Monthly Archives: October 2015

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 4: I Heard it Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine is one of Motown’s highest achievements: a fantastic song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (writer and original performer of Money (That’s What I Want), produced brilliantly by Whitfield and featuring an inspired arrangement by Paul Riser, a career-highlight vocal from Gaye and top-notch performances from every musician and technician involved in it.

As was often the case when his staff produced something technically innovative or emotionally raw, label boss Berry Gordy was suspicious of the record and blocked its release as a single. Whitfield went on to produce another version with Gladys Knight. Despite a busy bassline by James Jamerson, Knight’s version is approximately one-tenth the record that Gaye’s is: a rather lame attempt to muscle in on Aretha Franklin’s turf. Gordy didn’t much care for Knight’s cut, either.

What Gaye’s version had and Knight’s lacked was genuine edge, the desperation that’s evident in Gaye’s record from the first note of its ominous intro: a single snare hit like the slamming of a door, quickly followed on the other side of the stereo field by that classic intro riff, supported by a simple kick-and-hi-hat groove, over which a tambourine hisses like a rattlesnake. The right hand of the piano and a harmonised guitar enter (again on opposing sides of the stereo field), the brass swoops in, and Marvin starts singing.

“Oooh-oooh I bet you wondered how I knew…”

It’s a bravura moment, and the record’s barely begun.

Whitfield’s genius extended right down to the way the drum track was arranged. Playable by one person, the drum part for Gaye’s take on Grapevine was – at least according to this article – performed by two drummers, with a third adding bongos. The three guys in question were Uriel Jones, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Benny Benjamin. I don’t know for sure who played what, but most of the sources I’ve seen suggest Allen and Jones both played “drums” (meaning a drum kit) and Benjamin “percussion”, implying that he was on bongos (the tambourine was almost certainly Jack Ashford). One of the two drummers played kick and hi-hat, with occasional full-kit fills, while the other simply hit two and four on what sounds like either a particularly slack-tuned tom-tom or a similarly low-tuned snare with the wires off.

It’s a fundamental part of the grammar of pop music that the backbeat is provided by a snare drum. Any time a drummer chooses to substitute a snare drum for a tom, the alert listener will feel that something is up. It creates a tension. Is the drummer eventually going to break out of this pattern and switch to the more open-sounding snare drum, releasing the tension, or will the drummer simply keep going and ratchet it up even further?

At 1.57, for four bars, the drummer playing full kit finally brings in the snare, while the other drummer reinforces the beat with his tom. But just as soon as the tension is released in this way, the final verse begins and the original groove is restored. And that’s how it stays, with Gaye unable to break free of the trap he’s caught in. It’s a demonstration of how a great drum track can narrate a song, just as surely as any singer.

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The unbelievably incongruous sleeve of I Heard it Through the Grapevine

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 3: Sick of Myself – Matthew Sweet

Of all the supporting players on Matthew Sweet’s 1990 album Girlfriend, it’s his lead guitarists who drew all the attention. Small wonder, when the guitarists in question were Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. That’s some serious fretboard power. On a record that’s somewhat sonically unsatisfying (small-sounding, excessively dry, underwhelming low end), Lloyd and Quine provide most of the excitement and most of the rock.

By the time Sweet made 100% Fun in 1995, the grunge wave had crested and receded, but his sound was still saturated with alt.rock sonic signifiers (similar things happened to the Posies and Aimee Mann in the same period). Compared to Girlfriend, 100% Fun sounds like it’s been pumped up with steroids. Sweet’s Epiphone semi-acoustic grunts and growls rather than chimes, and Ric Menck’s drums are an enormous foreground presence rather than a discreet tapping from somewhere at the back (or worse, the side) of the mix.

Good rock music is all about the energy and power provided by the drums, and it’s Menck who steals the show on album opener Sick of Myself, despite the best efforts of Television’s Lloyd and his squalling Fender. Menck smashes his crash cymbals in the intro and choruses, plays big smacking hi-hat quarter notes in the verses and generally pounds on his snare drum like it’s done him a personal injury. There’s no showiness to any of it. He’s just making as big a noise as possible. He sounds like he’s having a ball doing it. According to Sweet, when they tracked what became Sick of Myself, he hadn’t really written the vocal parts other than the hook line in the chorus, and it was how great the drums and rhythm guitar track sounded together that inspired him to finish the piece and make it into a proper song.

Aiding and abetting him were producer Brendan O’Brien and O’Brien’s frequent partner in crime, tracking engineer Nick DiDia, who cooked up a particularly great drum sound for the album. The snare is absolutely huge (it sounds very wide, if that makes sense – presumably from just the right blend of close snare mike and stereo rooms, but I’m taking a shot on that. Could be wrong), and if the toms are comparatively small, they don’t really play a huge part in the performance; if O’Brien privileged the snare when mixing, he made absolutely the right call. It’s the crucial instrument in the mix. It’s what supplied the song with its attitude. Fittingly, the guy playing it sounded like he was having 100% fun.

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Sweet shills for Epiphone  (1996) – and who among us would turn down a free Casino or two?

Matthew Caws @ The Islington/Randy Newman @ the Royal Festival Hall

Two gigs in 48 hours, in venues as vastly different as is possible.

On Saturday night I went with Mel and Sara to see Matthew Caws from Nada Surf play a free show at the Islington, announced via his Instagram the day before. The Islington is a tiny venue, with a capacity of maybe 100. I’ve played drums there with Sumner, and it was the place I saw Jon Auer play a wonderful set in August 2014.

It was a really great night. I’m not yet that familiar with his work, although I’ve heard most of Nada Surf’s records, and Get There, the record he made with Juliana Hatfield as Minor Alps. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing, then, that I recognised tracks like See These Bones, Maxon, Your Legs Grow, Ice on the Wing and Always Love in a stripped down, voice-and-guitar setting having heard the recorded originals no more than a few times each.

Nada Surf passed me by in their early years – I know they had a big MTV hit with Popular, but I’ve not knowingly heard it; if he had played it on Saturday, I wouldn’t have recognised it. At this stage of his career, Caws is a world away from MTV Beach House, son-of-Weezerisms. Without getting ponderous or self-serious, his songs have become deeper and richer, his voice remains supple and boyish, and his impressive guitar playing (several songs switched between neat fingerpicking and flatpick strumming) is all he really needs to put the songs over; See These Bones, the last song he played on Saturday, was no less impressive than its recorded counterpart, with nothing lost in translation from full band to solo arrangement.

If it wasn’t quite the experience for me that seeing Jon Auer was, that’s only because I don’t have the long relationship with Matthew Caws’s music that I have with Auer’s work with the Posies. Sara, who is a long-time fan, had a similar experience that I had with the Auer gig, I think, and Mel, who wasn’t familiar with him at all, left intrigued and wanting to hear more.

*

On Monday night, I headed to the rather more august Royal Festival Hall with James and Dan McKean to see Randy Newman.

I’ve not seen too many shows by real veterans. The old guys I see tend to be 40- or 50-something, not 70-something like Newman. His voice, never smooth in his youth, is now a somewhat limited instrument. The effect of this was the opposite of what you might expect. It gave his ballads a fragility that was at times heartbreaking – She Chose Me (a song from Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock, of all things) was a genuine goosebump moment – but hampered the delivery of the ragtimey, satirical songs, which were more declaimed than sung, with the phrasing lacking just a little of the subtlety of the originals.

However, this was a set lasting over two hours (with a 20-minute interval), with time for Newman to play some 30-odd songs (and give us a lot of, uniformly hilarious, anecdotes), and the duds were few and far between. There weren’t many top-tier Newman songs that didn’t get an airing: I Miss You, God’s Song, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, I Love LA, Birmingham, Marie, Short People, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Political Science, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Losing You, the stupendous Louisiana 1927, Sail Away, and even the seldom-performed Rednecks (because of its use of the N-word; Newman took pains to explain the character and perspective he adopts within the song, which is something he doesn’t otherwise do).

Shorn of their band arrangements, some of the songs did fall a little flat. I adore I Love LA and have defended its parent album here, but without that triumphant synth riff and triumphalist backing vocals, the song is not what it could otherwise be. Similarly, My Life is Good without the blowhard’s increasingly agitated protests at the end (“My life is good, you old bag!”) as the music gets subtly more dissonant is only half the song. Why not forgo it and play something more suited to a voice-and-piano presentation, like Dayton, Ohio-1903 or He Gives Us All His Love?

Minor quibbles, really.

James once said to me, about the experience of watching Paul McCartney, that after a while, you just stand there in amazement that one man wrote all these songs, and that one man is standing up there singing them. That’s how Monday was for me. I’d give pretty much anything to write a song as good as Louisiana 1927. Hell, to write Short People, even. Newman is one of the greatest, a guy that pretty much every songwriter looks up to in the knowledge that they can’t play on the turf he’s playing on. I got to see him, playing all those songs. It was quite something.

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This guy

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 2: Don’t Let Go – En Vogue

En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers (such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aethetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the girls’ new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.

That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who’s also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. He gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there’s lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenth notes and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.

Lil John Roberts
Lil John Roberts, and his iPod-style bass drum resonant

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 1: The Groove Line – Heatwave

It’s back.

It’s time, once again, to discuss underrated drum tracks. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be doing a series of posts, each concentrating on one song with a great, and comparatively unappreciated, drum performances. They may be well known songs, but if they are they’ll be songs that tend to be discussed for elements other that the drums.

OK, here we go then.

Heatwave were a truly international bunch. Two American vocalists (both former GIs who had been stationed in Germany), two Englishman (one of whom went on to become trusted right-hand man of one of popular music’s most legendary producers, but more of him later), a Spaniard and a Czech.

The latter was Ernest Berger, nicknamed “Bilbo”, a portly, baby-faced drummer, gifted with one of the most solid right feet and funkiest left hands you ever did hear.

Disco comes in two basic flavours: 16th notes on the hats or eighths (quavers). Whichever you play, the snare will be on two and four, and the kick will be on every quarter note. The kick being played on every beat (which is often known as a four on the floor beat) is fundamentally what makes it disco. Not every disco song has this kind of drum pattern, but the vast majority do.

A disco track is nothing without a good steady pulse, but a machine can provide that if that’s all that’s required. It’s the ways in which a drummer can impart his or her own feel that really lifts a song. If you want to hear this for yourself, import Billie Jean into a DAW, chop out everything except the drum intro and loop it. Listen to it, feel it and absorb it. Then quantise it and play it back. Quantising is a process whereby a musical performance (usually a part played on a MIDI keyboard or a drum part) is snapped to a predefined grid, so that every event happens on a precise subdivision of a bar). Quantise the opening drums to Billie Jean and you’ll realise pretty quickly that something pretty major, and obviously detrimental, has happened. In the manner of funk drummers since time immemorial, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, the drummer, played the backbeat on the snare late – not late as in, not in time; late as in, on the very back of the beat. It’s the push and pull between the kick that hits on the middle of one and three and the snare at the very back of two and four that makes it feel so great.

Ernest Berger did the same thing on Heatwave’s hits, notably The Groove Line and the deathless Boogie Nights. The basic groove (a 16th-note pattern) is supplemented by handclaps, which add to the funky feel; they seem to “drag” the backbeat even more. Berger’s performance is full of cool little details and live-sounding fills, but my favourite details is how he modifies the hi-hat pattern for the choruses (under the lines “Rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re riding on the groove line”), switching to a swingier feel for a few bars, playing two strokes strokes on the hat on the hats between the 1 and 2 (kick, left, right, kick/snare, left, right, etc). It’s a fantastic detail to really lift the choruses.

The song itself was written by the band’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. The blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. The story, oft told by both, is that Quncy was flabbergasted to hear that the guy who’d been writing some of the baddest R&B, funk and disco hits of the era was a geeky-looking white guy from England. Hugely impressed with Temperton, Jones took him into his inner circle. Temperton’s songs are on Off the Wall (Rock With You, Off the Wall, Burn this Disco Out) and Thriller (Baby Be Mine, Thriller, The Lady in My Life), and he also wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson and hits for Patti Austin, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne and Rufus.

Long as I Can See the Light – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival remain as cool as they come. I’ve never met anyone with a bad word to say about them. They managed to make something hugely difficult look very easy: they had an instantly recognisable core sound, built on the most basic garage-band foundations, but their music reached out in all kinds of directions – to the blues, to soul, country, psychedelia, hard rock – all at the same time. They could be anything they wanted, yet were always themselves too. Down on the Corner, one of the band’s most exuberant moments, was a double A side with Fortunate Son, probably the group’s angriest. Think on that pair of songs for a moment.*

John Fogerty’s vision for his music was clear-headed and allied to a single-minded, relentless work ethic that, at least initially, the whole band shared: four albums in two years, three in 1969 alone (one of them called, not coincidentally, Cosmo’s Factory). Their singles were always hits, and in an almost unique achievement for a white rock band, they were R&B hits as well as pop hits. As Marcello Carlin put it in his write-up of Cosmo’s Factory, “Fogerty’s men spoke to the working man but the beauty about Creedence’s brief fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them or stir up something deep and important within them.”

The more I listen to Creedence, the more I hear Long as I Can See the Light as the quintessential CCR song, in that best it demonstrates the band’s soulfulness and their resourcefulness, their ability to realise their vision all by themselves. Slow and bluesy, its arrangement is dominated by Fogerty’s Fender Rhodes, moaning horns and his white-soul holler (which gets into stratospheric Robert Plant territory during the third verse: “But I won’t, won’t…“), but contains a delightful surprise in a saxophone solo halfway through, played of course by Fogerty, showing his skill on the instrument went further than the sustained notes he holds in the verses (or the endearingly out of tune honks on Travelin’ Band). Like everything else about Fogerty’s music – which constitutes, as Carlin argued, some sort of Grand Unifying Theory of American music – it’s just so entirely without bullshit or fuss.

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Creedence: John Fogerty left

*Possibly only Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby contains a wider emotional range than this double A.

Pop songs about pop songs: Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish (repost)

Hi all. Sorry for doing the repost thing, but it’s been a very busy week and I’m not feeling all that well. I’m having trouble shaking a cold I’ve had for a week now. In fact, just when I thought I was OK, it came back stronger than before. Hopefully be back with something new on Sunday.

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. Their meta-pop – pop songs written about pop songs, with a pervasive sense of irony and a sense that they weren’t taking any of this too seriously – just didn’t catch on. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC. They looked like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing. They became instead a cult band, loved by a devoted few.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum. Leaving aside the band members and hired players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who had succeeded Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer during their disco-era records and had serious hit-making pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians who shared their outlook, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something breezier and lighter on its feet, in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

Jellyfish