|The Morse Family
This story starts in Sylmar, California (a suburb of Los Angeles), where Neal Morse grew up as the youngest of three sons of a singing teacher. All three of them, Richard, Alan and Neal, and their sister, developed a deep love for music and it is no surprise they're all working in the music-business. The Morse-family was a healthy environment for young talents. As Neal Morse recalls: "my Dad, and Al's too as it turns out, is a musical director. Choirs mostly. So we had a lot of classical music around and general harmonizing. Apparently we were singing parts when we were two or something. I don't remember. I do remember singing lead in the opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors" when I was nine. What an amazing piece of music that is! But then I was also always very into the Beatles, which is pretty obvious from our records."
By the time the eldest of the three brothers, Richard went to high-school, the three of them started to play in a band together playing songs by Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and Yes.
Around this time, Alan developed his special way of guitar-playing, as Neal recalls: "Al actually decided to play guitar without a pick because I told him (when we were 12 and 13 years old) that he'd never be able to do it. Talk about a healthy competition! We used to trade licks and he was determined to kick my ass....and he did! In our later teens I became the bass player!"
After that period, Richard managed to start a professional career as a solo-artist. Up till this day, he plays small gigs on an almost day-to-day base. His repertoire (mainly covers) has grown over the years and includes everything from Abba to Zappa, and about 2500 (!) song in between. Since 1991, Richard lives in Germany, because of the better possibilities to make a living out of his music.
Maybe because of Richard's career, Neal decided he wanted to go 'professional' as well: "I was trying to get a deal as a singer/songwriter for most of my life. I used to play around L. A. with my own band, the Neal Morse band, between '84 and '91. Before that I was in band with Skipper Wise (from Windows and Color Club) called 'Five Figures' and a Styx sounding band called 'Casanova'. Al was in both those bands. None of them ever really did anything to speak of, except rehearse a lot! Actually, Al and I were both in a 'new' Kiss type band in the early 80's called 'New Dynasty'. Somewhere there's photos of us in Kiss style make up!"
His ambition to be a professional musician even lead Neal to the point where he started to write a musical: "I've always wanted to do something big. When I was 22 I decided to write a musical and wrote three or four numbers that I really loved, but then I got stuck in the story, (which is about a little boy who goes to the island of Haiti in the early 1800s) and didn't do anything on it again until I was 30. While I was finishing the first one, I had the idea for the second one. I wrote 'Hitman' in about a month - book, music, lyrics, the whole deal. It's changed a lot since then; I had a cast in L.A. and a director who reworked it, cutting some numbers and adding others." Neal remains hopeful of getting 'Hitman' produced, but it's currently lying on the shelves with Spock's Beard being the immediate priority.
The Early Years
Towards the end of the '80s Neal started to write a different style of music, progressive rock, which he already knew from his youth, but never did anything with in a composing way: "my musical roots are The Beatles. That was the first music I truly loved, of course at the same time I was singing classical music with my family, so that all got mixed together, I suppose. Then I saw Yes open for Black Sabbath and I've loved prog ever since. I'm terribly glad there's a progressive rock scene to be related to. When I first started writing this stuff I had no idea, but when I first started writing prog, it was like a religious experience. It sill is, actually, there was so much freedom! I had been writing pop and country songs and Musicals, but with progressive I felt I could do whatever I wanted."
Spock's Beard was formed in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992, as Neal told the English prog-magazine 'Wondrous Stories'...
"Well, at first it was just me and my brother Al recording for fun and doing whatever we felt like doing. Then in spite of our pasts, we thought it would be cool to put a band together. This was around the spring of 1992."
In the fall of '92, Neal and Alan started to record the first 'real' demos of later 'Spock's'-tracks. Among these were original versions for The Light and Go The Way You Go, both to appear their debut album. But, of course, no album could be recorded without a band. Neal explains how he found the other members:
"I met Nick d'Virgilio at a musicians jam night thing. We both were called up to play some blues. I played horribly - he was great. Anyway, I sent him a cassette of the demos and he flipped out over it, which shocked the hell out of me. I mean, I didn't think you could get such great players for a project so clearly uncommercial. And it was pretty much the same deal with the other guys. We had a different bass player originally and when it came time to find a new guy, Al and I both thought of Dave (we'd known him for a long time). And by God, he wanted to do it! Amazing. Not that we weren't good or anything, but I guess I had just gotten used to people not being into the same stuff as me."
When people were found, a bandname had to be chosen. The band have admitted several times that they are bad at finding artwork and titles for their albums, but their bandname was a great choice, since it has been subject to many discussion over the years. In an interview bass-player Dave Meros did in May, during Progfest '97, he said : "In the beginning, we had the name "One", but we were always looking for a good, serious name. We could never think of one. As a joke, the name "Spock's Beard" always came up. In the end we thought why not, it sounds funny. Besides, it doesn't matter that much what name you're using. Pink Floyd is actually also a very funny name."
The Recording Sessions
In 'Wondrous Stories' Neal reacts: "As far as the name goes, I think it was pretty much Al's idea. It was/is a joke name, but when we were choosing a name, you know we all had these serious names and all, but we liked Spock's Beard the best." Neal however has played a major role himself in creating confusion about the name's original. He has 'spread the word' on at least to different origins: "As far as the name goes, our current story is that Nick had a really weird Dog named Spock who had some sort of facial hair problem...... but don't hold me to it." But he has also been quoted saying: "It's difficult to say. No one really knows. I heard the name was derived from some weird homeless dude who used to hang around Dave's house in Venice. The rumours never cease."
However, Spock's Beard was ready to record, but a record label still had to be found. Finally, Spock's Beard had an offer from a small prog label, but, after months of negotiations, they chose to make the album themselves. In 1994, the band went into the studio and recorded their debut album 'The Light'.
The album is opening with the title track. A fifteen-minute long song in the classical style of an epic from the 70s. In the liner-notes from their rarities-album From The Vault, Neal tells about the demos for the light: "There's definitely something wrong with me. I recorded over the original demos of 'The Light' album, thinking "I'll never need that stuff!" A cassette is all that's left. What a dork! Recorded in L.A. in the fall of '92, I remember taking my 8-track cassette deck over to Al's so he could do most of the electric guitar parts." From The Vault also features an old chorus of the 'One Man' part of the song 'The Light'. "I never liked it", Neal explains, "but I could think of anything else, 'til Al came to the rescue right before we finished the CD version." It is for this reason that the only spot where anyone than Neal get song-credits in the booklet is: One Man.
Despite this prominent position of Neal, no-one in the band seems to complain about it and his pivotal role remained up till now. Nevertheless, the other band-members really seem to be satisfied with this situation: "Spock's Beard is the most fulfilling band that I've been in," says Dave Meros. "Neal's songs are consistently superb, everyone can really play add everyone really gets to play. It ROCKS!"
Go The Way You Go is another long song (over 12minutes), but is a bit more 'coherent'. It doesn't consist of many different parts and has a more Genesis-like feel over it. A demo of this song is also included on From The Vault, where Neal explains that the songs underwent many changes to reach it's final form. However the final version on the album is a classic and (together with 'The Light') a live-favourite by both band and fans 'till now.
The Water is the longest track (23 minutes!) on the album and I'd rather call it a composition than a song, because it's more a string of different songs of themes, not unlike Supper's Ready by Genesis. Musically it's totally different, but it features the same 'adventurous' mood, with different styles and sounds. Starting off with a great cello part, The Water takes you along bombastic multi-vocal parts, a jazz-rock inspired interlude, the aggressive 'F**k You' part and a polite excuse in 'I'm Sorry'. A really adventurous trip!
On The Edge is the final song on the album. This is the shortest and most straightforward song on the album, starting with a very 'Lamb'-like introduction, followed by some compact, powerful verses and a great spot for Dave Meros' Rickenbacker bass.
Around the time of recording The Light, a fifth member was brought into place: Ryo Okumoto, from Osaka in Japan ,was brought into the band by Alan, who had done some gigs with him at some point, and remembered him when it came time to look for players for the band. Originally they only wanted to have an extra live-keyboardplayer, but eventually he became a full member of the band. Neal Morse recalls: "Ryo came into the first rehearsal with everything written out and played out the entire first album almost perfectly! At the end we all laughed and said 'Dude, I think you got the gig!' "
The Final Stage
When 'The Light' was released in 1995 on a small scale, it immediately received great reactions. With influences, as diverse as Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Pink Floyd and many other progressive rock greats it was no wonder that Spock's Beard seems received very positive reactions from many fans from those bands.
Spock's Beard's fame is slowly increasing, but when Dream Theater's drummer Mike Portnoy declares his enthusiasm about the band, they are directly into the spotlights of prog-fans all over the world. According to Portnoy: "The Light is the best album I heard in 1995. Spock's Beard are the best progressive rock band to come around since Marillion!"
Spock's Beard is invited to the 1995 version of the L.A. Progfest and, by their now famous energetic performance, they convince their audience of their quality. Despite Neal's negative words in the program for Progfest 'we play music, probably no-one will like', the gig is a huge success and the recordings will be released one year later as 'the official live bootleg'.
But not only for this reason L.A.Progfest '95 is crucial for Spock's Beard. One of the visitors of the festival hands over a copy of 'The Light' to Martin Orford, keyboardplayer with IQ and main man behind GEP-records. He is immediately enthusiastic and decides that GEP will bring Spock's Beard to the European market. One year after it's US-release 'The Light' (with a new cover) finds it's way to the European fans.
Soon after, their second album 'Beware Of Darkness' is released and their fame starts to grow on the European side of the ocean as well. Asked about he things of this critical acclaim, Neal Morse can do nothing but answer: "The reaction to 'The light' has been amazing. The things some critics have said "best album since 1978", this one guy from Germany just went nuts over it. I mean he says something like "the pillars of rock music have been pulverized and out of the rubble comes this record!", something like that. It was album of the year in several british papers and Burrn! Magazine in Japan gave it a 96 out of 100. Listen to me, I sound like an ad or something. Suffice to say the response was quite good."
And it was. Spock's Beard have been chosen best newcomer, best overseas band and best band by the Classic Rock Society over the last years and their 'Beware Of Darkness' and 'Kindness of Strangers'-albums ended up high in our annual DPRP-polls. With The Light, Spock's Beard have made one of the most remarkable debut-albums of the '90s.
Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan
• Strange World - Spock's Beard Songbook
• Thoughts - The Official Mailinglist Website
• The Official Spock's Beard Website
• Gibberish - Official Spock's Beard Fanzine
• InsideOut Music - Spock's Beard