Power to the cover – Part 2: I Forgot To Push It

This was the first cover Panzerpappa ever did, and we first played it live about six months before we “massacred” the Prokofiev sonata in Skien (see the previous post).

Happy The Man was one of the true “American” progressive rock bands, together with Kansas, and later Echolyn in the 80s and 90s (to name a few…).

HTM started with a fascination for British progressive groups but managed to carve out a distinctively personal style. And while Kansas was definitely more “symphonic” and had more Great Plains-vibes in their music, Happy The Man became exponents for a sort of “American Canterbury” approach, incorporating much more jazz and jazz-rock influences into their music.

The first two albums they released , Happy The Man and Crafty Hands, are (rightly) considered masterpieces, with Kit Watkins’ truly distinctive keyboard arrangements. No mellotrons in sight – he preferred the leaner textures of string synthesizers, electric piano, Moogs, and ARPs.

“I Forgot To Push It” is a tour de force of big band-influenced music arranged for an instrumental quintet at the height of their powers. The main repeated riff is almost unbearably catchy, and one could easily imagine the final, brilliantly arranged ensemble being belted out by a full saxophone section in a big band.

I Forgot To Push It – from Happy The Man Live

The primary challenge for Panzerpappa in covering this particular Kit Watkins-composition was the original KEY. It’s in G major. Steinar plays a vast array of different instruments very well, but his main horn is the alto saxophone, and we wanted to utilize the alto in our version. To make it work for the instrument’s range, we had to transpose the song down to D major. Jarle, who had already played the song with the progressive rock tribute band Dead Dino Storage, had to relearn the whole thing… 🙂

But, as it was, it ended up working out better in this new key, since we were performing it with just four musicians, and the key of D made the song sound deeper and fuller, in a way…

We performed the tune at a couple of live gigs, and then, in 2008, we were asked to contribute a song to a compilation album put together by the Norwegian prog fanzine Tarkus. We agreed that I Forgot To Push It would be an excellent choice, so we recorded a version more or less live in our old rehearsal space in the basement of a school called Hersleb in Oslo. We had a rather spartan recording rig consisting of a few microphones, an antiquated PC and a 16-bit audio interface.

The 16-bit audio interface…

But the recording turned out quite well, and we sent it to Kit Watkins to get his opinion. This is what he had to say after hearing our interpretation:

“Wow, that is just a fantastic and wonderful remake of the tune!! Please give my heartfelt thanks and congratulations to all of the band members. I loved the interpretation and the embellishments. Also, I love how you used a lower key signature — gives it a completely new feel! Thanks so much for sharing it with me.”

Which, of course, made us all pretty starstruck, coming from a brilliant musician and composer that we all have admired deeply ever since Trond heard his first Happy The Man record when he was still in kindergarten… 😀

Power to the cover – Part 1: Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, 3rd movement

It’s a well-known fact in the music business that playing cover tunes is not exactly the most credible thing to do, especially not if it amounts to having to play in an all-out “cover band” to make a living as a musician… Artists who don’t obtain the fame and success they feel they’re entitled to based on the genius and uniqueness of their music can console themselves with the fact that “at least I don’t play f##&ing cover tunes…”.

As a general rule, we write our own music in Panzerpappa, but in contrast to many other artists and bands, we love to incorporate the odd cover in our live sets every now and then. There are several reasons for this:

1) Concert strategy: It’s often smart to break up a set of music with which the audience is vaguely (or not at all) familiar, with a composition that they might know more intimately! When playing a release concert for a new album, for instance, the audience would have had no time to get to know the new material. Contrary to what one would think, you often get a lot more attention to your own music after “waking up” (or flirting with) the audience in such a way.

2) Acknowledgement: It’s a great way to recognise an important influence, and to place the band within the tradition, history, and the “bloodline” that runs through the genre or genres in which we operate. It’s also a way to be honest and realistic about where we come from, and not to conceive ourselves (and others…) that what we are doing is radically new and without bonds to history.

3) Fun and inspiration: It’s always a great learning experience for a band to study and rehearse a composition by another artist, and work as a unified force to try and adapt the song to the band’s particular instrumentation, preferred style, and musical preferences.

Let’s check out some of the tunes that Panzerpappa has covered through the years:

Sergej Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7, 3rd Movement

This particular piece by Prokofiev was suggested by Jarle as a potential cover for Panzerpappa in 2004. At the time, he was working on his master’s degree in arranging and composition at the University of Oslo and was introduced to the Prokofiev sonata in a line of lectures devoted to music with “free tonality”, particularly that of Ravel, Shostakovich, and the said Prokofiev. His first reaction when hearing it was “Wow, this is incredibly groovy! I can hear drums and bass on this piece!”, and: “It’s in 7/8! Perfect!” :-).

An excerpt from the original solo piano version:

S. Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7, 3rd movement (original version)

So he arranged the piece for Panzerpappa, which was still a quartet at this time, and challenged the band to try and play it! It took a while to get the whole thing together (it’s Prokofiev’s Totentanz, after all…), but the band loved it, and we played it live on two different occasions. And the audience actually loved it too…

An excerpt fram Panzerpappa’s rendition (live at Parkbiografen, Skien in 2004 – supporting Anekdoten):

S. Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7, 3rd movement (Panzerpappa’s version)

It was perhaps kind of strange that the audience loved the sonata because this wasn’t quite the same as playing a Coldplay song, or something by Michael Jackson, or “Proud Mary” or whatever… Not even similar to covering a song by Yes, Genesis, King Crimson (more on that later), or any other band in the “progressive” fold… It was more like: “Wow, they’re playing Prokofiev with the instruments of a rock band… that’s far out!…”.

That reaction is probably quite similar to the reaction of the audience at Newcastle City Hall on 26 March 1971, when Emerson, Lake & Palmer played the version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition that would end up on the album of the same name a bit over a year later.

So while we were fully aware that there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about performing music of the classical music canon in a rock band context, it was still a great way to acknowledge the great bands of the past, and (with an affectionate twinkle in the eye) “reconnect” with the Seventies’ grandeur, megalomania and refreshing lack of respect for musical boundaries. And it seemed appropriate that we, who’ve always considered ourselves belonging more in a “chamber-rock” vein, chose a short and humble movement from a piano sonata rather than attempting to barge out a full-blown symphony!

But wait… short and humble… In FACT I remember this Prokofiev-movement as being heinously difficult to play and we were FOUR people! Hats of to the Richters, Pollinis and Goulds who would easily (and macabrely) DANCE through the piece with supreme elegance and virtuosity on their many great recordings! Besides, it also involved quite a few very swift and challenging instrument changes, especially for Steinar. So now, in our current quintet formation, it’s very tempting to give “the Prokofiev” another shot – 16 years after we last played it…