Tag Archives: 1980s production

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

Fleetwood Mac in the uncanny valley – Marcello Carlin on Tango in the Night

Hi all. Just a quick post to apologise for there not being a proper post today. I am, once again, not feeling so great – seems like I’ve picked up everything that’s been going round for the last month or so.

In the meantime, I wanted to direct you to Marcello Carlin’s excellent write-up of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. Marcello started his blog, Then Play Long, six years ago so if you like what he does, the archives are extensive! He seldom fails to give me a new perspective even on albums I know well.

Tango is a curious record, the more so the more you listen to it. Sounding initially like a straightforward case of a band updating its sound just enough to remain relevant to a pop audience, it reveals itself on closer listening to be an uncanny valley version of Fleetwood Mac, a simulacrum constructed by Lindsey Buckingham to disguise how dysfunctional – how simply absent – some of the musicians were:

It was a very difficult record to make. Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.

Buckingham, in an interview with Uncut, quoted by Carlin

With tools like the Fairlight CMI allowing the sampling and precise repitching of vocals, this was more achievable than it was in the analogue age. But as well as raising sound quality issues (the Fairlight sampler was 8-bit technology), there was the simple lack of realism of dramatically repitched sounds. Some artists chose to foreground the unearthly effects they created (think of those last few ‘Cry!’s at the end of Godley & Creme’s Cry) while others tried to blend them into a more or less organic-sounding whole, as Buckingham did on Tango. But the ear is sensitive and can pick up on these things. A lot of music from the mid to late eighties (I was born in 1981, so that’s what was on the radio when I was a child) sounded threatening and weird to me then. In a way, it still does now, and I’m sure that it’s at least partly because the gap between what sounds claim to be and what they actually are can’t ever be entirely bridged.

The aesthetic of classical music recording & mixing

This week I’ve been thinking about the different places of pop and classical musicians within their respective record-making processes.

Dr Amy Blier-Carruthers’ 2013 paper about orchestral players’ dissatisfaction with the studio experience, “The Performer’s Place in the Process and Product of Recording”, details the tensions classical musicians feel about recording:

[There are] many examples of early recorded performers approaching the recording horn with trepidation and anxiety. But what is striking is that even after over a century of commercial classical recordings, many of the same issues are still in evidence today – distrust of the technology, dislike of the process, doubts about whether you like what is captured, disillusionment with the editing process, the thought of your performance going somewhere where you are no longer in control of it, the thought of a disembodied performance existing at all. […] Basically, even the biggest and best orchestras are in a way victims of the status quo: they are not getting the time and money and support necessary to give them the opportunity to get something that they are really happy with down on record.

For a musician like me, working in the field of popular music (and more specifically, rock, folk, pop and country), these issues are of very little concern. In an earlier post, I talked about the portrait-painting-vs-photography analogy to demonstrate a couple of prevalent record-making philosophies within pop music. To restate this as briefly as possible, most producers and engineers who work with popular-music artists are comfortable with the idea that, like portrait painters, their job is to construct a representation of reality in which aiming for exact adherence to the measurable world is only one possible approach; that is to say, a painting may capture the emotional truth of its subject without being anything close to a photo-realist depiction (as in, say, the works of Lucian Freud).

Or to put it another way, “To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other ‘more valid’ art form” (Jack Endino, recording engineer famous for his work with Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden).

Think about this for a second. When you record a relatively small sound source such as a drum kit in a modern studio, most likely you’ll use multiple microphones (say, 8 or more) hung both close and at a distance, and an arsenal of sound-processing tools. As a result, the scope you have for presenting that sound source in different ways is immense. You can use mainly the close mics and present a tight, dry version of the performance. You can lean on the ambient ones and blow up the sound. Or you can blend the mics together to present something that cannot be experienced live: a drum performance with all the attack and nuances that the player hears from their stool that also has all the size and bloom that you would hear if you were standing 10 feet away. This isn’t achievable in real life unless you’ve found a way to exist in two positions at the same time (in which case, you’d better give Stephen Hawking a call). And you can also hear the drums in massively exaggerated stereo, with preposterous amounts of wave shaping from compressors and equalisers. In effect, you hear the drum kit turned into a cartoon of itself. Yet this is the aesthetic we’ve grown used to over the last hundred years of recording, and so it doesn’t sound weird to us. And when we see a band play in a pub and hear what a drum kit really sounds like, that doesn’t sound weird either. In this sense, if in no other, popular music exists in a state of grace. It is not hung up on notions of fidelity to the original sound or performance and it intuitively understands that the record and the live performance are separate and not interdependent

Blier-Carruthers argues that classical music has never really come round to this way of thinking. When recording, she says, performers “carry the live aesthetic with them into the recording session”. The majority of listeners share this aesthetic with the players, expecting recordings to present the music as they would experience it at a live performance, but to be without blemish, which a live performance by any group of musicians playing challenging music for 60 minutes or more never will be.

But there are several things to unpack here. Irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience would not hear a mistake (unless it was a soloist dramatically blowing a note, say) during a live performance, performers are aware when they’ve made one, and it’s only natural that this would be unpleasant for them to hear over and again while listening to a recording. Blier-Carruthers quotes some students as believing that the insistence on perfection in recording is hurting not only the recorded product, which tends to become sterile, but also the musicians’ ability to perform effectively in the concert hall, as they become concerned more with minimising errors than with playing expressively.

However, Blier-Carruthers seems to me to assume that classical listeners and players are an entirely separate breed to their pop music counterparts, which I don’t think is really true. There is a huge overlap. I’ve played folk and rock and country with numerous musicians whose training and background is concert hall and conservatory rather than pub and rehearsal room like my own, and the ability of most of them to move seamlessly between the two worlds is a defining quality of what makes these people great musicians. Not only are these players catholic in their tastes and repertoire, they’re technologically literate, too. They understand software editing of takes, and they know what is achievable using the modern tools of audio recording. They know that the recording is not a simple presentation of a one-off musical event; that it hasn’t been for a long time; that a producer employing an edit is not a condemnation of a player’s musical proficiency; and that the fact of your having been edited during recording is in no way a judgement on your ability to go out and play in an orchestra in front of an audience, doing so both expressively and technically correctly.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that throughout the history of recorded music, huge technical and theoretical strides in the recording of music have been achieved in the service of classical, rather than pop or rock, music. One thinks of the conductor Leopold Stokowski’s experiments in the early era of electrical recording with engineers from Bell Labs, searching for ever-greater volume and impact in recorded music; of Jack Somer’s work producing stereoised versions of mono recordings of Mussorgski and Dvorak for RCA in the early 1960s; of Thomas Stockham’s Soundstream recorder (the first digital recording system) being employed by Telarc’s Jack Renner for recordings of Holst and Tchaikovsky; and even of the oft-repeated (but still unverified) story about the CD being created to hold 74 minutes of music so that it could accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the early 1960s, the pianist Glenn Gould argued controversially for the need for classical music to develop an aesthetic of recording separate to that of the live performance:

The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation of public school solfège will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves.

It is not.

In “The Prospects of Recording”, he details how he achieved this in his own recorded work, giving an example of edits made when recording the Fugue in A minor from Volume I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier*. It’s easy to fool yourself that you can hear the tape splice at bar 14, but given shift in the mood of the music – which was why Gould chose that moment to make his edit – the release of the pedals and the move up the keyboard of the right hand, I think the temptation to interpret that briefest of silences as an audible edit point would be a mistake; rests of that nature occur in music on all instruments with extreme frequency. As an engineer, I know all too well the experience of listening to a soloed vocal track, hearing a shift of timbre and assuming an edit between two takes occurred, only to look in the media pool in Cubase and find no such edit occurred and that that change of timbre was part of a live performance.

Gould, then, was extremely prescient:

When the performer makes use of this post-performance editorial decision, his role is no longer compartmentalized. In a quest for perfection, he sets aside the hazards and compromises of his trade. As an interpreter, as a go-between serving both audience and composer, the performer has always been, after all, someone with a specialist’s knowledge about the realization or actualization of notated sound symbols. It is, then, perfectly consistent with such experience that he should assume something of an editorial role.

He constructs an analogy to the work of Van Meegeren, who in the 1930s began producing Vermeer-like works that had an uncanny stylistic resemblance to the paintings of the master, which he then sold as Vermeer originals to German private collectors during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Later charged with collaborating and selling national treasures for profit, he revealed they were not the work of Vermeer but his own work, but was nonetheless imprisoned.

Gould claims Van Meegeren as a personal hero, and argues he was treated unjustly – “The determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal. Indeed, it strives to avoid appraisal on any ground other than that which has been prepared by previous appraisals” – and goes on to conclude that:

As the performer’s once sacrosanct privileges are merged with the responsibilities of the tape editor and the composer, the Van Meegeren syndrome can no longer be cited as an indictment but becomes rather an entirely appropriate description of the aesthetic condition in our time. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization.

This was extraordinary stuff for a classical musician to be writing in 1966, and Blier-Carruthers’ work interviewing young players tends to suggest that the world has not yet come around to Gould’s way of thinking. Young musicians are still being taught that the recording of a work shall be a representation of a concert performance of that work, and while all sorts of tricks are employed to produce the blemish-free representation supposedly required by producers; Blier-Carruthers does report producer Stephen Johns’s contention that he routinely gets asked by musicians to perform edits he deems unnecessary, as the musicians can’t live with releasing anything that could be judged not “perfect”.

As the world of classical music hasn’t yet established its own recording aesthetic separate to that of the concert hall, its critics, its listeners and many of its players remain babes in the woods where modern production techniques are concerned. A Joyce Hatto scandal could not happen in any field of popular music (and maybe not even in jazz). Pop music fans and critics do not as a rule care about such notions as the integrity of an individual musician’s performance, and even if they did, would not have bought William Barrington-Coupe’s cover story about splicing in tiny fragments of other recordings into otherwise genuine Hatto performances recorded in a shed in the bottom of their garden simply to cover mistakes and extraneous noises – how could a recording made in that environment sound anything like one made in a much larger acoustic space on an entirely different instrument with much more (and much better) technology employed in production? The willingness of some critics to entertain this possibility even for a second suggests a merely rudimentary understanding of what is possible today, even in the world of digital post-production, and a disconnect between the levels of recording literacy, so to speak, possessed by the older generation of fans and critics and the younger generation of fans and players.

I raise all this not to criticise the classical music industry and the way its musicians and critics are trained. Yet as I read back this week through Greg Milner’s magisterial Perfecting Sound Forever about the accomplishments of Stokowski, Thomas Stockham and Jack Renner, it’s striking that the most recent of these advances was still the better part of 40 years ago. It’s fascinating that an academic such as Dr Blier-Carutthers still needs to argue for “musicians and producers to work out new ways of conceptualizing, capturing and disseminating recorded music”, and even more so to wonder what might be accomplished if a record label decided that to try a method of recording and mixing that didn’t aim to replicate the real-world concert-hall listening experience. Are opportunities being missed, leaving today’s musicians caught unsatisfactorily between two worlds?

concert hall

*The next time you’re listening to a recording of a recording of a piano-led piece, listen hard to the stereo image of the piano. While anyone who isn’t sitting inside a Steinway grand facing the pianist will hear the piano as essentially a mono sound source within a stereo environment (the room – at least, as long as the listener can hear in both ears), it is, like the drum kit I discussed earlier, routinely recorded and presented in perceptible stereo. This is an example of a way in which classical music has taken a small step away from a prevailing naturalist aesthetic, but to nothing like the extent of rock and pop music, which, as noted above, often treats acoustic instruments in a wildly exaggerated and cartoonish fashion.

Pixies: Indie Cindy, Death to the Pixies, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and so on

Judge the artist by their best work. It’s only fair. In turn, artists might consider judging themselves by their worst work, or at least their average. It’s a good way to keep humble and looking to improve.

If you judge an artist by their best work, there’s no need to get upset about their current output if it’s a long way below their best stuff. I doubt I’ll ever hear more than a track or two off Indie Cindy, the new Pixies ‘album’ (a repackaging of three recent EPs). Bagboy was of no consequence to me, nor a decade back was Bam Thwok. I saw the Pixies movie a few years ago, thought it reflected pretty poorly on two members of the band (Thompson, Lovering) and well on the other two (Deal, Santiago), but whatever. I don’t need to like Charles Thompson or like what he’s doing now to appreciate what he did then.

I’m not that old, though, in case you’re wondering. I was too young to have seen them the first time round. I first heard the Pixies’ music in early 1998, a few months after the Death to the Pixies compilation was released. Those first few songs – the cover of the Surftones’ Cecilia Ann, Planet of Sound, Tame, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser – were all I needed to know to get them. Despite the over-representation of Doolittle and the corresponding neglect of Surfer Rosa, I still think Death to the Pixies was well compiled and a really good introduction to the Pixies. The range of music piled into those opening songs, some of it a little strange, some of it knowingly straightforward, was huge. If you replaced Tame with Bone Machine, you could pretty much encapsulate the Pixies entirely with those five songs.

Nowadays, if I’m going to listen to a Pixies record, it will be Surfer Rosa. I don’t hear the same thing in Doolittle that a lot of people seem to. To my ears, it’s thin-sounding, a little hemmed in, not exciting on a visceral level. The drums are at once too loud and lacking impact and body. The guitars don’t have that desperate feral edge to them (was there ever a better match of guitar player and recording engineer than Joey Santiago and Steve Albini?). Doolittle scores highly for songs you can lift off the record and play for people who don’t know the band, and I’d not want to be without Debaser, Here Comes Your Man and Gouge Away, but I’m not so struck on Tame, Monkey Gone to Heaven and Hey (maybe that’s unfair on Hey – it’s a good song, if not quite a masterpiece); the run from Mr Grieves to Number 13 Baby, meanwhile, is a huge lead weight dragging the record down. It’s a 15-song album that’s begging to be 10. Its reputation does seem to me somewhat inflated. Surfer Rosa may be much less, to use (Doolittle producer) Gil Norton’s term ‘portable’, but is a much more cohesive, satisfying whole.

The last two albums are only worth mentioning in passing. Bossanova’s very shiny, shorter on aggression. Its greatest moment are Cecilia Ann and Velouria; the rest, well, the band was getting short of ideas (not Deal, as Pod, the first Breeders album from 1990 shows, but this is where her marginalisation began). Trompe le Monde is mostly a bore.

The Pixies reuniting seemed unlikely to me ever to produce good music, when Charles Thompson hadn’t written a song worth spending time with for years anyway. Ultimately the band’s reputation rests on their debut EP and the first two albums, which are both classics, even if we have to agree to disagree over which are the best bits. Yeah, perhaps it would be nice if Thompson only recorded music when he had something to say, but Surfer Rosa makes a loud enough noise to drown out Indie Cindy this week, and by next week no one will remember the latter even existed. They’ll all be listening to Gigantic and River Euphrates.

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Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, David Lovering, Charles Thompson (oh, all right then, Black Francis)

Everytime You Go Away – Hall & Oates, Paul Young

It was like looking down into a sea of mullets. I think I even had one myself back then. They were very popular.

Andy Kershaw, Rocking All Over the World

So said the BBC’s troublesome voice of world music, and one-time scourge of dinosaur rockers, in a 90-minute documentary about Live Aid from a year or two back. Perhaps for the benefit of some of the younger readers of this blog, Live Aid was a 1985 benefit concert for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia, organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, in collaboration with music promoter Harvey Goldsmith, the BBC, ABC in the US, sundry TV channels and networks around the world, and the ‘help’ of Bill Graham. It was the biggest event of its type ever organised, an enormous feat of satellite communications technology, which was very much in its infancy.

There are fascinating, and still relevant, debates to be had about the usefulness of this type of ‘celebanthropy’, whether it is self-righteous, self-promoting do-goodery, or whether it is genuinely helpful in the face of structural, governmental and/or macro-economic inequalities which go unaddressed by first-world governments simply because it’s not in their interests to do anything about them.

However, the BBC discussed these issues only briefly, bringing on a nurse who’d worked in famine relief in Ethiopia to say that she had once believed Geldof’s motives to be cynical and ended up converted. On the whole, it stuck to discussing the music (where it was snide), the behind-the-scenes wrangling and technical details (where it fascinating), and the hair and clothes, where it was predictably groan-inducing. Someone had obviously decided they’d be on safe ground sticking to mullet jokes. Hey, everyone had one! Bono had one! Paul Young had one! Daryl Hall had the biggest one of the whole decade! Even mullet-bashing Andy Kershaw himself had one back then.

This is what happens, you see, when a decade’s worth of music is reduced to a joke about hair. It becomes very difficult to get anyone to discuss it seriously. Regular readers of this blog will know that my heart belongs to the seventies and nineties, but I grew up in the eighties, I was born in the eighties and my earliest memories of music are largely of eighties music.

When I was young, whenever my mum put the radio on in the car, Paul Young seemed to be on it. Wherever I Lay My Hat and most particularly Everytime You Go Away were never off it. I absorbed their strange soundworlds before I knew what was making those noises. I didn’t know what I was listening to was a fretless bass, a digital piano, an electric sitar, digital synths with wobbly pitching, drums fed through a delay and a Lexicon 224 digital reverb box. I had no context and no knowledge of wider musical history, so I simply took these sounds and their overall effect at face value. I knew what a Paul Young record sounded like, but would have struggled to describe it.

I’d have been even more flummoxed by Hall & Oates’ original version of Everytime You Go Away, released on their 1980 album Voices, if I’d heard it. Voices as a whole embraced slightly leftfield new wave (as had Hall’s recent but then unreleased solo album, produced by Robert Fripp), which had been an increasingly prominent part of their sound for a couple of albums, but Everytime You Go Away was the album’s outlier: stately and churchy, with a dominant gospel organ and soul/R&B guitar, the drums kept to quarter-note rimshots, bass drum and soft, unobtrusive hi-hat. It’s a sound that had nothing to do with mainstream pop or rock at the start of the eighties, instead recalling the Band, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles. The discipline of the players leaving wide-open spaces for a moaning  brass section and Daryl Hall (the song’s sole author) to holler in. Some of the time in his long career, there’s been a sense that Hall was playing at being a soul man; he had the chops to do it and a genuine love for the music, but there was just a little distance between him and his material. Not on Everytime You Go Away (and not on She’s Gone, my favourite H&O record). He puts his heart into every note of it.

Issues of authenticity don’t impinge on Paul Young’s version at all. That’s not what the man was about. The churchiness of Hall & Oates’ original is entirely gone, replaced by new-fangled, modern production and instrumental touches that reached back to the previous decade (the electric sitar, for example, which is impossible to use without recalling the Chi-Lites) but no further.

If you knew Young’s version first, and then hear Hall & Oates playing the song, it’s possible to fool yourself into believing that the makeover that Young gave it was obvious, just waiting to happen. It wasn’t. Given the song and its original arrangement, it’s a very imaginative record, a strange combination of textures and elements. OK, giving it a pop treatment and a backbeat – that’s straightforward enough. But who decided to put those clattering, banging-metal noises in the mix during the solo? Whose idea was the electric sitar? The Leslie guitar? The drums through the delay? Who hired Pino Palladino and let him loose to do his post-Jaco fretless noodling? That the whole record coheres, and was a successful enough blend to be a US number one (and a British number four), is a testament to the creative hunches of Young and producer Laurie Latham. A Paul Young record really does have its own sound, and that kind of immediate distinctiveness is largely a thing of the past in pop music now.

Young was a walking punchline for rock fans in 1985, so he didn’t get a fair hearing. And true, No Parlez  had been a weak brew. His version of Love Will Tear Us Apart was spectacularly ill-conceived and borders on the unlistenable. His cover Love of the Common People revived a song that was overdone and tired already. But a good record is a good record, and in the recorded performance and again at Live Aid, Young sang the hell out of Everytime You Go Away. Yes, yes, the clothes and the hair were dreadful, and no, it doesn’t move me like Hall & Oates’ original does, but getting on for thirty years after I heard it, if Paul Young’s version of Everytime You Go Away comes on the radio, I’m still glad to hear it.

Imagel

Top: Hall & Oates, Voices (pre-mullet Daryl Hall, left)

Bottom: Paul Young