Tag Archives: Bob Clearmountain

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen guy.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf. I didn’t really have a handle on the guy’s story or the shape of his career.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. It’s the only possible starting point for the album. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation (an artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early). That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates the lyrics’ meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is not the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is loosely disguised disco rock, with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is (if you listen hard and try not be to be distracted by the size and shininess of it all), a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that feels natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs just aren’t OK. A clanging, awful misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three, which gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s so huge, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 2

Bachelor No.2 and the Magnolia soundtrack can fairly be considered one piece of work spread between two releases, especially if you’re not familiar with Magnolia the film ad can hear the songs without them being tied specifically to the movie. The albums share four songs (or three and a half, really, since Nothing is Good Enough is an instrumental on Magnolia), feature the same pool of players and were largely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, whose work here is first rate.

They were also the last of Mann’s records to feature Jon Brion in the driving seat. Brion is vastly talented – a creative arranger and producer who can play pretty much any instrument he picks up. But having said that, and for all the credit he deserves for the arrangements of Deathly, Build that Wall, Momentum and Mann’s spine-tingling cover of Harry Nilsson’s One, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that there’s something facile about his work: that these sorts of fairground-organ sounds and marching-band euphoniums come too easily for him: that given any songwriter to work with, he’d reach for the same tools. Certainly, his work with Fiona Apple at the same time was in the same style, as was the cover of Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime with Beck for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a lot of his film-score work, come to that, sounds similar). And I do find, though this may just be a coincidence, that the songs that cut deepest for me from this era of Mann’s music – Wise Up, Just Like Anyone, the absolutely beautiful You Do – are the ones Brion didn’t produce. Still, Brion’s ear-grabbing work was a key reason this material connected with audiences, and it’s a big reason why he has the career he has.

By the time Mann released Lost in Space in 2002, Brion was gone*. Most of her regulat cast of players were, however, still there: Clayton Scoble, Buddy Judge, Michael Lockwood and Michael Penn (her husband), and they outdid themselves.

Lost in Space is my favourite Aimee Mann record. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it’s her most consistent collection of songs in mood and texture. Produced principally by Michael Lockwood, who stepped into the Jon Brion role (playing many instruments as well as producing and arranging), Lost in Space is an album about disconnection, and it derives its strength from how strongly and empathetically the music supports the text.

The guitarists (Lockwood and Mann) make heavy use of time-domain effects (reverb, echo and delay) to create a sense of space in the music, particularly during verses, while tinkling electric pianos and synths, as well as bursts of static and white noise, are used to evoke outer space and vast distances, both physical and emotional. Mix engineer Michael Brauer (one of the most reliable guys in the business) backs the players up astutely with his work, filling the picture with detail but never cluttering it up with anything unnecessary. It’s rare to hear a record where the songs are so sympathetically and imaginatively served by everyone involved, in production, arrangement and mix. All this, and some of Mann’s very best writing, too: the title track, Humpty Dumpty, High on Sunday 51, Guys Like Me, Pavlov’s Bell, This is How it Goes and Today’s the Day are some of her very finest songs.  Lost in Space is so underrated, it’s untrue.

Next time, the pendulum swingeth, first one way, then the other. Pendulums do that.

lost-in-space

Something Mann said about the end of her working relationship with Brion in one interview was intriguing: “I just don’t really see him much any more. I  think people drift apart, and move on to other things. And Jon is somebody who plays everything. It’s really easy to sit back and let somebody make my record for me, but it doesn’t really help me develop myself as a musician.”

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 1

We’ve talked before how the sonic trends we identify as belonging to a given decade don’t magically spring into being fully formed when the ball drops and a year ending in 0 begins. Forgive me for a lengthy self-quote, but this extract from an old post summarises my argument better than I can manage right now:

[Boz Scagg’s] Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before), came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town at the Record Plant New York and Damn the Torpedoes at Sound City in Van Nuys, and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. It wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure, Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums. That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave.

Aimee Mann’s solo debut, Whatever, sounds like it wants to be a 1990s album, but can’t quite let go of the eighties. There are some really strong songs on it – Mr Harris and 50 Years After the Fair are as good as anything she did before or has done subsequently. But Bob Clearmountain’s mix* still has some of his 1980s big-room sheeniness, which was old hat in 1993, and some of the instrument sounds are a little unfortunate, particularly on album opener I Should Have Known, which aims for Posies-like power-pop heaviness but lacks the gargantuan drum sound the Posies had, and has pretty wimpy guitar sounds, too.**

Don’t let me put you off investigating Whatever, though; these are nitpicks. If you’ve ever liked any of Mann’s work, Mr Harris, 50 Years After the Fair, Stupid Thing, Say Anything, Could’ve Been Anyone and I Should Have Known are songs you should hear.

I’m With Stupid (1995) is an intriguing mess of an album, her least coherent, but still one I’d recommend over some of her later more streamlined and tidier records. The obvious things first – this is the album where Mann got comfortable with singing mostly in the middle and lower reaches of her register, it makes extensive use of drum loops, and it’s also her most Anglophile record: Mann lived in London in 1995, during which time some of these songs must have been written. She became friendly with the late Tony Banks MP, co-wrote Sugarcoated with Bernard Butler (it’s about his departure from Suede) and reportedly penned You Could Make a Killing about Noel Gallagher.

Like her next two records,  I’m With Stupid features numerous collaborators: co-writers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers and mixers. But unlike the Magnolia soundtrack and Bachelor No.2, I’m With Stupid is a little weakened by its variance in texture, feel, mood and sonic topography. Unlike Whatever, it definitely sounds like a ’90s record. Unfortunately it sounds like two or three different ’90s records, with the feel and textures changing from song to song, despite being mixed mainly by one engineer: Jack Joseph Puig.

Quality-wise, it’s a little up and down, too. Long Shot and Choice in the Matter begin the record well, but most of its rock moments veer between forgettable and regrettable; it’s tough to think of a less essential song in her discography than Superball, and All Over Now and Frankenstein are similarly nondescript. I’m With Stupid‘s best moments, largely, are its quietest moments: Amateur is one of Mann’s finest songs, and You’re With Stupid Now and You Could Make a Killing are both first-rank, too.

Next time: Mann hits Hollywood and gets Lost in in Space

*Quite why Whatever sounds the way it does is something of a mystery. Clearmountain’s work on, say, Crowded House’s Together Alone in the same year was stellar, and pretty much bang up to date sonically.

**All Fender top end, no Gibson meat.

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Modern Love – David Bowie

Update: 12/01/16. Sad news about Mr Bowie. I’ve given this a bit of an edit, but have resisted the temptation to soften it much. More a case of fleshing out things I just moved over in passing and would have explained more fully if I hadn’t knocked this piece out in an hour on a Sunday night.

As a younger man, I had little time for David Bowie. As most music fans do, I derived a certain philosophy from the music I liked. I saw common attitudes and threads in the people who made it. Now, the musicians I admired were, almost without exception, unglamorous people, people for whom street clothes and stage clothes were the same thing. As a determinedly non-glamorous person myself, this seemed to me to be positively a virtue (signifying authenticity, sincerity and all that jazz), and it hardened into a dogma. A musician who was conspicuously concerned with visuals – to the point that they wore costumes rather than mere clothes, foregrounding the theatrical and performative nature of what they did – was not only inauthentic, but had to be less concerned with the music than they should be, man. (Yeah, I was a humourless little choad.) So David Bowie, a man who early on had built his career out of costumes and personas and haircuts and pseudonyms, was anathema. Didn’t get it, didn’t get what other people got from it.

On a musical level, too, I wasn’t hugely impressed. The big hits of his early years still sound a bit messy, underpowered and half-baked to me, even when I admire the songs (and the harmonic and melodic accomplishment of songs like Life on Mars or Space Oddity are undeniable). The Spiders from Mars, a pub band from Hull, sound pretty much exactly like a pub band from Hull. Even the Aynsley Dunbar/Herbie Flowers rhythm section from Diamond Dogs sounds weedy next to Dennis Davis and George Murray, the magisterial duo who worked with Bowie on Station to Station, Low and ‘Heroes’.

Hearing the second side of Low (particularly Subterraneans) at university opened me up to the idea that Bowie’s music could also be overpoweringly moving, as well as embarassingly am-dram. But the tipping point came a few years later, and hearing Sound and Vision on the radio. I didn’t recognise it (when I was played Low by my college friend Calum, he didn’t play me side 1), and was completely caught up in the intro groove. And then the vocal came in and, oh god, is this David Bowie? This was funky. It was soulful. If this was Bowie music, sign me up.

Since then I’ve heard pretty much his whole catalogue, while reading Chris O’Leary’s wonderful Bowie blog. I’m still on the fence about much of the early stuff, but equally I’m more into his work from the mid-1980s onwards than many, and I’ve developed a huge fondness not just for the Berlin trilogy but for Young Americans and Let’s Dance as well. A lot of fans of his 1970s work get off the bus after Scary Monsters. Marcello Carlin, whose blog is consistently the best music criticism on the internet, is scathing about the album:

Let’s Dance, the album, is a disgrace, one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer. Its eight songs whizz by in an uninteresting and uninvolving blur and commit to nothing except Bowie’s need to be David Bowie for another year.

I don’t agree, though his take-down of the record is brutally hilarious (particularly his characterisation of 1983-era Bowie as the Beckenham Young Businessman of the Year). The thing is, I don’t think Bowie has it in him to be lazy. Nor Nile Rogers, for that matter. And Let’s Dance is David Bowie and Nile Rogers and Tony Thompson and Rob Sabino (Chic’s drummer and pianist, respectively) and Omar Hakim and Carmine Rojas and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Clearmountain. With that much talent in the room, killer moments are inevitable. It’s true that they’re mostly crammed into the first three songs (it’s hard to think of a record before the 1990s so front-loaded as Let’s Dance), and that the first track is the best. But those songs are hard to deny, and while some have heard them as clinical and calculating, I hear them as Bowie having fun with the same sort of R&B derived music he’d played early in his career with a succession of Mod bands.

Modern Love is the hardest to deny. It’s “a Bowie cultural doom-piece like Five Years recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard,” as O’Leary called it astutely. The rough edges of the lyric (modern love, traditional marriage, religion and humanism are all tried by the singer, and all found wanting) are smoothed over by Thompson’s all-time-great drum track, Sabino’s piano and Rogers’s guitar. Those backing vocals, meanwhile… Carlin called them “the stupidest backing vocals in pop since Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World”; O’Leary was also not a fan of them in the wider context of the album (“like a demented glee club”), but, again, I think he’s on the money when he describes how they work as “audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him”.

Lacking the iconic hooks of either Let’s Dance (the Twist and Shout build-up; those heavily echoed guitar-and-horn stabs) or China Girl (the Chopsticks guitar riff), Modern Love is nevertheless the most substantial single from Let’s Dance, and gives me exactly what I want from a David Bowie song and what he specialised in between 1975 and 1983: a hugely intelligent lyric coupled with a fantastic groove.

Bowie ML
“I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into a rock’n’roll version of Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent” – Charles Shaar Murray on Let’s Dance-era Bowie

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song: