Tag Archives: Allen Toussaint

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

Advertisements

Southern nights – Glen Campbell

I have appreciated so many genres of music coming up, so I’m not too far away from what comes at me later on

Allen Toussaint

One of those genres apparently was the smashed and blissful psychedelia of records by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, to judge from Toussaint’s own recording of Southern Nights from 1975.

Allen Toussaint is a towering figure in popular music. Working in a Coal Mine, Mother-in-Law, Lady Marmalade and Southern Nights are all his. He produced Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Nevilles and Irma Thomas. He arranged horns for the Band. His songs have been covered or sampled by scores of artists.

Given that it became a signature song of sorts and given that Toussaint will forever be associated with the second-line sound of New Orleans R&B, Southern Nights was a very strange record indeed, and not one you’d necessarily think would catch on. Its beat is kept only by a hi-hat. Toussaint’s voice is sent through a Leslie cabinet. The arrangement is dominated by an overlapping tapestry of pianos: an untuned upright, a couple of electrics and a big old grand. The familiar riff that would power the Glen Campbell version is underplayed to the point where you could miss it entirely. This was a very personal dreamlike sound, not a production looking to be a hit record.

Glen Campbell had felt those Southern Nights, too, and Toussaint’s idiosyncratic and personal record touched him. His own recording of the song, though, went a very different way. 1976, when Campbell began work on what would become the album Southern Nights, was just about the peak of the disco era and the records being made in New York, with their huge low end and hissing hi-hats, were making country music sound very white, very small and not very swinging. Campbell’s Southern Nights, then, was one of those country records that attempted to come to a sort of rhythmic accommodation with disco. While some attempts to do this (Dr Hook’s When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman, say) came off cynical, or even desperate, the success of Southern Nights is that it sounds genuinely overjoyed, while retaining just a little of the wistfulness of Toussaint’s original. In fact, with its horns, soulful backing vocals, offbeat guitar and playful swing, it sounds much more like a Toussaint record than Toussaint’s own recording did. It’s a fitting tribute from one master to another.

Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell

Allen_Toussaint
Allen Toussaint

Amarillo Highway – Terry Allen

Terry Allen is a conceptual artist and country singer. This isn’t an unheard-of combination of pursuits. One thinks of Dolly Parton.
Allen has flown under the mainstream radar for pretty much all his musical career and remains little known to this day, but he is beloved of many rock critics and Lubbock (On Everything) is frequently cited by those few who have heard it as one of the finest country albums ever made, and a forerunner of the last two decades’ alt.country. He is patently not a tough guy, like Waylon Jennings. He’s no mystic hippie like Willie Nelson. There is a kinship with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely (who played harmonica on Lubbock) – they all come from Lubbock and have all tapped into the strange vibes of a seemingly singular place. But still, Allen’s hard to pin down.
If Glen Campbell’s reading of Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights found country music coming to a kind of rhythmic accommodation with disco, Amarillo Highway’s ramshackle swagger puts a hi-hat figure straight out of New York, played with a woozy looseness you would never get in Lower Manhattan, to work on a hard-ass down-home road song that skewers the genre of hard-ass down-home road songs. It’s the album’s signature groove, recurring on several songs. It’s topped by the wonderful pedal-steel playing of Lloyd Maines, another local legend (and father of Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks) and benefits from the engineering of Don Caldwell, at whose studio Lubbock (On Everything) was recorded. The album’s production is credited to ‘Everyone on this record’, and that’s the way Don Caldwell tells it in Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air (‘everybody on the album put in their two cents, a very co-operative effort), but he’s probably being a little generous: he knew more about making a record than anyone else in the room (Maines was his protégé) and that the sessions held together at all must have been in large part because of his steadying influence.
But the great playing, arrangements and engineering wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t backed up by quality songs from Allen. And yes, the shufflin’ drums and sun-baked pedal steel are just adornments to the lyric and Allen’s canny performance: the singer’s inability to quite hit the low notes at the end of the verses undercuts his protestations of unreconstructed Texan masculinity, which in any case veer between banality and near-nonsensicality. In its affectionate parody of a certain kind of southern manhood, it’s reminiscent of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (The Great Joe Bob – fallen high-school football icon – is a character Newman is still probably kicking himself for not coming up with first), and Amarillo Highway, in common with so many of Newman’s songs, contains a lyric and a vocal that only the author could deliver properly.
Yeah, that’s a better comparison than any other country singer: Terry Allen, a Panhandling, manhandling Randy Newman.

Image

Terry Allen (seated right). Jo Harvey Allen (actress and artist) is seated to his left. Al Ruppersberg is standing back row, left.

Break in the Road – Betty Harris

On the whole, I prefer my soul music soft, opulent and orchestrated, a sound that tends to be associated with Chicago in the very late 1960s and with Philadelphia in the early 1970s going into the disco era. Strings, doo-wop-style harmonies, falsetto lead vocals, steady but unflashy drumming, a bass guitar groove that was infectious but happy to play second fiddle to the top line – these things that characterise soft soul are the things that really send me.

But listening to it all the time is like surviving on a diet consisting of nothing but cream cakes. A really great deep soul or southern soul record can make the orchestrated Midwestern/East Coast variety sound effete, decadent even.

Southern soul tended to do without orchestras. Its roots in gospel music and jump blues were more apparent, and while its arrangements may have often been musically sophisticated, they tended to use a small-band sound: drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano and organ (especially organ), and a small horn section. It was, yes, gritty- and dirty-sounding, but sanctified – it hadn’t moved that far from the church.

Betty Harris didn’t cut many tracks in her career, but her body of work is revered by connoisseurs of this kind of raw soul music. She had begun her career on Bert Burns’ Jubilee label, and in 1963 released a hit version of Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me with a gorgeous vocal, alternating between a smoky whisper and a passionate roar. Harris’s record slowed the tempo down to a crawl, but it was irresistible and was a pop hit. Despite this early success, Burns’s attention was occupied by his bigger artists and his own private life, and soon Harris was without a producer, and to make matters worse, a manager (‘Babe’ Chivian) in legal trouble.

The appearance in her life of the great New Orleans producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint must have seemed propitious. There is some debate whether a deal with Toussaint was brokered by her manager (still Chivian? A subsequent manager?), or whether Toussaint approached her and her representative after seeing her sing live at the Apollo. However it happened, Toussaint had set up a venture called Sansu with Marshall Sehorn, and soon Harris was recording for the fledgling label, usually flying in to cut a vocal on a track written and arranged for her by Toussaint, leaving before the song was mixed.

Toussaint is a towering figure in New Orleans music, a writer of numerous classics (Working in a Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Southern Nights), a great arranger and pianist, and a likeable singer in his own right, but his magic failed to work on Betty Harris’s career. She cut a lot of fine records for Sansu, but none of them were hits, and eventually – dispirited by the lack of success and her lack of involvement in making her own records – she quit singing in the early 1970s.

Before she did, she made one last great track in 1969, (There’s a) Break in the Road, a fire-breathing monster powered along by the Meters (more about this later). It’s about as raw a soul record as has ever been made, the guitar feeding back throughout, the snare drum and horns audibly distorting. It sounds like band in a room, loud as hell. No other record I know of sounds as present, as ‘there’, as Break in the Road. It verges on psych territory, with post-Hendrix trills on the guitar and drumming that savagely pushes and pulls at the groove, with syncopations so complex that they nearly go out of control. The song spends most of its 2.45 running time on the very edge of falling apart, and it sometimes seems as if Harris and her backing singers are holding the whole thing together only by force of will.

So who is the drummer on Break in the Road? Most of the sources I could find seem agreed that the guitarist and bassist are the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr, but opinion seems split on whether the drummer is the Meters’ own Ziggy Modeliste or James Black, a fellow New Orleans funk drummer known for his work with Eddie Bo. If you listen to Hook and Sling, Black’s best-known work, there are moments in the breakdowns every bit as far out and gonzo as those on Break in the Road, so it could easily be him, however much it sounds like Ziggy on first listen (and a lot of that may be be down to the engineering and production choices – perhaps a larger part of the Ziggy Modeliste drum sound comes from the recording techniques than has often been assumed).

I wish I knew for sure who it was. What is beyond contention is that this is Harris’s finest achievement, better even than Cry to Me. And that’s saying something.

Image