Monthly Archives: December 2017

2017 Clip Show Post

Hi all. And a happy new year to you.

I’m writing this in my den – the study/studio/mix room I’m building in the house I bought with Mel. With the move taking up so much time, I’m aware that things have been slow around here of late, and with much home-making/furniture-building chores still to do, I’m only cautiously optimistic that’s going to change in the immediate future. But still, I love doing this and I enjoyed it this year, particularly until around September when things started to get stressful, so there’s no danger of me stopping any time soon!

Once again, here’s a round-up of some favourite things from the blog this year. Some of these have gotten some decent traction, others less so, but I’m picking on the basis of what I enjoyed writing and what I’m still proud of now. If some of these passed you by at the time, you might find some of them interesting.

Day of the Dead, disc one

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part two

Give Some More to the Bass Player , Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was – Radiohead

OK Computer is 20 Part 2 – Guitars

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – Joni Mitchell (because no year is complete without something by Joni)

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

More Thoughts on Tim Hardin

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

Have a great new year, whatever you’re doing. See you soon!

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Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Five: Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen 

Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!

In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.

Me,  I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.

The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.

The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.

In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.

 

*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

The lay of the land, 6 December 2017

Five years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

Time moves faster than I ever could have imagined as a child, 25 or 30 years ago. I’m nearly 36 now, closer to 40 than 30, and finally doing the adult stuff that for the longest time I didn’t think I ever would – buying a house, getting a mortgage, making plans not just for retirement but for death (by making a will, you understand.  I’m not planning on hastening the end).

Most of the time when you’re doing this stuff, the process itself just sweeps you along with it and doesn’t leave much time for reflection. But every now and again, it occurs to me how unlikely this all is, and the fact that Mel and I have a financial commitment that’s going to last till more or less the end of our working lives in 30 years’ time is in many ways the biggest symbol of my recovery yet: inconceivable six years ago, massively unlikely five years ago, but now a reality. We move in next Tuesday. It’s daunting as we’ve still got so much to do, but it’s also hugely exciting.

Many of my friends are in similar positions and it’s nice to look around and see how many of them are happy and settled: buying houses, getting married and having children. I wonder, though, if any of them feel the same way I do: that they’ve been enjoying an elongated adolescence that is only now coming to an end.

I already have plans for next year. Setting up a studio den in our new house is first on the list. A new record with James McKean is in the works, and my own much-delayed album is finally – finally – recorded (I just plan to press an EP first as essentially a trial run, so I can make all my mistakes on a low-stakes release), but I’m not looking too far beyond those things at the moment. Compared to this year, next one should be quieter, and less stressful. There may even be more time for blogging! I doubt I’ll ever again get to the more-than-once-a-week schedule I maintained in 2013-2014, but at least once a week would be good.

I’ll be back later in the week if time permits, but you know, moving house and all. I’ve got a couple more drum posts planned, so if you’re into those, stay tuned.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Three: Love My Way – Psychedelic Furs

Or “Lahve moi wye”, as singer Richard Butler would have it.

Yes, Love My Way is about the marimba part played by Todd Rundgren. Yes, it’s about Richard Butler’s croaky sneer. Yes, it’s about Flo and Eddie’s harmonies. Yes, it’s about Tim Butler’s rumbling bass. But it’s also very much about Vince Ely’s drums.*

I’ve said this over and over in these drum posts, but as I get older, I respond most favourably to players who do what’s needed and nothing more, and don’t let their ego influence what they play. The thinking behind everything that Vince Ely does during Love My Way is immediately clear when you listen to the song. As much as Richard Butler, Ely narrates the song. There’s nothing in his performance that feels like it’s just a lick, like it’s just there for Ely to show off to Modern Drummer readers.

Let’s take the drum track apart and see what he’s doing.

Two and four on the snare. Eights on the hi-hat, with a “psst” every two bars. That’s all obvious enough.

On the kick, he plays a two-bar pattern: single strokes on beats one and three in bar one; then a bar with extra strokes on the “and”, so all together the pattern is kick, snare, kick snare; kick-kick snare, kick-kick snare. This variation gives the song extra drive and momentum, and stops it from feeling too rigid and repetitive.

In the choruses, he switches to keeping time on the floor tom. This is a pretty rare move in rock. Most of the time, drummers move to a cymbal of some kind for choruses – usually a ride, but also sometimes a crash or china. Drummers are more likely to use floor toms to keep time during intros, verses or breakdowns. To me, the effect of going to the floor tom for the chorus is an increase in tension. You think you know what the drummer’s going to play, then he plays something else. You get an unexpected increase in energy in the low end of the frequency spectrum (the floor tom is the biggest tom, and usually has the lowest fundamental note of any drum in the kit except the bass drum) when you’re expecting the opposite, and the whole thing sounds like it has to be about to resolve somewhere else, an effect that’s enhanced by the bass drum following along with the floor tom and also playing eights. But, first time round, it doesn’t go somewhere else; it simply repeats the verse again.

A cool detail: coming out of the chorus, Ely doesn’t hit his crash cymbal on the first “one” of the new section – something drummers do 99.9% of the time. Ah, you think, he’s not going to play cymbal crashes in this song. Nice. That’s different. Then he hits it on the “three” of that first bar. Woah, you think, that’s really different. I don’t know whether that was his idea or producer Todd Rundgren, but it’s great.

So we go round again, but next time we have a double chorus. Halfway through, Ely switches out of his floor-tom beat and plays his verse pattern (again, with that displaced crash cymbal and the original kick-drum pattern). By doing so, he releases all that pent-up tension, making the chorus more celebratory.

The song’s final minute sees Flo & Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the Turtles and Zappa’s Mothers of Invention**) come to the party to add their falsetto harmonies, a section introduced by Ely with the simplest of drum fills: seven eighth-note strokes on the snare. For the last forty seconds of the song, he lays off the hat, again preferring the floor tom, but gradually complicating his pattern so it becomes increasingly syncopated and, for lack of a better term, tribal.

Drum performances that heighten, reinforce and indeed comment upon the emotional journey of a song are actually pretty rare in pop and rock music, which is why Love My Way is a bit special. It’s hard to know whether the ideas came from Rundgren or Ely but  they’re certainly executed well, whoever was responsible.

https://i2.wp.com/images.genius.com/dcc63fe5e6ac6200369699f9c1446b04.900x920x1.jpg
1982 parent album, Forever Now

*I’m not 100% certain it’s a live drum track. I think it is, but the drum sound is very weird and doesn’t sound much like an acoustic drum kit. But that’s often the case with records engineered by Todd Rundgren. Also the tempo is very solid. It’s the section at the end where Ely starts playing the tribal-style tom pattern that makes me reasonably sure it’s not programmed.

**If you’ve heard Flo & Eddie’s super-high harmonies anywhere, it’ll be on T.Rex records, most notably Get It On.