Music fans can get pretty hung up on constructing taxonomies – making connections between artists, giving a name to every genre and sub-genre, and fitting everyone neatly into their boxes. Bookshelves groan under the weight of literature telling the story of popular music through the prism of scenes (be it Merseybeat, Brill Building, Chicago blues, Motown, Laurel Canyon, grunge, or whatever). The problem with taking the scene-based approach to pop music history, though, is the tendency to overlook musicians who don’t fit easily into a sonic, chronological or geographical category. They get forgotten.
Take Suzanne Vega – a huge fan of both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, whose first recordings were released through Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk magazine, also a vehicle for the much more obviously rootsy likes of Lyle Lovett, John Gorka and Shawn Colvin (all were regulars at Hardy’s Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange). Vega’s early work was produced by Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, and her later, more electronic work would see garner her US Modern Rock hits (number ones, even, in the case of Blood Makes Noise), yet she has always been an essentially mainstream figure, one whom my grandparents recognised and approved of. It’s a strange space she occupies, or so many spaces that she ends up in a sort of non-space.
Her famous early recordings aren’t much help as we try to work out what kind of music we’re listening to. There’s something a little prissy about Small Blue Thing and Marlene on the Wall, in both sonics and arrangement, that doesn’t sound alt. or indie; the Suzanne-in-a-cavern reverb of Small Blue Thing, meanwhile, immediately dates the recording to the mid-eighties, and tells us we’re not listening to a straightforward folksinger record, which typically are recorded and mixed drier, closer and more intimate.
Things become a little clearer on Solitude Standing, Vega’s second album – the record that gave us Tom’s Diner and her breakthrough hit Luka. Rather like contemporaneous records such as Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over or Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Luka’s sound is inflated a little bigger than it needs to be, and the guitarist’s tone is regrettable (that quacky out-of-phase Strat tone was already a cliché in 1987), but the sensibility of the production isn’t at war with that of the writing on Luka (everyone seems to agree that they’re making pop music, whereas no one seemed really to know on her debut) – and while Stephen Ferrera’s drums are a little on the big side, he delivers a performance that’s just as musical as it is muscular.
Ferrera assumes more than just a timekeeping role on Luka. From his opening snare fill, he provides a sort of commentary on the song as it progresses, responding to Vega’s vocal with emphases on the toms, anxious snare fills and cymbal crashes. When the guitarist comes in with his first quacky solo, Ferrera begins to vary his kick drum pattern to provide more lift and propulsion. It’s a clever detail that gives the song a push without actually shifting the tempo.
The most notable element of the rhythm track is of course those huge tom hits that are used as punctuation at the end of every second bar in the verses. As Ferrera’s hi-hat maintains steady eighth notes at the same time, and as most drummers who play the song with her live forsake those tom hits,* I guess they were overdubbed. Possibly their being recorded in isolation from the rest of the kit accounts for how huge they are in the mix; they make a pretty mighty thud. Either way, they’re really integral to the arrangement; the song always loses something, for me anyway, when I hear a live performance that doesn’t feature them.
Ferrera’s ear for detail eventually took him from studio drummer to producer to A&R to record executive. He landed the American Idol franchise for RCA, helping to launch Kelly Clarkson’s recording career, before becoming Senior VP of A&R at Columbia. He died of lung cancer in January 2014. As a drummer, he was the very definition of underrated.
The only photo I could find of Stephen Ferrera from his drumming days
*One exception was Anton Fig, when Vega played the song on Letterman. I assume it was Fig, anyway. That performance was 1987, and he joined in 1986, so it’s him unless someone was depping that night.