Back in Miraval

Hi all. I’m sorry for the extremely sporadic posting of late. Since the new year, I’ve been taking on some freelance work, and I’ve often had to do it at weekends, so it’s been eating into my blogging time. I’m working on a long I’ve Never Heard post, and was hoping to have it ready for this weekend, to coincide with a landmark anniversary for the album, as well as the eighth birthday of the blog itself. It’ll probably surprise you. I hope it’s worth the wait. I haven’t quite managed to finish it, but in view of it being Songs from So Deep’s eighth anniversary, I did want to post something, even if it’s quick and off the cuff. So here goes:

Chris O’Leary’s 64 Quartets is a fantastic occasional blog series on four-piece bands. Proper analytical, long-read, deep-dive stuff. Before this week, he’d covered Booker T and the MG’s, the Jamies, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Queen and the Boston/4AD diaspora: Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders. This week, he turned his attention to the Bangles.

The Bangles are one of those bands that I always meant to check out at full album length, but I’ve never quite got round to it. I do know a fair amount of their material, and really like much of it. After reading O’Leary’s piece, I’m determined to put that right, while already knowing that some of what I’m going to hear is, um, unrepresentative of the band as it was in real life, for reasons O’Leary makes clear with the aid of quotes from the band members:

“We would go in as a band, all four of us in a room, and lay down the song,” Vicki [Peterson] told Vintage Guitar. “Then, in classic ’80s style, with the guidance and decisions of Kahne, we would systematically replace everything we’d just done! Every guitar line was replaced with various schmutz. Even Susanna [Hoff]’s rhythm tracks.” To Craig Rosen, she said “we’d isolate the drums, and we’d sound like the Rolling Stones, and then we’d come back out and every single note on that record is replaced with a trigger—snares that Debbi hit are now triggered by another sound.”

“He made us more aware of what our flaws were then the things we were good at,” Hoffs recalled to DeYoung. Then Kahne started bringing in “ringer guitar players to do certain things,” Vicki said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he’d had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.”

Reading this put me in mind of passages from Robert Forster’s Grant & I, his memoir of his life in the Go-Betweens, in which he talks about making Spring Hill Fair at Studio Miraval in France with producer John Brand (Aztec Camera, the Cult), who was on a mission to make a “proper record” with them:

What constituted such a record in John’s eyes became apparent when, instead of miking the band’s instruments and starting to record, we spent three days getting a bass drum sound. Then started the dreaded discussion of live verses programmed drums and suddenly we were face to face with eighties recording hell. Little was getting done as John manouvered Lindy [Morrison, the band’s drummer] into accepting the use of drum machines. The rest of the band were trapped, literally, in Miraval as the clock ticked and things nosedived into disaster.

The era of the obsession with timekeeping was upon us, automated recording and mixing desks and synthesisers forcing the requirement of absolute accuracy in the drums; no “feel” was allowed.

Later in the book, you can almost hear Forster groan despondently as he describes recording Tallulah‘s Right Here and Cut it Out with Craig Leon and Cassell Webb as like being “back at Miraval”.

Now, as any fan of either band knows, both the Bangles and the Go Betweens could play live just fine. No, neither of them contained any members that could have hung in there on a Steely Dan session, but that’s not the only measure of a musician’s worth. In fact, there’s only one meaningful measure for anyone in a band (as opposed to someone looking to make a career playing sessions): can they execute their own music? It’s pretty clear they all could, not least Lindy Morrison, whose 11/8 beat on Grant McLennan’s Cattle and Cane I wrote about here, and Debbi Peterson, who on the clip I linked to above of the Bangles on Saturday Night Live lays down one of the biggest, meanest backbeats you’re ever likely to hear.

So why did they have it harder than, say, R.E.M. or any other serviceable but not virtuosic 1980s indie rock band? OK, so the Bangles were operating at a higher level of fame and success than the Go-Betweens ever attained, or even R.E.M. at that stage in their careers, and mainstream record-making has always been more exacting and technically focused than indie production. But the answer is surely in part because both bands featured women in key instrumental roles (Go-Betweens) or all the instrumental roles (the Bangles, obvs). Forster doesn’t mention sexism from producers in his book, but it’s possible he just didn’t fully notice it. Nonethless, it’s striking that a band like R.E.M. were allowed to play their own music by a big-name, big-time producer like Don Gehman while the presence of Morrison was deemed surplus to requirements by John Brand, and later by Craig Leon, and the Bangles were all but kept off their own records by David Kahne.

So, there’s not really a thesis statement here, other than the fact that musicians, and female musicians especially, have historically been treated disrespectfully by a lot of producers. But I think it’s unarguable if you listen to early Bangs/Bangles recordings like Getting Out of Hand, and then to, say, Manic Monday, that something was lost by Kahne’s not allowing them to play their own music. As for the Go-Betweens, Spring Hill Fair‘s accomodations with mainstream pop record-making don’t harm the songs unduly (Bachelor Kisses, agonised over and re-recorded as it was, is magnificent), but Right Here, off Tallulah, is a wonderful song disfugured by its lumpen, ugly drum programming – contrast the studio cut with this urgent, energetic live performance). O’Leary’s Bangles piece is well worth checking out particularly because he allows the band, particularly Vicki and Debbi Peterson, to tell their own story eloquently.

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