Tag Archives: Chris Hillman

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

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Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

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Give some to the bass player, part 5 – Everybody’s Been Burned by The Byrds

When the Desert Rose Band’s Love Reunited reached number 6 on the US Country singles chart in 1987, to be followed shortly thereafter by number-2 hit One Step Forward, it seems likely that few among his new audience recognised the group’s lead singer, Chris Hillman. Then 43 years old, he was an overnight success who’d already been a success for 20-odd years, having been a founding member of the Hillmen, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Desert Rose Band apart, Hillman has had a happy knack all through his career of putting himself where interesting things were happening.

Although the Byrds’ music was dominated by vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar (note how I avoided describing the 12 string as ‘j—ly’ or ‘c—ming’? It can be done, people!), Chris Hillman’s fluid, jazzy bass guitar was a hugely important element of the band’s sound.

Hillman was not originally a bassist. His first instrument was the mandolin, on which he learned to play bluegrass as a teenager. None of the Byrds were rock ‘n’ roll players, really: perhaps that’s why the band’s take on rock ‘n’ roll was so singular. Hillman took up the bass guitar when asked by Jim Dickson whether he’d be interested in joining the fledgling rock group Dickson had started managing. The group already had guitar players in McGuinn and David Crosby (as well as Gene Clark, who played tambourine on stage but was a perfectly competent guitarist too), but Dickson must have been impressed by Hillman’s musicality and figured that he’d be able to make the switch. Possibly this explains an approach that was far more concerned with melody than it was with locking in with the kick drum (although, pity the bassist trying to lock in with poor, tragic Michael Clarke, whose kick was never quite in the same place twice).

The Byrds are still, even today, a common reference point for other bands. Yet when music is described as resembling that of the Byrds, usually it’s the group’s early work that is being talked about: the 12-string-driven folk-rock of the band’s first two records. This constitutes a pretty small fraction of the Byrds’ output, and a tiny chronological span of around 12 months, from the recording of Mr Tambourine Man in January 1965 to when Turn! Turn! Turn! was released in December 1965. By the time their fourth album, Younger than Yesterday, came out in early 1967, the Byrds were all over the map.

McGuinn-sung Dylan covers (a reading of My Back Pages that is completely definitive – far better, if far less famous, than their Tambourine Man) were still part of the mix, but so was the satirical So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, with its Hugh Masekela trumpet solo, Crosby’s raga-like Mind Gardens and no fewer than four Chris Hillman songs, pointing forward to the group’s pioneering country-rock work, and back to the Beatles obsession that had drawn Clark, McGuinn and Crosby together in the first place.

It may be true, as my old college friend and all-round musical confrère James McKean once put it imperiously, that it’s no one’s ambition to one day be as good a songwriter as Chris Hillman, yet those songs of his on Younger than Yesterday are all strong efforts, and I imagine McGuinn was somewhat stunned to find his bass player writing or co-writing five songs on an album with only 10 originals on it. So Hillman was the album’s MVP even before one takes into account his sterling work on Crosby’s Everybody’s Been Burned.

Everybody’s Been Burned had, apparently, been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007 chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and had been demoed several times already for previous Byrds records. The one I link to, which you can find on Preflyte Plus, is stunning in its own right, but the take that made its way on to Younger than Yesterday is among the very best things the band ever did, with one of Crosby’s finest vocals, and instrumental performances by McGuinn and Hillman of intuitive genius.

It’s not exactly jazz, but the sensibility is close – Hillman seems less concerned with what Crosby’s chords are than he is with burrowing down deep into the song’s emotional core. His basslines are similarly wide ranging on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Renaissance Fair and Draft Morning from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but in terms of empathy and understanding with a singer and songwriter, this is Hillman’s most shining moment as a bass player, and he remains a curiously unsung figure.

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Chris Hillman, in his ironing-my-hair-straight days

Rock & Roll Doctor – Little Feat

Popular music is full of songs about medical practitioners. From Cypress Hill’s Dr Greenthumb to Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat. From Aqua’s Dr Jones to Steely Dan’s Dr Wu. From the Beatles’ Doctor Robert, who helps you to understand, all the way through to Dylan’s ‘best friend my doctor’, who can’t even tell what it is he’s got. There have been Frontier Psychiatrists, Night Nurses and Witch Doctors.

But has any doctor in pop music ever had two degrees in bebop and a PhD in swing? Only Lowell George’s Rock & Roll Doctor.

George was one of the heroes of Laurel Canyon. There were several artists out of LA in the early seventies who were hugely popular with the mainstream audience (Young, Mitchell, CSNY, Taylor, King, Eagles, Ronstadt), and then there were artists who were hugely popular among other artists: John David Souther, Lowell George and Jackson Browne – guys whose songs everyone covered, who pretty much everyone believed were really talented, but who didn’t particularly catch on themselves commercially (Browne of course did later, but his first album took four years to go gold and he was never a major star like Taylor, King or Young). As late as 1975, David Geffen was still trying to make JD Souther a big name by putting him in an instant supergroup with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. It duly went nowhere, with Furay and Souther openly loathing each other. Hillman, as is his lot in life, was caught in the middle.

Little Feat had a cult audience Souther would have envied, and like Souther, Lowell George could afford all the coke he could snort thanks to covers of his songs by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, but far too few people heard George singing his own songs, backed by his own band, several of whom were in-demand session players, like Richie Hayward – a great drummer who played with Ronstadt, Dylan, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and many more. George himself was known for his slide guitar – and he is one of the very finest, completely himself and instantly recognisable – but he was also a decent singer, much admired by Van Dyke Parks among others,  and at his best a great writer too.

He died in 1979 from a heart attack, 34 years old and weighing over 22 stone (quite a gastronomic achievement for a man who was high on coke almost constantly), leaving behind a wife and young daughter (Inara George), and a reputation that’s still not really spread beyond fans of seventies LA rock. He’s not obscure, exactly, but he’s not a cult artist either. I’ve never met a fan of Little Feat my own age or younger. I’ve never met a fan of Inara George my age either, come to that. His profile might yet be boosted as, say, Judee Sill’s has been in the last five or six years, but it’d take someone to stand up for him and argue the case.

If you find yourself caught up in the groove of this one – and really, you should – check out the live version they played in 1975 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (easily found on YouTube); if anything it cooks even more.

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Lowell George — heavy slide, natural Strat

Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris

Boulder to Birmingham is Emmylou Harris’s shattered – and shattering – response to the death of Gram Parsons, from her solo debut Pieces of the Sky (she had put out a pre-Parsons folk record, Gliding Bird, that had sunk without trace, and so Sky is usually considered her debut proper). Pieces of the Sky features many of the same musicians who had played on Parsons’ GP and Grievous Angel, which I have written about before here. In that post I made a few grouses about the work of the backing band – Elvis Presley’s TCB Band – on those albums. Some of those same guys are present here too (James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Ron Tutt), along with such quality players from the world of country rock as Bernie Leadon, Ben Keith, Billy Payne and Byron Berline. But Harris and producer Brian Ahern pulled much greater performances from the supporting cast than had been evident on Gram’s records, though. With Emmylou leading them, the band do far more than just take care of business. This isn’t showbiz. Instead, there’s a real emotional wallop on this record that I don’t find on the majority of Parsons’ solo material (but do find on the first Burritos record, just in case it seems like I’m being a Gram hater. Parsons was a frequently inspired songwriter, but I think his best recorded work was done with Chris Hillman, not James Burton, regardless of who was the better guitar player).

Harris is a reliable singer and can breathe life into even the flimsiest material (God knows she’d have to do some of that in her time), but when paired with a song of substance, she’s devastating, the keening edge of her voice just cutting right through to the song’s emotional core. But in all her long career, she’s probably never topped this vocal, and as a writer, she’s never topped this song.

The aural integrity of the recording and the quality of the musicianship evident on this record don’t come cheap, though, and Pieces of the Sky was apparently the most expensive country record ever made at the time of its release. Fortunately it was a mainstream hit and began Harris’s successful Nashville career, which lasted until 1995, when, in her late forties and facing diminishing returns in the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill, she released Wrecking Ball and began a second career that straddled the worlds of alternative rock and trad country.

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