, soaring melodies.

Still, the breathtaking quality and economy of Holdsworth's solos are more compelling to the "blow me away" psychology of the pop audience than the subtlety and chordal sophistication of Holdsworth's compositions. Holdsworth himself is well aware of the blow-me-away factor: "Those are the kind of things I like, three triads at once over a given chord, unusual harmonic things heard as a color when they're played very fast. That way it's a striking kind of thing, like 'Wow, what was that???!' I like the idea of making people want to pick up the needle and put it back to the solo."

Holdsworth's current lead work is especially unusual because although his tone is as fluid and nimble as a synthesizer, he uses virtually no signal processing at all (he did use a Scholz Rockman for the sax-like bite of "Three Sheets To The Wind"). "I've noticed for a long time that lighter bodied guitars always seemed to sound better. [Charvel's] Grover Jackson was unbelievable, going to all lengths experimenting with different woods. We finished up using bass wood; it's a little bit like alder, but it's lighter, very resonant. Grover made four Charvel guitars for me. He also widened the neck dimensions, more like a Gibson. The bridge is an aluminium DiMarzio and the pickups are Seymour Duncans, similar to a PAF but with two rows of pole pieces so that both bobbins are absolutely symmetrical; it makes the magnetic field more uniform." For strings, Allan uses .009 Kaman Performers. His favorite amp for lead playing has been a Hartley-Thompson with an occasional Fender.

On his chordal accompaniments, Allan has been striving for a more "orchestral" sound, using layers of delays to get shimmering, pulsating textures from his sophisticated fingerings. "For my rhythm sound, I've designed a setup where all the signal processing is driven from one master board; I put each effect into one fader." His digital delays are two ADA STD-1s, two AMS units and a Yamaha E1010. The whole rhythm setup is run through a Yamaha PG-1 instrument pre-amp, some P2200 power amps and S412 speakers. The mixers are a Yamaha M406 and a M516. Allan also has an Ovation '83 Collector's Series acoustic and a Chapman Stick.

Will Road Games rekindle Holdsworth's legend, or will his insistence on pushing his own compositions to the forefront invite a whole second generation of self-deputized advisors to counsel, "Stick to soloing and leave the writing to hitmakers and geniuses." Allan doesn't really care at this point. He's not going to take the advice in any case. After all, he's given the whole knotty problem a good deal of thought:

"You make decisions at certain points in your life as to what you want to do. Things have been offered me where I could've done something commercial and and (sic) earned a lot more money - and been really miserable. I'd rather be broke and happy than miserable and rich. So all I'm trying to do is get by, just the musician's dream really: to be able to play what I'd like to play and be able to survive. That's my dream."

Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: February 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None

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