Tag Archives: David Bowie

64 Quartets & Dreams of Orgonon

When I started this blog six and a half years ago, one of my models for the kind of writing I wanted to do was Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song exploration of David Bowie’s work, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, which was later published by Zero in two volumes.

O’Leary has a new project that I hadn’t come across until a couple of days ago: 64 Quartets. So far, O’Leary has covered Booker T & the MG’s and the 4AD Boston/Newport crew: the Pixies, the Breeders, Belly and Throwing Muses.

It’s as good as any long-time reader of O’Leary’s work could hope for, and it’s great to read his thoughts on artists other than Bowie. He puts in hard yards as a researcher (I can’t think of many other bloggers who include proper bibliographic citations) so he’s super well informed, and he’s an astute critic of actual music: the difference it makes that the singer sings this note rather than that note, or the effect of adding the 9th to the harmony.

It’s really good stuff.

While I’m here, I’d also like to mention Christine Kelley’s Dreams of Orgonon, which is a song-by-song exploration of Kate Bush’s catalogue, as well as works by and/or featuring Kate-adjacent artists like Peter Gabriel. Like O’Leary, Kelley combines biographic detail with formal and technical analysis of Bush’s music. It’s fantastic stuff, and is doing for me exactly what Pushing Ahead of the Dame did 10 years ago: giving me a proper grounding in the work of an artist I knew, but not comprehensively.

If you’re not following either yet, you’ve got a treat in store.

Double Live Gonzos, part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

On 18 November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV’s Unplugged strand. I’ve been meaning to post something about the resulting show/album since I saw someone post something on Facebook about the 25th anniversary of the recording last month. Other writing commitments and general seasonal business got in the way. I decided to write about the record as the first in a series of posts about live albums (all old staples of my record collection).

So here we go, the first of them (which as we shall see isn’t a double album and is generally not very gonzo).

*

They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.

Joel Stillerman, Executive Producer, MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded at Sony Music Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, on 18 November 1993. The show’s production team had been after Nirvana for a while, although quite what they had expected the band to do in such a setting is a little mystifying. Nirvana had included a couple of acoustic songs on Nevermind, but essentially they were a rock band, and an unusually raw and ragged one at that. Whatever it is that MTV producer Alex Coletti had wanted them to do at the outset, Nirvana’s performance turned out to be one of the absolute signature moments of the show. In the annals of MTV Unplugged, it’s Nirvana, Clapton and then everyone else.

The first problem the band had when approaching the show, other than Kurt Cobain’s basic unreliability due to his drug use, was material. That old saw about a song not being a good song if you can’t play it with one acoustic guitar or a piano is actually a vast oversimplification. Would Strawberry Fields Forever sound like Lennon’s best work played on one guitar? Would, say, I Feel Love sound like a classic that needed to be heard over 12 minutes to get the full impact if played by one earnest guitar player? Cobain was a first-rate songwriter, but that didn’t mean that all of his songs sounded their best played on an acoustic guitar and a brushed snare drum. They relied on the intensity of a full-bore rock band to put them in their proper context. Shorn of the power of volume, which of their songs would work?

Something in the Way and Polly from Nevermind were natural fits, of course. As was Dumb from In Utero, and it would have been easy enough for the band to imagine About a Girl being played on acoustic guitars. What else would they do, though? They needed, like, 10 other songs.

In the event, they chose to play acoustic arrangements of a few other Nirvana songs, then filled the rest of the set with works by other songwriters. Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic had always sought to deflect attention away from themselves and on to their peers and influences; it was a big part of how they handled their runaway success, and a very laudable part, too. So naturally, they covered shambling twee-pop duo the Vaselines for the umpteenth time, recorded a song popularised by Lead Belly (a big hero of Cobain’s since Slim Moon had played him Lead Belly’s Last Sessions in the late 1980s), did an obscure David Bowie song (again, a favourite from the early days of the band; this time the man who got Cobain hooked was Chad Channing, Nirvana’s pre-Grohl drummer) and invited their friends the Meat Puppets to sit in with them as they played no fewer than three of the band’s songs.

Having already expanded to a four-piece for the In Utero tour with the addition of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, the band also incorporated cellist Lori Goldston for the Unplugged show. When Curt and Cris Kirkwood sat in on bass and guitar for the three Meat Puppets songs, Goldston and Smear sat out, Cobain put down his guitar and Novoselic moved to play second guitar.*

They began with About a Girl, sounding a little tentative; Cobain’s tempo in the intro is all over the place. As it progresses, the band seem more at ease, and the song, played acoustically rather than electric, sounds more Lennon-esque than ever (despite, or perhaps because of, its bizarre key change from E minor to C# for the chorus).

Come as You Are, enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrates the good and the not-so-good of the band as an acoustic ensemble. Cobain is as committed vocally as he was in any rock show, and Grohl’s adaptation to the acoustic environment is impressive for a legendarily hard-hitting drummer. But Novoselic is often ahead of the beat and Smear, whether by lack of imagination or diktat from Cobain, never explores what different voicings or complementary parts could do for the song. Cobain plays the riff; Smear doubles it. Cobain strums open chords; Smear does too. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s noticeable how arranged the next two songs are in comparison.

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (the Vaselines cover misidentified by Cobain as a rendition of a Christian song) sees Novoselic pick up an accordion (his first instrument) while Grohl plays bass and pedals his hi-hat. Immediately, the sound opens out, and the effect is charming even if the song’s snidiness is not as clever as it thinks it is.

The Man Who Sold the World sees Nirvana stretch the Unplugged format. Cobain refused to play unless he could use his usual Fender amp and effects pedals, so Alex Coletti had the set dressers build a box to disguise the amp and make it look like a monitor wedge. His tone was horrible (the result of playing a rare Martin dreadnought, a D18-E, that came outfitted with two large magnetic pickups. It sounded so bad that Martin ceased production after one year). However, if Cobain hadn’t insisted on using his amp and pedals, we’d not have got the gorgeous arrangement the band put together for The Man Who Sold the World, where Cobain’s guitar and Goldston’s cello merge and become one instrument for around a minute in the outro. As for the reading of the song itself, it’s spellbinding, with one of Cobain’s best vocals. In Bowie’s recording, the jolly organ and the let’s-all-play-our-scales chorus distracted the listener somewhat from the song’s unsettling premise; Nirvana cut right to the heart of it, and there is unease (dread, even) in Cobain’s voice as he sings it.

Next were two songs from In Utero. For my money, of Cobain’s material, Pennyroyal Tea was the only song to fall down in its acoustic incarnation, despite his instruction to the band that he would be playing it by himself (he phrases it as a question – “am I going to do this by myself?” – but it’s clearly not a question). The idea of Cobain doing one of his songs solo, all the audience’s attention on Cobain’s voice and lyrics, sounds great. The problem is that, structurally simple and melodically repetitive, Pennyroyal Tea feels like an unfinished first draft without Dave Grohl’s bombastic drums and vocal harmonies. Dumb fares much better – again, its the extra touches (Grohl’s harmonies and Goldston’s cello) make it sing.

Polly and On a Plain were dispatched without fuss, the latter adding a note or two of levity to the performance with a lyric that contained several in-jokes and an admission from Cobain that he didn’t always know what he was trying to say. Grohl later said that he felt Cobain wanted to bring the Unplugged performance “down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level”. If so, Something in the Way succeeded in this aim. The cello is, again, a nice touch.

The three Meat Puppets songs are all great. I’m a particular fan of Oh Me, which has a gorgeous E major riff and a lovely short lead guitar passage by Curt Kirkwood that’s beautifully phrased and possibly the prettiest moment in the whole set. Kirkwood’s guitar playing is impressive throughout, actually, from the fingerpicking riff to Plateau to the pentatonic lead at the end of Lake of Fire.

Looking at the gig as a whole, the Nirvana songs that work best acoustically for me are About a Girl and All Apologies. I genuinely can’t choose which versions I prefer, the acoustic or album versions. That said, there’s something about the version of All Apologies on Unplugged – it’s so naked and vulnerable, and in the end as Cobain and Grohl sing the mantra “All in all is all we are” in harmony, so weirdly celebratory, it may even beat the In Utero recording, which is probably my favourite song on my favourite Nirvana album.

Which just leaves Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana’s take on Lead Belly’s take on In the Pines. Cobain had history with this song. As we said earlier, he’d been listening to Lead Belly since he was played Lead Belly’s Last Sessions by Slim Moon, founder of the indie label Kill Rock Stars, in the late 1980s while living in Olympia. In Nirvana’s early days, he and Novoselic had a side project with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel playing electric arrangements of old blues songs: they cut their version for Lanegan’s solo debut album, The Winding Sheet, a record that everyone in the band thought was magical and was consciously trying to emulate in their Unplugged set.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is hard to write about now, with so much myth-making surrounding it. Suffice it to say, it’s as breathtaking as everyone says it is. Cobain’s vocal in that final verse is unearthly, his screech on the word “shiver” so hair-raising it seems to bring the whole band to a halt, as if they’ve been shocked into silence by what they’re hearing. The band did no encore. As Cobain protested to Coletti when he tried to talk them into doing another song, there was no way they could top what they’d just done.

MTV Unplugged in New York is not a flawless album. It’s full of mistakes and flubs and missed notes. The arrangements are sometimes simplistic, the guitar tones tinny. It is, though, an incredibly human album. A lot of listeners have no use for live records; why hear a rough approximation of a song’s studio incarnation when you could listen to the real thing? But for fans who do love live records, it’s the humanity that we’re drawn to, I think: the subtleties of real-time reaction between musicians, the knife-edge moments where the performance seems dangerously close to coming apart but doesn’t.

Unplugged in New York is full of those moments, and if you’re of the opinion that Nevermind is too slick to be the real Nirvana and In Utero downplays the band’s melodic side too much (I hold neither of these opinions, by the way), I can easily see how Unplugged could be your favourite Nirvana album. Even without electric instrumentation – the serrated edge of Cobain’s distorted Fender, the thrilling power Grohl brought to the snare drum and cymbals – it genuinely captures the spirit of the band, and remains essential.

unplugged

*The mix for the audio released, by Scott Litt, puts Cobain’s guitar a little off centre to the left and Pat Smear’s about halfway over to the right. Curt Kirkwood plays Smear’s guitar, which Litt turns up for the three songs and brings slightly closer to the centre. Novoselic’s guitar on those is about halfway to the left and tends to come in and out of the mix, plainly audible in some sections and all but absent from others.

Pneuma – 50 Foot Wave

In the mid-1990s, the economics of the record industry caught up with Kristin Hersh. She couldn’t afford to keep Throwing Muses on the road and the band weren’t selling enough records to justify the effort and expense of making them under the old model. Her solo albums, on the other hand, were very useful money-spinners: cheap and quick to knock out, and cheap and simple to tour behind. Have guitar will travel. Cheaply.

But eventually she reconvened the Muses for what longtime fans assumed would be one last hurrah, a self-titled record released in 2003. A belligerent-sounding effort, only marginally sweetened by the presence of Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly on harmony vocals, it contained many of the elements she would bring the following year to her new band, 50 Foot Wave: asymmetrical song structures, knotty time signatures and elliptical melodies.

Hersh has written (in her memoir, released as Rat Girl in the US and Paradoxical Undressing in the UK), that she has heard music in her head since a car hit knocked her off her bike in 1985 and her head slammed into the ground. In the mid-2000s, the songs she was hearing called for a different approach, particularly percussively. They needed greater aggression, more power, less finesse. David Narcizo, a player with impressive marching-band snare drum skills but fundamentally a guy with a light touch, was replaced by Rob Ahlers, who plays with enormous power and what sounds like desperation, as if his drums need to be constantly beaten off with sticks lest they do him some kind of physical injury.

Golden Ocean, the band’s 2004 debut full-length, was a shock in an age when so much popular rock music aped the loose-limbed grooves of British post-punk and the first side of David Bowie’s Low. Frantic and scabrous, 50 Foot Wave were unapologetically about power, energy and attack. Hersh, her voice long since abraded into an old-lady croak (a croak that, if I’m honest, limits the appeal to me of hearing her in acoustic guitar-and-vocal mode; it’s not a subtle instrument), frequently broke into raspy screams as the snare drum took a vicious beating. To give you an idea of the tone of Golden Ocean, Pneuma – one of the best things on the record, but by no means the only standout – hinges on a breakdown section where Hersh drawls “You know what?” three times over guitar feedback, as if beckoning the listener to come closer to her, before screaming, “Shut the fuck up!” But while the music was somewhat difficult – loud and confrontational, and with frequent hard left turns in structure and rhythm – it was the best record she made in the noughties, the more welcome for being so unexpected.

50ftwave1l-r Hersh, Muses/50 Foot Wave mainstay Bernard Georges, Rob Ahlers

The People’s Music – Ian MacDonald

Writing about Marcello Carlin’s new blog the other day got me thinking about music writing in general. Here’s a piece about a book I read when I was fresh out of university, 15 years ago.

Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music was published a couple of months before its author’s suicide in August 2003. It’s a collection of articles previously published in Mojo and Uncut in the late nighties and early noughties, after MacDonald’s rep had been re-established by the success of Revolution in the Head, his song-by-song analysis of the Beatles’ recorded works.

I admire Revolution in the Head hugely, but trouble brews in certain entries, and especially in the postscript essay, in which MacDonald compares the work of the Beatles to that of contemporary artists, and finds all of it lacking by comparison. He argues that the soul went out of pop music some time in the late sixties, or certainly by the mid-seventies*, and is disparaging and dismissive of the eighties almost totally, and not just in terms of its music.

Awed by his erudition and the breadth of his knowledge, I absorbed his criticism of post-Beatles pop without challenging it as a 20-year-old. Now, I disagree strongly with much of what he says, and (if it’s not to impertinent to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of a man whose depression was all-encompassing to the point that he hanged himself) I feel like his comments probably said as much about his own psychological state as they did about the music he was writing about.

This undercurrent of horror at what he sees in the world around him is not as prevalent in The People’s Music as it is in Revolution in the Head. The industry’s reissue mania began in earnest in the late 1990s**, and MacDonald was an ideal figure to write articles about, or reviews of, these remastered and/or expanded editions of classic records by the Band, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and so on. He loved the records, but not uncritically. He was there at the time, and so was well placed to gauge their importance and influence. And above all he had the analytical chops equal to the task; MacDonald had been assistant editor at the NME in its seventies pomp – the era of figures such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. You couldn’t have gotten that gig in that period if you couldn’t bring it. Crucially, writing about artists from the sixties and seventies allowed MacDonald to write about music that made him happy, which is definitely when he was at his best, and the short word counts kept him concentrated on the music, and didn’t allow him to move sideways into the music’s place in the broader culture. The essays and reviews are consequently sharp and laser focused.

I owe my interest in half a dozen different artists to the reviews and articles in The People’s Music, particularly the pieces on David Bowie’s Station to Station, Laura Nyro’s New York trilogy, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Randy Newman’s debut album. I bought my first records by Laura Nyro and Steely Dan on the same day having devoured those articles, and fell hard for them both. They were every bit as wonderful as MacDonald had made them sound.

That’s the highest goal music writing can achieve, and so The People’s Music  furthered my musical education hugely. I seldom look at MacDonald’s books now (I know them too well, for one thing, but moreover I find the pessimism that hangs over them puts me off a little), but I can’t deny the influence they had.

If you’re not familiar with Ian MacDonald,  I’d recommend The People’s Music over Revolution in the Head (unless you are a big Beatles fan), which is ultimately a downbeat, elegiac book. MacDonald’s magisterial essay on Nick Drake from The People’s Music is at times as despondent about the world as his Beatles postscript, but at other times he’s combative (Minimalism and the Corporate Age), clear-headed about the faults of weak records (Not a Revolution: Jefferson Airplane From Play Power to Power Play) and vigorous in his praise of great music (almost everything else). It’s well worth seeking out.

 

*To give you an idea of the position MacDonald takes in this postscript essay, here’s its concluding paragraph in full:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) – but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s music, which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms – most obviously classical and jazz – confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

** At that time, the reissue of classic records on CD (often in expanded editions) did often serve a useful purpose for the fan and consumer.

The original CD releases of many artists’ catalogues were of very poor sound quality, and were often based on transfers from sources other than the original masters -the industry cutting corners to get product to market as quickly as possible. Consequently they were frequently very quiet and lacking in low end. A tasteful remaster job from the late 1990s or early noughties improves vastly on the 1st-generation CDs, a consequence of improved AD converters and digital mastering software.

That same technology, alas, made possible the loudeness war, and so the only sonic gains that could be made by releasing a remaster of a record from the last 15-20 years would come from backing down the levels to where they were in the first half of the 1990s.

NYCNY – Daryl Hall

We’ve talked about Daryl Hall before, and even relatively recently. But there was only room in February’s entry on She’s Gone, which you’ll remember I put forward as one of my absolute favourite records, to touch in the briefest possible fashion on Sacred Songs, Hall’s first solo album, recorded in 1977 and eventually released by RCA in 1980.

Hall was not the only prescient musician who appears to have felt the tides turning against them around 1976 and 1977 and responded by reinventing themselves (Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and to some extent David Bowie did likewise), but when listening to Sacred Songs, Lindsey Buckingham always comes to mind.

But Sacred Songs is stranger even than Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly rewarding Tusk. Despite the note on the sleeve that said “Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham”, Tusk is not an auteur work. Buckingham may have wanted Fleetwood Mac to become the Clash, but that was never even close to possible. The band contained two other singer-songwriters, neither of whom had any real wish to follow him down that road. And so when producing Stevie Nicks’s and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham dutifully gave them relatively straightforward treatments, only occasionally lacing them with the off-kilter touches that characterised his own material on Tusk. So Buckingham pulls in one direction with his songs, Nicks and McVie pull in another with theirs, but the mediator between the two factions is, strangely, Buckingham himself. One moment he was cackling his way maniacally through the bizarre What Makes You Thing You’re the One, the next he was empathetically layering endless delicate guitar and vocal overdubs on to Nicks’s oceanic Sara, possibly her masterpiece.

Sacred Songs covers similarly broad territory. Hall allows himself to be everything he can be on the record. A ballad like Why Was it So Easy could have fit happily on any Hall & Oates album, but NYCNY is genuinely startling in its aggression. This song would certainly not have fit on Abandoned Luncheonette.

The standard critical line on Sacred Songs is that it’s the result of exposure to art rock, punk and new wave while living in New York and hanging out with Robert Fripp. And that seems almost certainly true. But, as with Buckingham’s Tusk-era material, NYCNY is fascinating in the ways it fails to be punk rock; after all, an imperfect copy of an original idea tells us as much, maybe more, about the copier than the copied. NYCNY is mixed dry and close, the musicians’ playing is clipped and precise, Hall hits too many notes over too many octaves to ever be confused with Johnny Rotten, and he can’t sneer like Tom Verlaine. Above all, he’s exuberant in a way that few punk rockers would have allowed themselves to be.

Sacred Songs isn’t a classic. Ultimately Daryl Hall was a soul man, and anyone with working ears would rather hear him sing She’s Gone than holler and squeal his way through NYCNY, however much fun it is. But Sacred Songs is an noble attempt by a substantial artist to push themselves beyond anything they’d done before, and it remains completely fascinating.

hall

Their Back Pages

So it seems we’ve slid out of talking about harmonies and back to regular programming. Sorry about that, if you were enjoying the series. When doing those 10-part series, I rely a lot on momentum to keep me thinking about music from whatever specific angle it happens to be. It’s been busy enough that I haven’t been able to post that regularly and I’m afraid I couldn’t keep my mind on that one long enough to crank out the usual 10 posts. My apologies.

What I have been thinking about, once again, is David Bowie. And other artists of his stature and with his breadth of work.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

From Chris O’Leary’s piece on Little Wonder at Pushing Ahead of the Dame

I liked Caitlin Moran as a music writer, but I confess to not remembering the piece that Chris O’Leary is quoting from. The answer to Moran’s question is fairly obvious (of course they wouldn’t!) and not hugely interesting unless considered in a larger context. I’m sure Moran was asking the question rhetorically, on the way to telling us why that question wasn’t relevant.

But we’ll return to Mr Bowie in a second. Let’s talk about fans instead.

Let’s assume there’s two extreme versions of the extreme music fan. On the one hand, consider the Deadhead, shelves collapsing under the weight of box sets that document every show on every tour the band ever played, waiting for Deadnet to send out the new 30 Trips Around the Sun 80-disc box set, whose life is dedicated to the elliptical paths taken by Jerry and the guys. On the other, the blogger who keeps abreast of every new development in every micro trend, who considers marginal commercial forces like Grimes lost to the mainstream, who’s always in search of the latest thing, never stopping to look back. Who has a track or two by tens of thousands of artists on a series of groaning hard drives.

These are the extreme figures. Most of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two. At various times I’ve felt a bit like both. Ultimately, though, I have my favourites – those artists I come back to again and again. I wouldn’t call myself a completist fan of anyone, but there are people whose every record I’ve heard, and whose artistic failures are just as fascinating to me as their masterpieces, in terms of what they add to the overall story.

Bowie is the kind of artist who rewards that kind of listening. Much of Earthling was, as O’Leary put it, dated the second it was released – the last time Bowie would try hard to stay abreast of contemporary underground pop music and bend it to his purposes. No one has been talking about what a seminal moment Earthling was in Bowie’s career this last week, but the record remains, for what it says about Bowie-the-songwriter and Bowie-the-pop-star, a fascinating partial failure.

Let’s talk about some other records that would never have got their authors signed by a record company but which are as compelling in their weird and various ways as the ones that did.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, a record bringing together the diverse and thirterto uncombined talents of Rod Steiger, Thomas Dolby and Wayne Shorter, is similarly compelling, in a slightly more car-crash fashion. What was going on here? Boredom with tried-and-trusted methods of composition? A desperate attempt to stay au courant?*

John Martyn’s Sunday’s Child is 40 very pleasant minutes of Martyn spinning his wheels, unable to push himself anywhere close to the peaks of his classic trilogy (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out), and not yet finding his way to the dub- and soul-inflected work of his suit-wearing years. His readings of Spencer the Rover and Satisfied Mind – that is, the songs he didn’t write – are easily the best things on the album. I’d not be without them.

Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves is a “better” album than, say, Old Ways. But there’s nothing on it you’ve not heard him do better on After the Gold Rush or Zuma. Old Ways – a straightforward countrypolitan record – is a headscratcher from first note till last, even more so given it came hard on the heels of rockabilly-reviving Everybody’s Rockin’ and the Tron-isms of Trans. I love Trans. I think it has some of Young’s very best writing on it, but even when the writing isn’t there, it’s a brave record and I hear him pushing himself hard.

In fact, Young’s Geffen period, with each record being such an extreme reaction to the one before it, is kind of an Exhibit A in how rewarding it can be to spend time with the minor records in a major artist’s discography. Not one of those albums is close to being as strong a set of songs as After the Gold Rush, On the Beach or Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (insert your own favourite Neil Young record here). But, to travesty Rudyard Kipling**, what do they know of classic Neil Young who only classic Neil Young know?

trans
This is classic Neil Young. I promise.

*A phenomenon I’ve referred to elsewhere as dropping the pilot and charming that snake. **Who deserves no better.

Then Play Long is No More

Over the last eight years the most consistently acute and compelling music writing has come from Marcello Carlin at his blog Then Play Long*.

In 2008 Carlin set himself the task of writing about every UK number-one album in chronological order, starting from the very first, Elvis is Back! – the sort of foolhardy task only someone utterly besotted with music would ever set themselves. There have been times when Carlin’s labours were obviously bringing him little pleasure, as he slogged though the Black & White Minstrels records, or 101 Strings, or the Top of the Pops series. And yet he carried on, buoyed by the prospect of writing about the good records, or finding something unexpectedly commendable about a record that seemed unpromising at first.

It takes little away from Carlin to say that, while he’s strong on the records’ context (both social and in the context of the artists’ body of work), his great strength as a music writer is that he can combine formal analysis with a more subjective, associative response. Put more simply, he can tell you how a record makes him feel, and then have a good stab at explaining what it is in the music that makes him feel that way.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago after Ted Gioia’s jeremiad about modern music writing on The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the sort of criticism Gioia was calling out for was in fact alive and well and living on the internet. Taken together, Then Play Long, Chris O’Leary’s David Bowie blog (Pushing Ahead of the Dame, now published in book form as Rebel Rebel) and Tom Ewing’s Popular were my exhibit A. (Cards on the table, those guys’ work was my model when I started this blog.)

Problem is, O’Leary’s work always had a built-in end date, and after this week’s sad news, we know what that will be. Blackstar, a mopping up of whatever live and/or previously unreleased stuff the Bowie estate sanctions for public consumption, then that will be it. Reliable, dependable Popular rumbles on, often with long hiatuses while Ewing gets on with the business of everyday life, but over the course of the next few years, I’ll find myself reading more and more pieces about songs I never knowlingly heard. I lost contact with pop in the early noughties, and never really found my way back to it.

Today, Carlin announced that he’d written the last Then Play Long entry (he fast-fowarded to Blackstar, currently topping the UK album chart, and many others worldwide, I suspect), and would now be putting the blog to rest. This saddens me a lot, as there’s no one else out there who can do what he does, but the job of work he undertook when he started that thing was immense, and no one should feel beholden to finish something just because they started it. As he says, there’s 600 records between today’s entry and the Carpenters compilation he covered in the previous piece. I wouldn’t take that on, and can well understand why he doesn’t want to either.

So this is a thank you to Marcello, whom I’ve never met, for all that wonderful writing, all that insight and analysis. I hope he still continues to write about music in some form. In the meantime, if you’ve ever read one of my pieces and enjoyed it, head over to Then Play Long to see how it’s really done.

Then Play Long

*Many entries were written by Carlin’s wife Lena Friesen, but Carlin started the blog and wrote probably half a dozen or so entries for every one of Friesen’s, so I’ve always thought of it as primarily his blog. And really, it was Carlin’s writing that spoke to me. Nevertheless, he always acknowledged when an idea or association in one of his pieces came from her, and it’s clear that fans of the blog owe a large debt to both Marcello and Lena.

 

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

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

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: