If my appreciation for lo-fi rock music was partly an ideological one – founded on an adolescent need to carve out an identity for myself as a musician and listener – my love for the music of Paul Simon was the reverse: instinctive, soul-deep and already in place when I was too young to even grasp that some music was new and some music old, some music cool and some square. At that age – eight, nine maybe – I hadn’t heard a whole Paul Simon record. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and we used to listen to it on car journeys to visit relatives. It took me places, made me feel stuff I didn’t understand yet. The post-divorce ennui of Simon’s Still Crazy-era songs shouldn’t have resonated with such a young kid, yet I absorbed every note, learned every word. I loved the way these records sounded, the way they felt.
After Simon himself, the man most responsible for the sound and feel of those records was Phil Ramone, who engineered and co-produced Simon’s mid-seventies records There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. Ramone died yesterday, aged 79. He was a true giant of record-making. Big Band Bossa Nova, Genius + Soul = Jazz, Getz/Gilberto, Blood on the Tracks, Still Crazy and Blood on the Tracks – Ramone recorded them all. He recorded Do You Know the Way to San Jose, The Look of Love (Dionne Warwick’s version and Dusty Springfield’s) and We Have All the Time in the World. Most engineers and producers would kill to have even his more minor artistic successes on their CVs: Rock of Ages, Ram, 52nd Street. Ramone’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself.
His records do, too. A sense of space, an ability to tailor instrument sounds to a particular recording while still retaining their identifiable sonic signatures, attention to detail, to the little things that lift a record – these are the Ramone hallmarks. It’s something of a shame that over the last twenty years or so this magnificent recordist and producer didn’t move a little more with the times and work with some younger, hungrier artists. I’d have loved to hear the work he might have done in the 1990s with a good songwriting guitar band, like Albhy Galuten did with Jellyfish and Glyn Johns with Belly. Instead he worked on a series of Duets records (two each with Sinatra and Bennett) and Rod Stewart’s execrable American Songbook series, seemingly happy to work on music that recalled that of his early career, despite the degradation of his collaborators’ vocal abilities.
But no amount of late-career clunkers can detract from the brilliance of his early work and his name will be remembered for as long as folks collect vibrations in air, mess around with them and make them come out of little speaker cones. Year by year we lose more of the greats from Phil Ramone’s generation, and things have changed so much in the industry that it’s unlikely we’ll see their kind again. But as long as millions continue to listen to Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, they’ll still be listening to Phil Ramone too.
Phil Ramone, ©Ken Weingart/Getty Images