Tag Archives: Chic

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

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Give some to the bass player, part 8 – Gloria by Laura Branigan

The endearing thing about Italo disco is how unashamed it is. It’s totally committed to the idea of being pop music. While never hugely popular in the US or UK, several Italo or Italo-derived records did hit big, Ryan Paris’s Dolce Vita from 1983 and Gloria (originally by Umberto Tozzi), but covered by Laura Branigan (with English lyrics by Branigan and Trevor Veitch) in 1982 among them.

Made in California her version may have been, but Gloria retains its Italo ethos: from the endlessly repeated three-note synth hook to the trumpet fanfares in the coda, no idea is too obvious and no hook is too crass. Branigan, 27 when the song hit and a one-time backing singer for Leonard Cohen, sings it with throat-tearing commitment. It’s a big excitable dog of a song.

We often associate disco with complicated, funk-derived bass lines (Chic’s Good Times and I Want Your Love, Teena Marie’s I Need Your Lovin’, Narada Michael Walden’s I Should Have Loved You, that kind of thing). When hi-NRG appeared in the wake of Donna Summer’s epochal I Feel Love, it did away with much of the funkiness in the low end which had been one of first-wave disco’s calling cards. Before long, root-octave basslines at brisk tempos (130-140, as opposed to the classic disco tempo of 120 – try walking down the street Travolta-style to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel and see how long it takes you to keel over), had been normalised within dance music. Hence, when Branigan and her producer Jack White picked up Tozzi’s 1979 track Gloria, they substituted the original’s straight-eight bassline for an eighth-note root-octave line.

There are two bassists credited on the album Branigan, Bob Glaub and Leland Sklar. I always assumed the player on Gloria was Glaub, as Sklar is primarily known as bassist from the section, the LA studio band who backed Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other such 1970s singer-songwriters of the mellow school. Tonally it doesn’t sound like Sklar as I recognise him (it sounds like it was played with a pick). But more than one article I’ve read about Sklar has credited Gloria to him, so who knows.

Whoever it was, it’s a great performance. It sounds suitably machine-like in the verses, with a clear debt to Moroder’s pioneering I Feel Love bassline (created with a delay – if you want to hear the original line, listen to the left channel only), but in the chorus sections (“You really don’t remember”), the line becomes more fluid and melodic, with scalar passing notes providing a marked contrast to the roots and octaves that dominate the verses. All of which, we should again stress, is played at a pretty damn fast tempo.

Branigan’s discography contains one other unimpeachable classic, Self-Control from 1984 (a song I really should write about in more depth), but she’ll always be remembered for Gloria and her Tiggerish performances of it. She died in 2004 from a cerebral aneurysm when she was just 47.

LauraBranigan
Since I don’t know who played bass on Gloria, here’s Laura Branigan instead; she’s definitely on it

Unsatisfied – The Replacements (repost)

I’m seeing the Replacements at the Roundhouse tomorrow night, so I’ve decided to take a break from our bass-player series and repost this piece from a year or so back on my favourite Mats song. More bassists on Thursday, unless I decide to write about the show instead.

To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes everyone else look careerist by comparison. Such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether or not they got ahead – after all, it’s difficult to end up signed to Warner Bros. by accident. But when I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band weren’t widely known, but well-known enough for their records to be available, and they had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them: Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life. In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.

Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.

None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.

The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line “Are you satisfied”, in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved “I’m so” – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.

Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.

Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Replacements  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Replacements live: Tommy Stinson (seated), Chris Mars (drums), Westerberg (horizontal), Bob Stinson (guitar)

*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: “We were all nowhere – we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.”

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:

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

Old friend and musical mucker Yo Zushi mentioned me and this blog in a piece he write for The New Statesman about Valentine’s Day songs. Check it out here:

To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes anyone else look careerist by comparison (such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether they got ahead – after all, no one gets a major-label deal by accident). When I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band was not widely known, but it had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them (Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life). In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.

Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.

None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.

The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line ‘Are you satisfied’ in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: ‘I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied’. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved ‘I’m so’ – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.

Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.

Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.

Image

The Replacements Mk II: (l-r) Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, Westerberg, Slim Dunlap. Care to guess which one ended up in Guns N’ Roses?

*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: ‘We were all nowhere — we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.’