If you search online for the term ‘rock supergroup’ you will likely come up with names such as Cream, Blind Faith, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and find that the term may have stemmed from the album Super Session by Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, and Stephen Stills. When you narrow the search to ‘progressive rock supergroup’ you will first
find Emerson, Lake & Palmer and then other great bands, the lesser known Matching Mole, National Health, 801 and UK. Just for fun I also tried prepending the terms jazz, space and psychedelic to rock supergroup, but the one band that qualifies to turn up in all of these search terms was consistently missing. None of the respectable groups I listed above had the same diversity, geographically and stylistically, of the members of that band. This is the story of Go, one of the most spectacular yet neglected supergroups, who in 1976 released studio and live albums that are masterpieces of 1970s music.
Like most supergroups the story of Go is a short one. Such a collective of talented musicians coming from different areas of the world, each with their own busy schedule of recording and touring, can only happen when the stars align and there is a fragment of time that makes it possible. Most of the musicians involved where in a state of transition at the time, and for a period of about one year produced great music together. A band consisting of former members of Blind Faith, Traffic, Santana, Tangerine Dream and Return to Forever could have easily clashed on egos and artistic differences and kill the project before it even started, but a common interest in a new musical experience created something that indeed sounds like a hybrid of all these bands. After releasing a studio album, Go peaked during a short tour in 1976 that yielded one of my favorite live recordings of all time, the excellent double album Go Live From Paris.
Interestingly the band was the brain child of its least known member, multi-instrumentalist and composer Stomu Yamashta, who at the beginning of the 1970s explored avant garde and modern classical music, performing compositions by Toru Takemitsu and Hans Werner Henze. A chance meeting in 1970 with drummer Morris Pert started Yamashta on a parallel path with jazz and rock. He joined Pert’s band Come to the Edge. One Way from their album floating Music is a good example of Yamashta’s ability to create mood pieces. In 1972 he got involved with film soundtracks, starting with Robert Altman’s Images, scored by pre-stardom John Williams. The soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar, in no small amount due to Yamashta’s contributions of atonal sounds sprinkled throughout the film. A year later he formed East Wind with keyboardist Brian Gascoigne, a band that also included Canterbury scene’s iconic bass player Hugh Hopper. The band released two studio albums, including the beautiful track Wind Words from the album Freedom Is Frightening. In 1976 Nicolas Roeg included both One Way and Wind Words in his film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie.
The story of Go continues with Michael Shrieve who’s early career was one of the most productive careers a rock band drummer can have. As a founding member of Santana, stemming from the psychedelic hub around San Francisco, Shrieve is forever etched in classic rock fans’ memories with his drum solo on Soul Sacrifice from Woodstock. Shrieve caught the jazz rock bug around the same time Yamashta did, and together with Carlos Santana pulled the band towards music influenced by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Caravanserai is my favorite from that period, including the epic Every Step of the Way. The jazz influence on the band intensified with the following albums and involved musicians such as Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Joe Farrell, Stanley Clark and of course John McLaughlin, with whom Santana released the album Love, Devotion and Surrender. Between the years 1969 and 1974 the band released six studio albums plus live recordings and side projects, all classic examples of the melting pot of rock, latin and jazz. However the constant touring took its toll on Shrieve and after the tour that followed the release of Borbolleta in 1974 he left the band.
Ever in search of new sounds, Shrieve came upon the music of Yamashta early on: “One day I saw this record with a cover that folded open and Stomu was there. The covers opened up to a semi-circle of percussion instruments. An array of percussion instruments that I found amazing! Cymbals, gongs and all kinds of drums; Stomu in front leaping across in midair, his long black hair flowing and a tympani stick in his mouth! I said to myself, ‘Who is this?’ I related to him and felt that kind of expression sitting behind a drum set. I wanted to jump up and down on stage. Stomu was playing a lot of metallic music. It was very heavy music.” One particular piece left a strong impression: “I taped one piece called Prison Song (written by Henze). One night after a concert I went to bed and put the tape on. I woke up about an hour later because the music had reached a peak and it was crashing. Chains. I jolted up from my sleep and just sat there, wondering, ‘What is going on? What is this guy doing? What is this guy conjuring up?’ From then on, I really related to it as an expression on percussion. I related to Stomu more closely than any percussionist I had listened to, and from there, I endeavored to find him. It took about four or five years.” Finally in the mid-1970s the two finally met and the foundation for Go was set: “It was a big touring year for Santana, we had over 250 dates to do. On the last day of the tour, I found out that Stomu Yamashta was staying at the same hotel as me, in Rome. We set up a meeting. I wanted to do a record with him. Mind you, I was looking for him for a year. I wanted to do an avant-garde percussion thing. So, when I met him, he was in the process of putting together his vision of combining pop music with other things. So, he had Winwood, he had Klaus Schulze …”
Steve Winwood left Traffic around the same time Michael Shrieve left Santana. After an appendicitis attack in 1971 Winwood developed peritonitis, a condition that made the unstable lifestyle of touring unbearable for him. He left Traffic during the tour to promote the band’s last 1970s studio album, When the Eagle Flies, released in September 1974. In an interview to Rolling Stone magazine in 1988 he reflected on that period: “I’d had enough of this album, tour, album, tour. From then on, through the Seventies, I came to terms with the real world a bit more. You know, traveling with a rock band, there’s a certain unreality about it. You don’t know where you are, what day of the week it is. People book your plane flights, pack your bag, do your laundry. If you do that from when you’re fifteen, it’s very unreal.” Winwood guested on other artists’ records in the mid-1970s before and after the Go project, including Berlin by Lou Reed (1973), Inside Out by John Martyn (1973), solo albums by Jim Capaldi, Waves by Jade Warrior (1975), Reggae Got Soul by Toots & the Maytals (1976) and Downwind by Pierre Moerlen’s Gong (1978). One of his best guest appearances was on Rendezvous, Sandy Denny’s last album before her tragic death. He plays on a number of songs on that album, contributing organ and piano as on the track Take Me Away. Winwood has a unique role with Go. Unlike his work with previous bands and his solo work, he does not focus on playing organ or guitar here. Yamashta and Schulze are playing a zillion keyboard instruments and the presence of Al Di Meola and rhythm guitar players has those instruments more than covered. He adds interesting piano parts and his singing is one of the highlights of his careers. A great example is the melancholic Crossing the Line on the live album, about one minute into the opening atmospheric instrumental Air Voice:
The mid 1970s was a very productive period for Klaus Schulze. After being part in early incarnations of Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel he started a rich solo career. In 1975 he released the album Timewind, his tribute to the music of Richard Wagner. Later that year he acquired a large Moog modular console which he called Big Moog, including a sequencer. That became a critical part of his electronic instruments arsenal and the basis for his next and excellent album Moondawn, a classic of 1970s electronic music. In 1975 Schulze also started working with Japanese space rock group Far East Family Band (early career of new age artist Kitaro) as a producer. That got him introduced to Stomu Yamashta, who was looking for musicians for the Go project.
Schulze brought with him a track load of instruments to the studio, including the Big Moog, an ARP 2600, ARP Odyssey, EMS Synthi A and Farfisa Synthorchestra. He remembers the recording of the album: “I had to realize that synthesizers were still unknown in British rock studios at this time, and the engineers and studio people and also some of the musicians were much amazed about my ‘strange’ equipment and also about the sounds that I could produce with it, mainly the sequencer was pretty new to them”. Like Tangerine Dream, who around that time released their career highlight Ricochet that featured the sequencer prominently, Schulze started using the device on his solo albums, and the Go project was one of the early examples of using that rhythm looping mechanism. Here is Space Requiem:
Like Michael Shrieve and Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola was in transition between playing with a prestigious band and starting a solo career. The same month that the first Go album was recorded, February 1976, he was also recording his last album with Return to Forever. The title track on this album, Romantic Warrior, showcases his virtuosity on classical guitar. A great video clip survived showing the band playing the piece in an acoustic set at the Old Grey Whistle Test studio, with a 21 year old Di Meola. Unlike the other members in Go he was more of a session musician, but at the recording sessions he contributed great guitar parts and solos. It is hard to imagine two more different musicians in a single session than Al Di Meola and Klaus Schulze. Klaus D. Mueller, who wrote Schulze’s biography on the artist’s website, recalled uncomplimentary in 1997: “The fast Al Di Meola we only saw once during his swift rattle off his part. His rapidity was really sensational, but artistically meaningless. To show him this, one evening Klaus just speeded up his sequencer more and more, and Di Meola had to give up at a certain point, wondering how KS – who sat with his equipment in another room – could play so fast. Klaus showed him, that it’s just a machine, and that it’s not the trained speed that makes good music. Did he understand? I suppose, because he felt a little bit displeased.”
The guitarist tackled the speed issue in an interview years later: “You need both abilities: to be able to sing a melody and play with space, and also to have the requisite technique to play the most intricate music. That makes you more complete, and able to play a wider variety of music. It’s a bunch of bullshit every time guitarists say, ‘One note says so much more than 100.’ I always laugh at idiots who make that claim. Tell that to a flamenco player or a classical player and see what they say. It’s almost a defensive reaction. They take something they lack, attack it and claim they never wanted it in the first place. Sure!” What can be said? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Al Di Meola’s shining moment with Go is Man of Leo. What was a two minute song on the studio album expanded to a 14 minute long funky jam with an irresistible riff that develops into a powerful song:
Other than the stellar lineup of the five core musicians, The Go project includes a fine supporting cast of lesser known artists who should be recognized. Chris West and Junior Marvin are on rhythm guitar on the studio album. West was later a member of Terra Nova, an offshoot of the excellent Manfred Mann’s Earthband. Marvin is best known for his lead guitar role with Bob Marley and The Wailers, starting with the Exodus album in 1977. A nice rehearsal video of Pimper’s Paradise from the Uprising album shows his tasteful guitar work. Jamaican Bass player Rosko Gee is best known for playing with Traffic on When the Eagle Flies and later in the decade with Can. He was part of the last touring incarnation of Traffic in 1994. Here is a video of him with the band playing the classic Glad / Freedom Rider in Woodstock. Together with Congas player Brother James Gee shines on the live version of Go’s Wind Spin.
Pat Thrall adds guitar parts on a couple of songs on the Go studio album and was also part of the live band. In parallel to the Go project Michael Shrieve and Pat Thrall were working on the first Automatic Man album. Here is the opening sequence to that record, demonstrating both musicians’ abilities. Interestingly, the lengthy electric guitar solo on the live recording of Crossing the Line is not played by Al Di Meola. That great solo is played by Pat Thrall, who said of that occasion: “Al left the stage and gave this solo to me….it was only one of 2 solos I got the whole night but it was such an honor to play with these amazing players”. On the studio version of that song we also find the backing vocals group Thunderhighs, whose claim to fame is contributing the chorus girls part on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. You can hear their powerful voices on the Go Live From Paris album on the track Time Is Here.
The first Go record is based on some loose narrative that is supposed to tie the songs together. Exactly what that story is escapes me, something to do with polarity between birth and death, reality and fantasy, good and evil, the usual. Unclear if the writer of the text, Michael Quartermain, knew exactly what he was after. Steve Winwood recalls: “Mike had the lyrics all prepared in poetry form and that’s not always the easiest way of writing a song, so some things I took straight, while other things I mutilated to suit the shape of my voice. But, really, it’s all Mike’s writing; the basic idea behind the meaning of the lyrics is his. Stomu talked the play concept over with Mike, and then he came through with the lyrics.” Even more confusing is the fact that the plot starts with side two of the LP and continues to side one. Makes sense so far? The ordering was remedied in the live setting and the Go Live From Paris album is essentially the same material as the studio album with the sides flipped. From a purely musical perspective this sounds right to me.
The list of talented personnel involved with the Go project does not end with the musicians who played on it. The credits associated with the arranger, producer and engineer are no less impressive. A critical component of the lush sound of the studio album is the use of string, woodwind and brass sections, with great arrangements by Paul Buckmaster, one of the best classical arrangers in the history of rock and pop music. Its his arrangements that made some of the biggest hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s: David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Elton John’s Your Song, Harry Nilsson’s Without You, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. He later became a film composer and worked on films such as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Interestingly, and in spite of all his early 1970s credits, Buckmaster was not the first choice for arranger. Yamashta wanted Mike Gibbs for the job, and we can only wonder what the legendary jazz arranger might have done with the Go project, but Gibbs had a teaching job at Berklee College of Music and declined the offer. But we are none the poorer as Buckmaster’s work on the studio album is nothing less than stunning. My favorite is the opening sequence of the album Solitude/Nature with a woodwind section, oboe and piccolo.
Producer Dennis Mackay had a very busy year in 1976. In addition to the Go project he produced the excellent Brand X’s album Unorthodox Behaviour, Curved Air’s Airborne, Gong’s Gazeuse! and the last 1970s Mahavishnu Orchestra/John McLaughlin album Inner Worlds. Quite a year.
Engineer on the album was Phil Brown, who devoted a good segment in his book Are We Still Rolling? to the recording sessions of Go. Brown’s book tracks unique moments of him being there when the Rolling Stones recorded Sympathy for the Devil and Led Zeppelin worked on Stairway to Heaven. Brown was one of the principal engineers at Island studios and his many credits include Bob Marley’s Burning and John Martyn’s One World. Brown worked with Yamashta the previous year on the album Raindog and they were back at Basing street studios for the recording of Go. Interestingly this was February 1976, the same month Camel recorded Moonmadness, the topic of my previous article, at the same studio. Stomu Yamashata’s instructions were: “I want to work with everyone live. We should treat it just like orchestra, although we have the songs arranged, with this quality of musicians I expect one-off performances during takes. We need plenty of freedom, and I must have my space for percussion.” During the recording sessions 1969 NASA films of the moon landing were projected on the studio wall. Brown’s recollection from the sessions is of intensity, some ego clashes, constant pressure and large intake of cocaine.
One story is worth repeating here, as it involves that magnificent beginning segment of side one. I’ll let Phil Brown tell it: “One night we were working on the first six-minute section of side one (Solitude, Nature and Air Over). We had recorded a number of run-throughs and were now on take three. It started off with wind, intergalactic sounds and a haunting, discordant percussion sound from Stomu before building with piano, bass and drums. There was easily enough tape left for one more version of this six-minute piece, and I left the machine on record and said ‘Okay, we’re still rolling. Take four.’ The Moog drifted in with the wind and we were off again. I looked down into the studio and nine guys were playing, heads bowed. I looked up at the far wall and saw the Apollo lunar module disconnecting from the command module in preparation for the moon landing. As it reached what should have been the end, Klaus unexpectedly went into the next track, Crossing the Line. This was a beautiful track and became my favorite song on the album, but right now we had a problem. This was a five minute song with only two minutes of tape left. I felt reluctant to stop them for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t want a technical problem to stop or interrupt this excellent atmosphere, and secondly, this was a heavy bunch of musicians, and the thought of having to say down the talk-back system, ‘Sorry guys, we ran out of tape’ was horrendous.” You can read the book for the rest of the story, but it involves sound engineering wizardry and a happy ending.
The stage production of the live show was no less complicated. The show started with taped music by Klaus Schulze. In Paris this went well with the audience as he had a large fan base in France due to Moondawn being released by the French label Isadora and well promoted there. Melody Maker wrote about the show on April 24, 1976: “Three ring circuses aren’t in it. Go combines Stomu Yamashta, Mike Shrieve, Steve Winwood, guitarists Al Di Meola, Bernie Holland, and Pat Thrall, ex Tangerine Dream synthesizer player Klaus Schulze, bassist Rosko Gee, conga players, an orchestra conducted by Paul Buckmaster, Thunder Thighs, a kung fu fight sequence, two gymnasts, two acrobats, a juggler, four dancers, a tiger, a swan, strobes, two banks of TV screens, National Aeronautics and Space Administration movies and multi-beam back projections onto two cinema screens.” When Yamashta was asked if a narrator will introduce the story to the audience, he took a jab at Mike Oldfield’s mega-selling Tubular Bells: “When you have dancers interpreting the music, you shouldn’t need a narrator explaining exactly what is happening. That’s a joke. Like the Tubular Bells thing. ‘And now, Tubular . . . Bells! BOINNNNG!’ ….. I mean, can you believe it?”
After the release of the first album and the following short tour that produced the Go Live From Paris album, the lineup changed a bit, most noticeably by Steve Winwood’s departure, who left to focus on his first solo album. More touring followed, this time in the US, where the project continued to record and release one more album, Go Too. It does not compare in my opinion to the first album, but it does feature a few wonderful tracks: Mysteries of Love with vocals by Jess Roden and Linda Lewis
and Beauty with a nice acoustic guitar solo by Al Di Meola.
After the US tour Stomu Yamashta, completely spent with the effort to run the Go project, and probably in need of downtime after numerous projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s, decided to retire: “Well, it happened just like that actually. I felt that I couldn’t breathe anymore. I think I had enough of all the things that I have been through, the good and the bad. I felt that on GO’s last tour in the US; when we completed the tour, I just took off to my house in London, stayed there alone for just a few days, and left for Kyoto. I didn’t just leave London; I actually left my career and the life that went with it. But don’t get me wrong, I never regret any of the things that happened to my life then, in fact I was grateful, and still am. It just isn’t the life I feel comfortable anymore.” Yamashta returned to music making a few years later, albeit at a less hectic pace. Of note is his score to Paul Mazursky movie Tempest from 1982, in which you will find a beautiful version of Solitude from the Go album. If you are interested in reading an in-depth review of Stomu Yamashta’s work, I recommend Perfect Sound Forever’s article The Infinite Horizons of Stomu Yamash’ta.
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