Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part One: You’re No Good – Linda Ronstadt

Back again for the fifth year running, our reconsideration of well known songs through the prism of their underrated drum tracks. This week, let’s begin with a thought experiment…

Imagine you’re a producer in 1970s LA, working on a country-pop album by a well-known singer. You need someone to cut a drum track for you. Who would you call?

The obvious answer is Russ Kunkel.

Kunkel, the drummer from the Section (who backed James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Crosby and Nash, and too many others to list – they were for all practical purposes the LA industry’s house band) is, naturally, on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. But he didn’t actually play on You’re No Good. The identity of the drummer in question is somewhat surprising.

It was meant to be Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Fred Smith, a left-field call for a country-pop artist, but an intriguing one born from Ronstadt’s love of R&B and desire to bring those influences into her own music. Unfortunately, when Smith and bassist Peter Stallworth cut basic tracks for the song, Ronstadt wasn’t singing with them, and when she did try recording a vocal to their track, she couldn’t get the right feel. The way she phrased the song just didn’t work with the way Smith had played it.

The solution was provided by Andrew Gold, who was playing guitar on the session. Gold handled the drums himself. Producer Peter Asher liked the feel that Gold, Ronstadt’s de facto bandleader and a fine pianist and guitarist, brought to the song, so his drums became the basis of a new version.

Gold called what he did “sort of a pseudo-Motown thing”. Asher thought it was a Ringo thing, and, as a man who knew Ringo, Asher should know. I hear it as a Ringo thing, too. Its lazy backbeat and heavy tom sound (cooked up by engineer Val Garay with his favoured mic, Telefunken 251s) definitely capture that Ringo feel. “I loved the fills he did,” said Garay. “I used to call them ‘the pachyderms’—he’d go ‘pachyderm-pachyderm’.” Those repeated three-stroke fills (two on the snare and then a heavy tom hit to finish), are indeed the defining element of the drum track, and bring a pleasing rough edge to what is otherwise an elaborate and polished construction.

Gold’s Ringo drums, then, are the foundation of a hybrid arrangement that has strong country and R&B elements, but also thanks to Gold a distinct Beatles vibe, too; his harmonised guitar break is as Beatley as his drum track.

You have to give producer Asher, engineer Garay and Gold himself a lot of credit for having the imagination and open-mindedness to try a left-field solution. It would have been easy to just get Kunkel in. But as great as Kunkel is, I doubt he would have been able to improve on Gold’s effort.

Unsurprisingly, pictures of Andrew Gold playing drums are hard to come by. So no photo this time, alas!

 

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Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

I’ve written before about how much I love David Crosby‘s music. Several times before. In fact, in some of the earliest posts I wrote for this blog.

Not much has changed in that regard. It’s really difficult to sit down and with a guitar and a voice create music that sounds uniquely your own. It’s even harder to do that and have those results be pleasing. Crosby could do this. His musical territory is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them are his.

He has, though, one of the smallest bodies of work of any major musician, and of course, not all of it is on the level of his 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name and 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby. So if you’re a Crosby fan and love what he does, where can you get it.

I’ve spent a long time looking for music that shares the Crosby mood, as it’s the mood above all else that is so singular. I have a playlist on my iPod called Hippie Acoustic Mystical Stoner Stuff. That distinctly non-pithy name is the best I can do to sum it up; I can’t encapsulate it any more briefly. To fit the bill, the music can’t be too discordant, irregular or messy (so despite the evident stoner credentials, stuff like the Incredible String Band doesn’t make it). It may have a medieval tinge to it, a bit of modalness. It may be questing, visionary, concerned with God and infinite. It may look inward for answers. Sometimes it can be sparse, sometimes lush. It’s often acoustic, but not always. It’s psychedelic but not in that carnivalesque way we often associate with psychedelia. In some ways it’s post-psychedelic – music for the comedown. It’s not colourful; it feels like dusk or twilight.

I’ve written about some of it here before: Linda Perhacs, Judee Sill, Pink Floyd tracks like Fearless, Echoes and Breathe, early Joni Mitchell, certain Fleetwood Mac tracks (oddly not always by the same author: Danny Kirwan, Peter Green, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Welch and Stevie Nicks have all at different times tapped into that mystical mood).

Recently I’ve been obsessing over the Grateful Dead’s song Stella Blue, from 1973’s Wake of the Flood. It absolutely has that mood I love, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to those other artists mentioned above, to try to determine if there’s a common thread musically.

I’m not sure that it’s to do with any one aspect of the writing so much as it is a confluence of harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, subject matter and mood, but certainly Stella Blue seems to tick all the boxes. It’s slow 4/4, with languorous changes. It has an expansive melody and a poetic, albeit somewhat inscrutable, Robert Hunter lyric. The arrangement is detailed, but not cluttered.

Best of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous harmonically. After a brief descending intro, it finds its way to E major, which after the first line of the verse slides down to a delicate Emaj7, then to A7sus4 and A, with Jerry Garcia’s vocal melody reinforcing the high G at the top of that unstable A7sus4. Then something beautiful happens: it slips into the parallel minor and, instead of the expected E major, we get E minor, C7 and B7, with the vocal melody once again singing that strong seventh (B flat) in the C7 chord – appropriately enough on the line “a broken angel sings from a guitar”.

Stuff like this absolutely kills me. Pop music just doesn’t go to these sorts of harmonic places often, and jazz tends to work with different types of chords that don’t have the same feel to them or lend themselves to the same kind of melody. I’ve started making a Spotify playlist of this sort of stuff (retitled Mystical Folk Rock, as Spotify insists you try to make titles catchy), and will add more as the inspiration hits and/or I discover more music that fits the mood, but hopefully there’s enough here to start you down the path to mystic medieval hippiedom.

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars

I adored Marcello Carlin’s last blog, Then Play Long, which was a survey of every UK number-one album in chronological order. Given the research and sheer analytical effort Carlin put into the project, not even his most devoted fans could get mad when he decided to put the blog to rest at the end of 2016. It was always an ambitious undertaking, and in the end the workload – voluntary and unpaid – was too much.

But Carlin is one of the best music writers out there. For a start, he is passionately devoted to music, and his criticism starts and proceeds from a strongly held belief in the power of music to alter lives and perspectives. He isn’t afraid of getting technical if the occasion demands it, he’s good on the history and context (the rock-nerd stuff and the socio-political stuff too), and his writing gets into allusive, imaginative territory few venture into these days.

As we noted a couple of months back, a lot of music writing is concerned with stuff like where a new record fits in with today’s prevailing sonic trends, or how the new single from [insert artist name here] fits into the arc of their career, or even what all the other writers are saying about X’s new song. Responses to responses, thinkpieces about thinkpieces. It’s refreshing to read someone wade hip-deep into the music itself and ask, “what does it feel like to be listening to this thing?” and “why does it feel this way to be listening to this thing?” Call me old fashioned (I am undoubtedly old fashioned) but that still seems to me like work worth doing.

Thankfully, Marcello’s still doing it. His new blog, Raise All Kinds of Candy to the Stars, takes on all the Billboard number-two hits, again in chronological order. Its song-at-a-time format lends itself to a brisk posting schedule, so a few months in he’s racked up quite a number of entries and has already reached the mid-sixties. Today’s post is about Like a Rolling Stone, and is a fantastic place to jump in if you’re not already following the blog.

Bright as Yellow – The Innocence Mission

With its soundtrack by and cameo appearances from all the big-name Seattle bands with the exception of Nirvana, Cameron Crowe’s Singles is basically the official movie of the grunge era. Reality Bites, the good-on-paper, shit-on-celluloid rival-studio response that starred Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke (and was directed by Stiller), is all but unwatched these days, and is anyway all but unwatchable.

Then there’s plucky little Empire Records. It bombed on its release, receiving universally negative reviews. When I saw it, it did indeed seem to me unexceptional, and notable only because it featured a scene where Liv Tyler sexy-danced to Throwing Muses’ Snakeface until being disturbed by the doorbell (notable not because of Ms Tyler’s performance, but because of the unlikely choice of song, you understand). Yet Empire Records has a thriving cult that still enjoys the film and celebrates 8th April every year as Rex Manning Day – Manning being a washed-up ’80s pop star whose in-store appearance on that date forms the backdrop to the movie’s events. For its fans, Empire Records is more than just a don’t-they-look-young time capsule (as well as Tyler, the film features Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia as put-upon store owner Joe – the only character who merits much sympathy); they really love it.

Empire Records the movie may not be a favourite of mine, but I have still have pretty strong memories of seeing it in college as my brother had bought the soundtrack, and knowing the tunes before I saw the film seemed to help it lodge in my memory. Likely he bought it because Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You was on it, but apart from that it also featured a decent cover of The Ballad of El Goodo by Evan Dando, the Gin Blossoms’ lovely Til I Hear it from You (co-written with power-pop pioneer Marshall Crenshaw) and the Innocence Mission’s equally lovely Bright as Yellow.

My first thought on hearing the Innocence Mission was that they had to have been opportunistic second stringers that the soundtrack supervisor settled for after not being able to secure a first choice. In the early 1990s, the Sundays, Mazzy Star, Belly and Juliana Hatfield were all indie favourites, and Innocence Mission singer Karen Peris seemed to owe something to all of them.

But, I think now, that was very unfair. By the time Empire Records came out in 1995 and the Innocence Mission got the closest thing they ever had to a mainstream moment, all of the above artists had seen their commercial waves crest and recede. Whatever you did to try to get big in 1995, it sure as hell wasn’t rip off the Sundays. In fact, the Innocence Mission had been going for as long as any of those artists whose sounds theirs resembled. Furthermore, they were a Christian band from a completely different milieu to those groups, and on close listening, I can’t help but feel their sonic similarity to other acts that had enjoyed recent critical and/or commercial success just had to be a coincidence. I don’t hear Karen Peris as capable of that kind of cynicism.

Bright as Yellow takes its time, builds slowly and may not sound like much initially, but each time that chorus comes around, it lands with greater force, and that middle-eight section (repeated twice) in which her singing becomes increasingly urgent and staccato is a wonderful bit of writing.

It’s Funky Enough – The D.O.C.

Y’all ready for this?

Yeah, this is where that sample (the one enthusiastically embraced by 2 Unlimited) comes from: the Diggy Diggy Doc’s 1989 single It’s Funky Enough, the first track from his Dre-produced debut, No One Can Do It Better.

The album was an unsurprising success for Ruthless Records, as the D.O.C. (born Tracy Lynn Curry) was already a big name among deep fans of West Coast hip hop. He’d been a member of the Fila Fresh Crew in Dallas before making his way to LA, where he met and began working with Andre Young, himself not long out of the World Class Wrecking Cru. When NWA became stars, Curry’s star rose with them. The D.O.C. was never a member of NWA, but he was a frequently referenced figure in their songs, and it was an open secret that he’d written a large proportion of the group’s lyrics; he was credited on some songs, but much of what was credited to Eazy-E was actually the D.O.C.’s work, too.

It’s Funky Enough is derived from Foster Sylvers’ 1973 hit Misdemeanor, released when Sylvers was just 11 years old. It doesn’t sound to me like a sample though. Whatever the vocalist is singing (lyric sites insist on “it’s funky, it’s funky”), it’s not what Foster Sylvers sang (“Love traps, setbacks”), and the riff never appears in Misdemeanor without Sylvers singing on top. It sounds to me like, Rapper’s Delight-style, Dre had regular collaborator Stan Jones actually play the song’s riff on bass and guitar for him (either that or he added guitar, bass and drum programming on top of the sample of the Sylvers track to beef it up, then got World Class Wrecking Cru singer Michel’le to record over Foster Sylvers’ sampled vocal to bury it).  Either way, it’s a great production from Dre, with loads of interest: my favourite elements are the tinkly percussion in the right speaker and the little stuttering kick variation that appears during the “It’s getting funky!” breakdowns.

With such a strong track to work off, the D.O.C. can hardly contain himself. His exuberance is completely infectious. His delivery is forceful rather than elegant, but you can’t help getting swept along with him, and he drops more than his share of quotable lines. My favourite is probably:

Enunciate well
So that you can tell
I am not illiterate
No, not even a little bit
Nothing like an idiot
Get it?

But there’s gold in every verse; his delivery of “I want all chairs off the floor/And if he stands to the wall/Show him the door” is worth the price of admission on its own.

Calling your first album No One Can Do it Better was a boast, a youthful provocation; the D.O.C. was still only 21 when the album dropped in August 1989. Sadly, he never got a chance to prove that it was really true. Later that year he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car (he was by his own admission drunk and high; that same night he was let off a DUI by police who’d seen the gold records on his backseat). He slammed into a central reservation barrier, was thrown through his car window and ended up in a tree. His teeth were nearly all knocked out and he was taken to hospital, where his vocal cords were severely damaged while the doctors tried to insert a tube in his throat as he struggled with them. A later operation to remove the scar tissue, aimed at enabling him to return to performing, made the situation worse, with his voice left permanently weak and raspy.

Today, Curry claims that, the way he was living at the time, he probably wouldn’t still be alive if it hadn’t been for that accident. This may be true. Yet the damage to his larynx was a huge blow to his career. His damaged voice, robbed of its power and malleability (and physically painful for him to produce), was only really workable in certain sonic contexts: while it sounded appropriately creepy and sepulchral over a Cypress Hill-style backing, it no longer worked for the style of music that had made his name and in which he excelled so effortlessly. Nearly thirty years later, he has the rep and the money from his work with NWA, but his story remains a sad one, a story of what might have been.

Disturbing music

The Quietus published a piece yesterday in which contributors wrote about the pieces of music they find most disturbing. There’s some good choices in there, some interesting discussions, and some properly creepy stuff.

Inevitably, there’s lots of black metal – not my thing, but as long as neither the fans nor the bands are killing anyone or burning any churches I bear it no ill will. There’s lots of avant stuff: Nurse With Wound and Residents and Diamanda Galas. Unfamiliar with the latter’s oeuvre, I listened to all 11.44 of This is the Law of the Plague from her Plague Mass live album. It’s hard work, but it is undeniably powerful in its intense sincerity. Her brother died of Aids and Galas’s fury at the moralising of the Catholic church (and its recourse to Old Testament authority to justify its callous disregard for the suffering of Aids victims), is evident in her every word and ululation.

There are some idiosyncratic choices, too. I mean, I get finding What’s New Pussycat distasteful. I get finding it annoying. But disturbing seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Lists like these are often pointless clickbait, and contain little insight or depth. This one’s good, though, because the subject is interesting, because the contributors bring mostly interesting insight to their nominations, and because its something many music fans will have spent time thinking about themselves.

Like many people, I have strong emotional reactions to music, and I can definitely think of music that has disturbed me. That moment where the Mellotron voices come in at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the way their inhuman blankness and mechanical vibrato supplant all the warmth and humanity of Gaye’s preceding performance, ending the song on an ambiguous, doom-laden note. Some of the more extreme moments on Radiohead’s OK Computer unnerved me when I first came into contact with them: the brutally distorted and compressed bass guitar that gatecrashes Exit Music; the eerie noises of Climbing Up the Walls, and Thom Yorke’s feral screams that bring the song to an end. When I first heard Nirvana’s In Utero at, what, 12 years old, it was all too much for me: I could put no name to the emotions the songs expressed. I put it away in a drawer for about a week before coming tentatively back to it and slowly coming to understand it, as best someone who’s never shared those experiences ever could, anyways.

But if asked what music I find most disturbing now, I’d have to, like Bob Cluness in the Quietus article, plump for György Ligeti’s Requiem.

Like many, I was first exposed to Ligeti’s music when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much about the film disturbed me. I find the idea of space oppressive, bordering on terrifying. The idea of nothing – of nothing on a cosmic scale – is close to unimaginable, and whenever I come close to imagining it, it scares me all the more. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, moments like that shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL and his oxygen supply severed, are just horrifying.

And to add to the dread, Kubrick chose to set some of the heaviest, tensest moments in the film (the encounters with the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter, and the stargate sequence) to Ligeti’s music: Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères.

These pieces are exercises in micropolyphony. Polyphony (“many voices”) is the simultaneous use of two or more independent lines of melody (as opposed to a melody with supporting harmonies, whether vocal or from accompanying instruments). Micropoyphony (a technique developed by Ligeti) is the use of many independent lines, each moving at a different speed or in a different rhythm, so that individual melodic lines themselves become hard, or impossible, to discern, instead creating a kind of cloud of sound, resembling a cluster chord except for the fact that it constantly moves. Ligeti’s music is disturbing on a second-by-second basis because it’s amorphous, because its shape is impossible to discern, because we can never get a handle on it: try to follow one voice and you’ll be defeated as others swarm around it, merge with it, transform it.

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)

György Ligeti, quoted in Jonathan W Bernard’s article Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti

I am in awe of Ligeti’s ability to create this music. It’s is the closest music has come, maybe the closest any artform has come, to grasping and properly invoking the infinite, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I wonder if listening back to his creations unnerved even him.