Monthly Archives: March 2013

Phil Ramone

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.

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Phil Ramone, ©Ken Weingart/Getty Images

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On reverb, echo and delay as studio effects

Give someone with a practiced ear a recording and they’ll be able to date it for you pretty quickly, to within a range of two or three years probably. Fashions change in music production and mix topologies, and so any element in a record may potentially give away when it was made: a particular guitar sound, the presence of a certain bass drum sample, the sound of the snare drum (tuning, size, damping, volume), the presence of programmed sub bass; anything really.

But perhaps the quickest route to determining the date of the production will be the amount and the type of reverb or echo used.

In the very earliest days of recording, making a record meant bringing a group of musicians into a room and positioning them around a recording horn. You’d base their positions on how loud you wanted their instrument to be in the end product. If you were working in a reverberant, live-sounding room, you’d make a reverberant, live-sounding record. In a dead room, you’d make a dead-sounding record. As magnetic tape became the standard recording medium and as consoles got bigger and engineers developed ways to treat signals during mix that had been recorded without effects (‘dry’), it became possible to create unusual, even other-worldly, sound pictures that weren’t at all based on the reality of the room the music was tracked in. As often as not, the appearance of reverb in a pop record would be an illusion, separate to and grafted on to a musical performance during mixing. You could solo the vocal, play it back in a cathedral nave and record the echoey sound produced by the sound bouncing around such a large structure, and hey presto, cathedral reverb. Generally speaking, then, the performer probably did not hear the echo or reverb that appears on the record while he or she performed; it was an extra-musical event. It may have been there to add a sheen, a sense of dimensionality, to make the music ‘sound expensive’, to make the record ‘sound like a record’ (to employ a couple of studioland clichés), but like most everything else in the realm of recorded music, it was an artifice.

Engineers developed a whole gamut of such techniques in order to better serve the wishes of their artist and producer clients, but history shows that any such technique can become wildly unfashionable at a moment’s notice. The use of the gated snare (that is, gigantic reverb on a snare drum turned on and off abruptly by applying a gate to an ambient microphone) was so prevalent in the eighties that it could be counted an absolutely standard studio technique. In 1993, nothing sounded more dated than the gated snare and a record-maker employing one would likely have been laughed out of town.

Broadly speaking, in the fifties/sixties and eighties the trend was towards spacious, reverby mixes and the seventies and nineties saw a move towards tighter, drier productions. The sixties reverb sound was produced by the use of large acoustic spaces to track in, and/or the use of plate reverbs or echo chambers. The eighties’ reverb sound was more likely an effect added at mixdown by using the Lexicon 224, an early (hardware) digital reverb processor, or some other similar signal-processing device. They produce very different effects – some of the Lexicon sounds are so over the top as to be cartoonish, and over-enthusiastic engineers and producers did some terribly heavy-handed things with them.

However, even then synthetic reverb effects (that is, effects produced not by tracking in a live room, or playing back the signal in an echo chamber, or through a plate or spring unit) were not new. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, made a trademark of creating an echo effect on the vocal by multing it and running the copy though an extra tape machine, delaying the copy slightly compared to the original. This sound became synonymous with Sun Records, and with rockabilly more generally. This sound has since been endlessly copied, revived and parodied. At this very minute, somewhere in the world, someone is making a record right now with a tape-delayed vocal, and congratulating themselves for their witty and original use of this fresh and innovative production technique.

Which kind of gets me to my point. Pop started eating itself long ago and while new techniques are always being created and employed, nothing really new has happened with the use of spatial effects (that is, echo, reverb and delay) since dub. Reverb, echo and delay are now so loaded with signifiers, so weighted down with the history of record production, that if one hears a striking, prominent use of a spatial effect on a contemporary record (or a very dry record that contains almost no such processing), what one is hearing is merely a quotation or a reference from another, older – and almost certainly fresher – record. All that differs is the number of quotation marks around the effect.

Perhaps this will change. Modern pop records are so dense, so loud and compressed that things like reverb tails tend to get swallowed up by persistent, steady-state instruments such as synths and programmed bass. But rock and indie is still rife with lazy, heavy-handed and uncreative uses of echo and reverb, and personally I want to hear something more driven by personal emotional expression and less driven by the desire to do something just because Sam Phillips (or Spector, or Clearmountain) did it.

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The vast nave of Westminster Cathedral, © Mike Quinn

The Lee Shore – David Crosby and Graham Nash

One sure way to make me happy is to put something by David Crosby on the stereo. I love the Cros – his voice, his tunes, his chords, his scat singing. His work, in sound, mood and atmosphere, is singular: no one else can do with a guitar and voice what he does (and, to declare a bias, many of my favourite artists are similar voice-and-guitar one-offs: Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Paul Simon). Get Graham Nash to sing a harmony on top and I’ll listen for hours.

It’s not just Crosby’s music that I find endlessly fascinating. His career, his place in the history of rock’n’roll, is worth studying too. As one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young he was a part of America’s instant Beatles, for CSNY was perhaps the biggest band of the early seventies. Yet to win the crown, all they had to do was turn up. They did not need to conquer the world one gig at a time as for example Led Zeppelin did, with their four tours in 1970 alone. Since their work with their previous bands had made them all famous, and as the group’s debut Crosby, Stills and Nash had already been released, they simply picked Woodstock as their coming-out party and made sure they played a decent set to justify the hype. That performance alone secured their reputation. And in retrospect it is a pivotal moment in the West Coast scene’s move from the socially progressive idealism of the folk-rock mid-sixties to the cocaine-fuelled megalomania of the arena-rock mid-seventies.

By 1977, when CSN made their third album (simply called CSN), the first wave of singer-songwriters (of whom Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as individual artists, can all be properly judged to belong) had either ascended to a level of idiosyncrasy that made their music sui generis (like Young, whose ragged electric rock distinguished him firmly from his mellow peers, and Joni Mitchell, who was getting progressively jazzier) or were sliding into a mushy, inoffensive soft rock. Such was the fate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The tracks on CSN were all meditative relationship songs, Fleetwood Mac with a softer beat and the extremes of emotion removed. The cover picture was of the three of them sharing a joke on Crosby’s yacht and this kind of music, as we have discussed in relation to Bobby Caldwell, has come to be known as yacht rock, which is shorthand for a smooth and airy soft rock which spoke loudly of its authors’ success and privilege, symbolised by the yachts on which so many were pictured for album covers. The record’s all very pleasant and the craftsmanship is obvious, but something crucial has been lost here. While the music of the singer-songwriters was usually interior-looking – and by extension could be criticised as self-absorbed and narcissistic – it was still implicitly counter-cultural when so much of it was about quality of consciousness. To examine one’s own existence and in so doing admit that Western capitalism is not in itself enough to bring about peace of mind – let alone enlightenment – is in itself a political act. What infected the music of CSN (and they were far from alone in this) after around 1974 is complacency. The authors of these songs are no longer asking any questions, even of themselves. They seem unaware that there might be a need to.

The Lee Shore had been written as early as 1970, before this rot sets in. As he relates taking his ‘floating home […] from here to Venezuela’, Crosby – a keen real-life sailor – is once again caught on the horns of that old dilemma: to engage with the world and its inequalities and inequities on one hand, or just drop out and create an alternate society, away from everyone else’s rules, on the other. As a successful rock star, the option to do the latter was available to him. But it was a question he seems never to have resolved within himself. In the end, caught up in the inertial forces of his own addictions and his grief over his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident, he chose instead to bury the issue under cocaine and heroin and it cost him fifteen years of his life.

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David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.

What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

There exists a strain of music that came into existence around 1975 and began to disappear in around 1985. It sits on the opposite end of the fidelity spectrum to the messy lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff that entranced me as a teenager. Not a genre so much as a sensibility, it’s principally American (although copied all over the world) and could only exist in a booming industry. Its creation required the spending of a great deal of money, both on studio time and top-flight musicians; pillow-soft but steady as machine, it is, crucially, not machine-made. When hardware sequencing became a dominant studio resource in the mid-eighties, this music was finished commercially within a year or so and done altogether by the mid-nineties. Not black or white, not rock or pop, not funk or soul, it was instead all of these and none of these. To make it you need electric pianos, jazz chords, dampened drums and vocals mixed dry and close. It was made by adults, for adults. To this day, it doesn’t have a satisfactory name. Some call it yacht rock, which speaks to its opulence but says nothing about the music itself, relatively little of which was rock.

Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Caldwell is not a major figure in the recording industry’s history; he’s a Michael McDonald or Boz Scaggs but without the deep songbook, a white singer of black music (convincing enough that his label marketed him to a black audience and put a silhouette painting of him on the cover so they wouldn’t twig that he was white). Yet minor figures can make major records; any major dude will tell you that much.

Many of the qualities we perceive in music have obverse and reverse sides: ‘sensitive’ can easily flip over into ‘drippy’. ‘Soulful’ can become ‘histrionic’. ‘Refined’ can become ‘boring’. ‘Stylish’ can become ‘vapid’. This happens with wearying regularity. Sometimes telling one from the other is just a matter of perception; an artist’s subtlety can come to seem timid over the course of a whole record. With this song, though, Caldwell managed to pull off that rare trick: everything good about Bobby Caldwell as singer, writer and record-maker is in this cut, and none of the weaknesses are present. The result is a record that’s damn near perfect.

What You Won’t Do For Love hit big, deservedly, on the pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s been covered by Boyz II Men, Roy Ayers, Goldie and Go West and sampled by 2Pac (three times!), Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap and the Luniz. Caldwell will have a comfortable retirement off that little lot. Good on him.

But the style he worked in is a thing of the past now. As the record-making process became more computerised, the precision of the drum machine became more highly valued than the feel of a steady human drummer. Yet the feel of this style of music was the result of asking gifted musicians to play understatedly – steadily – without obvious shows of virtuosity, in service of the song. While the programmed rhythm and the MIDI keyboard might have seemed like shortcuts to a professional-sounding sheen, they led instead to the brashness and gigantism that we now associate with the eighties (but which didn’t begin at the start of the decade – it crept in instead, becoming the dominant aesthetic around 1984 and 1985) and the rigidity and uniformity of today. Once-mighty kings of this smooth, soul-inflected pop music – Steely Dan, McDonald, Scaggs – now huddle together for  warmth like disaster survivors, touring together as the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. Ticket prices are astronomical: then as now, great players, horn sections and orchestras cost money. Then as now, this shit is expensive

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Just to clear things up…

bobby-caldwell

This is Bobby Caldwell, funky white guy.

Bobby-Caldwell drums

This is Bobby Caldwell, drummer

bobby caldwell

This is Dr Bobby Caldwell, plastic surgeon on St Elsewhere

For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to some of my music:

How I Made My Millions – Radiohead

Every school-age Radiohead fan knows that Thom Yorke recorded this ‘No Surprises’ B-side at home on a four-track while his partner chopped vegetables and did the washing up. Home recording, for musicians, is a commonplace idea, and more and more people seem aware that in the contemporary music industry, a lot of records are home-made or semi-home-made. But imagine what it was like back in the Jurassic era (OK, the mid-1990s): I’d been playing guitar for, I don’t know, a year or so when I read a round-up of six or eight portastudios in a guitar magazine. While even £300 for a basic Tascam 414 model was way beyond my means at 14 or 15, it was the first time I realised that a musician could make some sort of recording at home. I’d come across the term ‘lo-fi’ in a book, but I had no idea what ‘lo-fi’ sounded like, or how it was achieved. This new knowledge, that recording had been somehow democratised, came to me with the force of a revelation. As my musical tastes and knowledge widened, to include such artists as Elliott Smith and Lou Barlow, I developed a definite taste for the lo-fi.

There’s a scene in the film Ray where Ray Charles and Margie Hendricks spontaneously write and perform ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ while in the middle of a furious argument. It’s the single most risible incident in a film that stretches credibility much too far much too often. But maybe that scene is true to the way non-musicians imagine that songwriters work. Maybe it isn’t that big a stretch for a general audience to believe that songs do burst fully formed into life like that. If so, perhaps what Radiohead fans treasure about this recording is that sense that they’re hearing Yorke play the song for the first time; perhaps they imagine they are hearing the moment of creation, not a moment several hours into the process when the writer has pulled the words and chords and notes into shape and taken the time to set up a microphone to record an early version of their new work. The four-track demo suggests an authentic, unproduced creative moment, when in fact a four-track recording no more spontaneously happens than a pencil sketch for an oil painting spontaneously happens. It still takes time and preparation to put a sketch down on paper, however rough the sketch.

Thinking back to my adolescence, I did believe that lo-fi records were somehow more authentic – and morally purer – than high-budget, mainstream records. Certainly the lack of production options inherent in working in a DIY setting back then ensured that self-recorded songs, almost without exception, had simple arrangements and that little mistakes stayed in unless the musician could play a whole take flawlessly. So I can’t mock a Radiohead fan who feels that in How I Made My Millions they have the opportunity of being a fly on the wall during Thom Yorke’s creative process, because as a 16-year-old I believed something very similar myself.

But for sure it does take a skilful and single-minded musician to drag his or her music through the modern production process without it losing something vital. Records that still contain the initial spark of inspiration are rarer nowadays, at all levels of the music industry, as some of the tools of hi-fi recording (or at least mid-fi recording) have become more widely available. In January 1998 ‘How I Made My Millions’ gave younger Radiohead fans a taste of the vibrancy and spark that is more readily perceptible in records in the fifties, sixties and early seventies than in the rest of Radiohead’s oeuvre, and which they perhaps hadn’t heard before, and that likely explains its status as one of the most beloved of Radiohead B-sides.

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It’s a Lonesome Old Town – Frank Sinatra

When Frank Sinatra signed to Capitol Records in 1953, he launched an artistic hot streak to which the only serious comparison in popular music since has been the Beatles’ career between 1963 and their dissolution in 1970. For the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Sinatra alternately released collections of uptempo swing numbers and increasingly punishing albums of ballads, never mixing the two on the same LP. In so doing Sinatra, along with his producer Voyle Gilmore, arguably invented the concept album.

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely may be the pick of these records, but it is also the bleakest. Sinatra had gone through a divorce from Ava Gardner, and arranger Nelson Riddle (a late substitute for the singer’s preferred choice of Gordon Jenkins) had just lost his mother and his daughter. The album Sinatra and Riddle made together in these unhappy times goes far beyond melancholy, achieving instead an eerie, exhilarating desolation.

The album was, as was Capitol custom at the time, recorded using two separate set-ups running simultaneously: eight orchestra mics for the mono recording and a three-mic ‘Decca Tree’ configuration for the stereo. There are audiophiles who claim the mono sounds better. To my ears, the stereo mix is musically superior because the lack of competition for aural real estate in the centre of the stereo picture gives Sinatra and his voice a bigger area to wander around disconsolately in, so to speak. As gorgeous as the orchestration is, nothing pulls you away from Sinatra’s performances. And what magnificent performances they are. Sinatra inhabits every line of the song, he explores every nuance of the lyrics, pulling the beat this way and that as he goes.

Riddle’s arrangements, meanwhile, with the dimensionality and wider soundstage afforded by stereo, range from enveloping warmth to disconcerting coldness (witness the uneasy-sounding ‘suicide’ strings that open the track, and their insinuating, spiralling recurrence at 2.08: they could have come straight from a Scott Walker record, or from a horror-movie score).

Sinatra’s phrasing was always at its most inimitable and deeply felt on ballads, particularly in the fifties, and he’s at the very top of his game on It’s a Lonesome Old Town. Notice how frequently he’s slightly in front of the beat, as if these painful admissions are coming out in little spurts he can’t quite control. This is not the ‘Fly me to… the moon’ Sinatra of a thousand tin-eared parodies. This is an artist of supreme technical facility letting go of all his little tricks and just singing the songs as he feels them.

Too unrelentingly dark to win the mass acceptance afforded to his swing albums, these records remain comparatively under-appreciated. Cuts such It’s a Lonesome Old Town are seldom played on the radio and often go unrepresented on compilations and retrospectives; the comparatively cutesy One for My Baby (cutesy being of course a relative term in this context) is the only song from Only the Lonely I’ve ever heard on daytime radio. But perhaps this is appropriate – no other records are as suited to late-night solo listening as Sinatra’s ballads albums. Small doses, though. They’re strong stuff

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He’s Frank Sinatra and you’re not.

A political preamble

This is not going to be a political blog. However, I do see the world a certain way and my appreciation of music, the arts and all the other things I’ll talk about here is filtered through a left-wing political sensibility, which may at times become evident. So on this single occasion (OK, I can’t promise never to return to matters political – they preoccupy me more and more), I may as well give you a bit of background.

Since the Thatcher/Reagan era, the narrative of the ideological right, reinforced constantly by politicians, newspapers and media figures, has essentially been, and this doesn’t seem set to change any time soon, that successful people have earned their success and they deserve to enjoy it. If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be all that objectionable. But the corollary to this – sometimes unspoken but implied, sometimes proudly declared – is that if the rich have earned their wealth, the poor have earned their poverty, whether through misdeeds, or poor choices, or lack of hard work. The money earned by wealthy people, then, should not be taken away from them and spent on the poor, the sick and the unemployed, who by and large deserve their fates.

Where to start with this? Well, this view of the world supposes that we are all in control of our lives and our choices, and that whatever we are, we have chosen to be. Anyone, if only he or she has the gumption, can make a material success of their lives with hard work and ambition. Far more than talent, graft and determination is all that is necessary.

This view of the world fails to recognise the importance of contacts, access to capital, luck, good health. It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of poverty of familial expectation. It fails to appreciate that a person might have the business acumen of Richard Branson and the inventive genius of James Dyson, but if she can’t get a loan because she has a low income, if she is struck down by degenerative illness, if she has talents that no one ever identified and helped nurture, if she has dependents who need her to earn a steady income – any steady income – then her talents will go unrewarded and unrealised.

This worldview results from this lack of imagination and empathy, from not understanding that it could happen to you.

Let me be clear (as politicians love to say): it can happen to you.

Unemployment can happen to you – it happened to me, when the firm I worked for full-time as a freelancer ceased trading without notice after the directors transferred all the assets out of the company and locked the staff out of the building, defrauding their employees, their freelancers and their clients.

Ill health could happen to you – it happened to me when my heart failed in 2011, leaving me hospitalised, facing an extremely uncertain future, and truly aware for the first time that in this country we really don’t care for our sick, our poor, our elderly and our under-educated. We treat them instead with barely concealed suspicion and resentment.

I am lucky. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy did not kill me, like it kills so many others. It – and this is down to extraordinary luck and good NHS treatment – did not even leave me particularly damaged. You wouldn’t know if you saw me on the street now that I had ever been ill. But when I was trying to come to terms with a life without any of the old certainties and opportunities, I realised what it is to depend on others, and I came to understand (not merely in an abstract sense) that the state does not want to help you, that for many there is no safety net.

You might not need a safety net today. You may imagine that those who do have been reckless and deserve the hardship they face. God forbid you ever go through what I have.

But when you’re next reading the paper, watching the news or casting your vote, perhaps you’ll think about this. And be thankful for the good fortune that allows you to live in such unthinking complacency.

That said, let’s talk music.