Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Phil Keaggy & Alan Shacklock: True Believers (1995)

(This story was supposed to appear in Syndicate, the title under which Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate continued in its last years. And appear it did--in the last issue of Syndicate ever published and in a form so truncated that it made almost no sense. I felt bad not only because my byline was attached to such a deformed piece but also because both Keaggy and Shacklock had given me a lot of phone time. Not surprisingly, I've had no contact with either of them since. There was, however, a happy ending of sorts. During our conversation, Keaggy admitted that he was moving back toward his Catholic roots, and the subject of Malcolm Muggeridge and his latter-day conversion to Catholicism came up. I offered to send Keaggy a book I had about Muggeridge's view of scripture, and he accepted. Two years later, he appeared on EWTN's Life on the Rock show, performing six songs and discussing his spirituality at length. I'd like to think the Muggeridge book had a little to do with Keaggy's ending up where he did.

Below, you--and, I hope, Keaggy and Shacklock--can finally see the story as it was supposed to appear..)

The critic Robert Christgau once concluded a review of a T-Bone Burnett album by writing, "I'm a sucker for a humble man with a proud guitar."

He was referring to Burnett's Proof Through the Night, but he could've just as easily been referring to Phil Keaggy's True Believer (Sparrow), the excellent new recording by one of the humblest wielders of a proud guitar ever.

"I think it's more of a tighter-fit type of album," says Keaggy. "It fits more like a tuxedo than like the loose, baggy clothes of Crimson and Blue."

Keaggy laughs, referring with typical self-deprecation to the lukewarm critical reaction engendered by the jam-oriented nature of his last album.

His self-deprecation also extends to the credit he's willing to take for the tuxedo-like nature of True Believer. To hear him tell it, the credit belongs to Alan Shacklock, the English pop producer and founding member of the art-rock '70s act Babe Ruth, whose involvement on True Believer marks his official entry into the American Christian-music scene.

"Peter York, my A&R guy at Sparrow, was aware of Alan's production skills, and he wanted to see me come into a kind of artistic expression and a style of album that was different than the direction in which I had been going. Alan has a track record for coming up with good-sounding songs that are radio friendly."

As if Keaggy himself doesn't. How does he think he's managed to maintain a twenty-five-year recording career?

"II write songs," he admits, "but I don't work them over or craft and hone them to fit into a specific radio format. I've never been good about that."

If Keaggy's unwillingness to toot his own axe borders on the incomprehensible--this is a man, after all, whose vast discography Guitar Player magazine recently characterized as ranging "from exciting, fusion-tinged rock to sweeping acoustic statements"--Shacklock is more than willing to expound on the guitarist's gifts.

"I've worked with a lot of the big ones," Shacklock explains, "and Phil is every bit up there with them. He's a genuine artist, and I'm just so blessed that he's working for the kingdom of God because, with the technique, the voice, and the writing ability he has, he could easily be on the other side."

Some of the "big ones" whom Shacklock has worked with since he began producing albums in 1980--coincidentally, also the year of his conversion--include Roger Daltrey (Under a Raging Moon, Can't Wait to See the Movie), Jeff Beck ("Wild Thing"), Meatloaf (Bad Attitude), Steve Gibbons (Saints and Sinners), Dexys Midnight Runners (alas, not "Come On, Eileen"), and the Alarm (Declaration). It was, in fact, Shacklock who buttressed the Alarm's 1983 "Sixty-eight Guns" single with an everything-but-the-cuisinart wailing wall of sound that still sounds Jericho-esque today.

"When I became a Christian," Shacklock recalls, "I expected the Lord to take me straight into Christian music. In fact, he took me in quite the opposite direction, right into secular music, where I hope I was salt and light."

In England, according to Shacklock, the Christian-music industry barely exists. Therefore, it wasn't until he moved to the U.S. that he had the opportunity to work with other believers. Ironically, it was an album by a fellow Englishman, John Perry (who also wrote the chart-topping "Be in My Heart" from Keaggy's '89 album Find Me in These Fields), that allowed Shacklock to get his feet wet.

"John said, 'We should ask Phil to play on this.' So he called Phil, and Phil came along and played some beautiful solos on a couple of tunes. That's where I met him."

According to both forty-something rock-and-roll veterans, they hit it off from the start.

"There are parallels in the music we grew up listening to," says Keaggy. "He was into the Shadows in England, and I was into the Ventures here. But we also loved the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley."

"We sort of went to different schools together," Shacklock laughs. "He had Glass Harp and I had Babe Ruth. So I could look at that history and say, 'Where does Phil Keaggy need to be now?'"

In Sparrow's opinion, Phil Keaggy needed to be in a place from which he could broaden his audience beyond the 90,000 guitar and CCM devotees who normally buy his albums.

"Their desire," Keaggy remembers, "was that my music appeal to a larger audience, one that would include housewives, ladies, and even kids."

As the father of three kids and the husband of both a housewife and a lady, Keaggy knew a little something about the audience Sparrow was talking about.

"One thing Phil said to me," Shacklock recalls, "was 'I want my fifteen-year-old daughter to like this record,' and I got the point because when the Who came here in '89, Roger [Daltrey] invited me down, and standing in front of me was a fifteen-year-old kid singing every lyric of 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' I wanted it to be the same with True Believer. And I think a lot of the younger fans will appreciate this record for the young element in it."

One way in which Shacklock and Keaggy sought to include the "young element" was to emphasize hooks over guitar solos. The album's catchiest songs--"Wild Heart," Shacklock's "Only You (Can Wash My Sins Away)," "Don't Let Go of My Heart," and "Son of Man"--embellish Keaggy's natural tendency to evoke memories of vintage Paul McCartney with a production style that that's as deep as it is slick. Shacklock's tube bells, for instance, on the chorus of "Only You" subtly draw attention to the other instruments and effects swirling just beneath the surface.

And in "Be Thou My Vision," Shacklock simply pulls out the stops: Keaggy sings the well-known hymn over a chockablock mixture of chants, weird percussion, and otherworldly sounds and rhythms. The most interesting element of the performance, however, is the story behind Keaggy's inadvertent transformation of the line "Nought be all else to me save that thou art" into "Nought be all else to me save that thy art," a slip of the lip that should sound familiar to those who know Van Morrison's performance of the same song on Hymns to the Silence.

"Alan was attempting to write new lyrics to it," says Keaggy, "because he didn't really know the words and I didn't have a hymnal."

"I used to sing that song in school with different lyrics," Shacklock explains. "In English schools, we sing hymns because the church and the state are one. But that tune came back to me, and I thought, 'That would be great for Phil to do.' So I said, 'Listen to this melody. Do you know it?' And he said, 'Oh, yes. I know it as 'Be Thou My Vision.'"

At which point, without a hymnal, Keaggy enlarged the lyric page from the Morrison CD booklet, convinced Shacklock of the superiority of the 'Vision' lyrics, and proceeded to record it, Morrison-esque pronoun gaffes and all.

"Van Morrison can get away with it because he's Irish," laughs Keaggy. "I'm only half-Irish.".

As usual, Keaggy exaggerates his shortcomings. But his willingness to acknowledge them combined with his refusal to take credit for the strengths of True Believer underscores the degree to which humility has become a deep-rooted part of his personality.

"I was very honored to be asked to work with Phil Keaggy," says Shacklock. "He's a unique man."

And how does this unique man account for the seemingly inexhaustible abundance and quality of his ever-growing body of work?

"All I know is that I manage to stay active at what I do because people keep requesting to hear me. It seems to me it's all been God's graciousness, and it's something I'm aware of daily.

"However long it lasts, I'm grateful."

No comments:

Post a Comment