Tag Archives: drum sounds

Things that are happening round here

Just a little update on things related to my own music.

This Sunday, 7th February, I’ll be playing a live session for Doug Welch on his folk show on BBC Kent. It starts at 9pm, and I’ll be doing three or four songs and talking a bit about them. I’m really honoured to have been asked to do it, and am looking forward to it a lot. I’ll put a link up to the podcast once it’s up, which will probably Monday.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a digital-download single, which is a trailer for full album to come out in the spring. It’s a song I wrote just before Christmas called Separated by Water, and I’ve been working on it at home for the last month, which has been slow progress due to a cold I just haven’t been able to shake and which meant it was touch and go whether I was going to be able to get a usable vocal done in time (colds tend to completely destroy my voice and leave me unable to sing properly for a week or so after I actually feel better). Anyway, I’m mixing it tonight and tomorrow, and will let it out into the world on Saturday, so I’ll put a download link up here then.

As for the album, I’ve finished it, I think! Just need to find a mastering engineer, get some artwork, photos, all of that jazz. I’ve never done a full album release with an actual physical product, and I want to make sure I get it right.

Added to that, James McKean’s second solo album, No Peace for the Wicked, is mastered and ready for release on 27 March. I mixed it, recorded a lot of it, played my usual assortment of instruments on it, and will be playing at least one live show with James to launch it (and potentially more), so I’d like leave my release till after his one’s done and dusted. James’s record is wonderful – very well sequenced, with excellent songs and brilliant performances from a pretty substantial cast of London-based musicians, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done on it.

Expect mine to follow it in late April or May.

In the meantime, here’s a bunch of songs more or less certain to be on it.

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

JVDSJVDS

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 10: Yeah We Know – Dinosaur Jr

Hi all. So we’ve come to the end of 2015’s Underrated Drum Tracks. I hope you’ve liked them. If you had half as much fun reading them as I did writing them, well, I’ve had twice as much fun writing them as you did reading them. I’ll be back at the weekend with something very non-drummy.

Let us now praise Murph.

J Mascis is the alt.rock guitar hero and Lou Barlow the bass player who stepped out of Mascis’s shadow to become an acclaimed songwriter in his own right, so Murph has played the stereotypical bassist’s role in Dinosaur Jr: the steady Eddie, the reassuring, dependable presence. The guy who’s pivotal in making it all happen but who you don’t always notice.

Murph left the band after 1993’s Where You Been, and Mascis took over the role of studio drummer for the last two Dino albums during the band’s first run, Without a Sound and Hand It Over. As is so often the case, you notice what a musician brings to the table most when they’re not there any more. Those two albums had some fine songs on them (Hand It Over‘s Never Really Bought It is a classic), but I miss Murph’s playing constantly. Mascis has nothing like the same authority behind the drums, he hits the brass too hard and he pushes the backbeat (hey, maybe I don’t like his playing because it reminds me of everything I worry that I’m doing wrong in my own playing).

Great rock music is about drums first (sole exception: Neil Young), so Dinosaur Jr are a great band only when powered by Murph. It’s true today; it was true in 1987. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad’s survey of the American post-hardcore scene, Lou Barlow complains that Mascis never appreciated the time and effort that he and Murph put into becoming a solid rhythm section for him. The book was written during the years of Barlow/Mascis animosity, and his complaints may have been overstated, but it’s true that something did click into place between he and Murph in the gap between You’re Living All Over Me and Bug, which perhaps came from the extra time they spent rehearsing as a duo. Their finest moments as a rhythm section (during the band’s first stint) are arguably all on Bug.

Chief among them is Yeah We Know, a virtual showcase for everything that’s great about Murph. The verse part is an obbligato for toms, snare and crash cymbals, repeated in full four times, which is replaced by a straighter 4/4 rock beat in the chorus, albeit one with very tightly composed snare fills every few bars (the patterns are repeated verbatim in all choruses) and a rumbling tom fill starting on the sixth bar of each sequence that climaxes with a hugely reverberant snare flam (the most artful production touch on the whole album). Murph takes something of a backseat during Mascis’s solo, merely repeating his established chorus patterns, but then comes his shining moment: a glorious middle section where Murph plays his most powerful, but most complicated, tom and snare patterns in tandem with Mascis’s wah-wah riffing and Barlow’s grinding distorted bass. Murph calls on some of the ideas used elsewhere in the song (laying off the hats, making heavy use of the rack and floor toms, using the crash cymbals to accentuate strong beats within the snare drum pattern), but taking them as far as he can. It’s Dinosaur Jr pretty much distilled to their essence, one of the most exciting passages of rock music I’ve ever heard.

Murph is so unsung, it’s untrue.

murph_lou_jamThe indispensable Murph

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 9: Are “Friends” Electric?/Cars – Tubeway Army/Gary Numan

Even cyborg pop stars have uncles.

Gary Numan’s uncle, Jess Lidyard, was also his drummer.

It was unusual enough that an uncle would be playing drums with his nephew, but even more so that he would be playing this music, in 1979: a song with barely a scrap of melody, no chorus whatsoever and a lyric that talks baldly about sex with androids. Jess Lidyard, clearly, was an unusually cool uncle.

His playing on Are “Friends” Electric is as key an element of the track as Numan’s pained, nasal vocal and those Minimoogs and Polymoogs. While other electronic musicians were evangelical about all-electronic music (OMD’s Andy McCluskey reportedly told the members of Kraftwerk after he’d seen them perform live that he and his band were going to bin their guitars and do it all with synths from now on), Numan’s music was essentially a rock/electronic hybrid, with synths being a late addition to their sound (Numan only played a synth for the first time when in the recording studio working on second album Replicas). The rhythm section remained an analogue affair even after Numan’s conversion: Lidyard’s acoustic drums and Paul Gardiner’s bass. This digital/analogue, rock/electronic hybrid finds its most perfect expression on Are “Friends” Electric.

It’s not a fresh insight to note the influence on Numan of JG Ballard, or of dystopian science fiction generally. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Numan’s brand of futurism felt lived in and down at heel. This music belongs to a world not white and gleaming but bodged, a world built on top of what was already extant. I’m trying very hard not to say the word “steampunk”…

Jess Lidyard provided the steam. Not only are his driving 16th-note hi hats the most apparent and persistent rhythmic element in the track, but he provides added push by reinforcing the synth bass line with his kick drum. I don’t think Are “Friends” Electric would be half as good if it had been powered by a drum machine. It was Lidyard that stopped the music from being too gleaming, too synthetic, too perfect.

Cars (from Numan’s next album The Pleasure Principle), similarly, derives a great deal of its power from its performed drum track. By this time, Lidyard had been replaced by Cedric Sharpley (Lidyard wasn’t keen on the touring musician’s life). Sharpley’s drumming is ever so slightly more elegant than Lidyard’s and he sounds more “live” on Cars than Lidyard did on “Friends”. Cars has a subtle continual lift in tempo throughout its duration, its kick-drum pattern becomes increasingly complicated and the drum fills get more frantic with every verse. Lidyard seemed to power the music from within. Sharpley fed off it and responded to it in his playing. I can imagine hearing Are “Friends” Electric and thinking the drums were from a machine. I’d be staggered if anyone thought that about Cars.

After around 90 seconds, Numan has said all he as to say about life in cars, and the band takes over. This is where Sharpley is really at his best, with a performance that’s urgent and mechanical and weirdly funky all at the same time. I didn’t get Numan’s music for a long, long time. Granted, his public persona had a lot to do with that, I didn’t respond to anything in the music either. As has so often been the case for me, I got into the music once I started following the drums. And while Are “Friends” Electric is the more important, and ultimately better, track, it was Cars that began the process, which is why I had to write about them both.

Some recentish work

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 8: That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart – Aimee Mann

The quality of a drum performance is inextricable from the quality of the arrangement it’s a part of. A great drum part serves the song above all else. Many, many musicians, if asked, will say it. Fewer will live it.

Jay Bellerose lives it. It’s why he’s one of the most in-demand session drummers in the world. He’s played with a dizzying array of names. High-budget singer-songwriter records are his bread and butter (Suzanne Vega, Glen Hansard, Elton John, Jackson Browne, JD Souther, etc.), but his session work takes in everyone from BB King to Mose Allison to Alfie Boe.

Aimee Mann’s been a regular employer of Bellerose since 2002’s Lost in Space (her best, and most underrated, record). It’s easy to hear why. Whether it’s a light waltz or a heavy-backbeat rock song, he’s whatever the song needs. Tasteful and unobtrusive, aggressive and dominant, or anything in between. You can trust Bellerose to size up the song, work out what it needs, then deliver it.

That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is a particularly clear demonstration of this. The arrangement is a slow builder, which works by rewarding the experienced listener’s expectation that with each verse another element will be added until, with glorious inevitability, the drummer comes crashing in to power everything home. It’s very far from subtle, but The Forgotten Arm is Mann’s least subtle album, designedly so. She intended it to be something of a 1970s country-rock record, and producer Joe Henry put together a band to fit that vibe. Nowhere else in Mann’s discography is there anything like Jeff Trott’s cock-rock solo on Dear John (the vibrato is so foot-on-the-monitor over the top you wonder whether he could possibly be being serious).

Bellerose, too, is atypically swaggering on this album, and his work on That’s How I Knew this Story Would Break My Heart is characteristic of his Forgotten Arm style: a fat snare sound, lots of whole-kit fills, and a general sense that he can have fun and indulge himself for once. It works particularly well on this song because the arrangement (whether Mann’s or Henry’s idea) is designed to make the listener want him to play this way. By the time the second verse has ended, you’re just waiting for him to come in with that big fill. When he finally does, it feels, as I say, glorious.

jay_belleroseJay Bellerose

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 7: Nights on Broadway – The Bee Gees

Nights on Broadway is, as much as any other song, the one where the Bee Gees become the Bee Gees that live on in popular memory, the late-seventies Bee Gees of wide collars, tight trousers, leonine hair and falsetto vocals that inspired innumerable bad impressions.

The latter is of course the key. The first single from 1975’s Main Course was the deathless Jive Talkin’, with its squelchy synth bass, disco bass drum and the metrical tricks (in the instrumental section) of which Barry Gibb was always fond. And unlike Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’ is on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Gibb sang Jive Talkin’ in a something like a conspiratorial whisper, with the falsetto in the chorus harmony coming from Maurice, until then the usual supplier of the highest vocal parts on Bee Gees records.

But while recording Nights on Broadway, producer Arif Mardin asked the brothers if any of them could scream in tune, Barry gave it a go and for ever after the Bee Gees had a new hook: not so much a scream as a piercing bleat, it could drown out traffic noise, the din in bars and clubs, any amount of general background noise. Some records just cut through in this way, seem to come out of the radio twice as loud as all the others. Thanks to Barry’s falsetto, every new Bee Gees song did this. Perhaps that’s why they became as huge as they did.

A readily identifiable sonic signature sure helps a band to become huge, but if you want to play R&B music – and it can’t be stressed enough that in 1975 that’s what the Bee Gees thought they were doing: Jive Talkin’ was not custom-built as a disco song – you simply have to have a great rhythm section.

The Bee Gees did. Maurice Gibb remains an underrated bass player, but the drummer they had in their glory days, Cardiff-born Dennis Bryon (a veteran of Amen Corner), is criminally overlooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear why one version of a song works by comparing it to a performance that doesn’t. When the Bee Gees played Nights on Broadway live in the late 1980s in Melbourne on their One for All tour, it was all wrong. The tempo was too quick, and the drummer pushed both kick and snare until he sounded half a bpm ahead of the band. Contrast that with Dennis Bryon’s masterly studio take and an excellent live version on the Midnight Special. It’s a busy performance – complicated kick drum pattern, 16th notes on the hats, frenetic whole-kit fills – but a tasteful one, full of little details, in the hats especially. Listening to his drum track soloed allows you to hear how he accented certain strokes and underplayed others, giving the 16ths on the hats a rising and falling feel within each bar. 16th notes of unvarying dynamic would get really boring really quickly. The groove just wouldn’t be the same.

Bryon’s abiliity to insert a shape to an 8th- or 16th-note hi-hat pattern was key to what made him so perfect for the Bee Gees during their disco years, when a great deal of their songs were built on top of the same basic 120bpm, four-to-the-floor chassis. While Nights on Broadway wasn’t a disco track rhythmically, it shows all the qualities he brought to that kind of material while also displaying his ability to play more complex patterns with the same easy musicality.

Dennis Bryon
Dennis Bryon, funky Welshman

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 6: Cattle and Cane – The Go-Betweens

The Go-Betweens’ music, taken in totality, is the story of songwriting talent eventually overcoming initial technical limitations, of a band whose members wanted and thought they deserved wider success working slowly towards a sound that might have brought it to them, only to disband at the moment it might have been within reach.

While they’d go on to produce some minor pop masterpieces – several per album on Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane in the 1980s, and then again on The Friends of Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow Bright Orange and Oceans Apart from 2000 up to singer-guitarist Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 – the Go-Betweens’ early music was a knotty thing indeed, speaking loudly of their punk and post-punk influences as well as their inability to play smooth.

The group’s second album, Before Hollywood, is where they begin that journey towards lasting pop greatness (and step out of shadows of their early heroes), with two haunting songs from MacLennan: Dusty in Here and Cattle and Cane, which in the 30 years since its release has garnered huge acclaim in the band’s native Australia. Yet this most Australian of songs was written in London, on Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar, and recorded in Eastbourne, of all places.*

Drummer Lindy Morrison explained the song as being spurred by McLennan’s intense homesickness and his pre-occupation with his childhood, which must have seemed a long way away to a young man living thousands and thousands of miles in a bohemian demi-monde in London with characters like Cave and the rest of the Birthday Party providing company and role models.

Grant was incredibly homesick for the first couple of years we were in England and he spent those first couple of years thinking about his past. He was obsessed with it. A lot of those songs on Before Hollywood have the imagery of Australia. I think Cattle and Cane is a master song.

This is a generous repsonse from Morrison. Not because she’s overrating the song, but because her relationship with McLennan was never easy. Not long after joining the Go-Betweens, she began a relationship with the group’s founder, Robert Forster, McLennan’s best friend. McLennan tended to treat her pretty condescendingly, despite Morrison’s relative maturity (she was seven years older than Forster and McLennan, already 33 in 1983 when Cattle and Cane was released), and the interaction between the two was seldom comfortable. McLennan, for his part, recognised that Morrison did great things with a very tricky song.

Cattle and Cane is a metrically complicated song. Morrison explained that she counted it as a bar of 5, then a bar of 2, then a bar of 4. A musicologist might simply say it’s in 11/4 time, but Morrison’s approach acknowledges the strong beats and chord changes that MacLennan plays on guitar, and feels more intuitive and natural to me.

She keeps a tight rein on the song, staying off the snare until it’s well underway, giving the impression that the song is speeding up (there probably is also subtle ratcheting up of tempo as the track goes on), simultaneously making the irregular metre feel entirely natural. Her approach is wonderfully appropriate, since the song’s lyrics are presented to us as McLennan’s reveries when returning home on a train to visit his family at their cattle station. We actually feel like we’re on the train with him. Even without the music, even without the words, Morrison’s drum track would evoke movement, a train journey specifically. It’s an incredibly evocative performance, the one for which she’ll always be remembered.

go-betweens-2
The Go-Betweens: l-r Robert Forster, Robert Vickers, Grant McLennan and Lindy Morrison

*Eastbourne is a seaside town in East Sussex with a large population of retirees. Brighton, 20-odd miles down the coast and a spiritual world away, would seem a far more appropriate venue for a band to make a classic record. My grandparents lived in a town called Seaford, located between Eastbourne and Brighton, but closer to Eastbourne. So while Brighton was only half an hour’s drive away, I’ve been there maybe five or six times at most, while Eastbourne would be more like 20 or 30, the last three of which were for the funerals of my granddad, granny and aunt. I’d be happy not to go there again.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 5: Backseat – Juliana Hatfield

Not so much underrated as unrated. Never heard. Unknown.

Even in 1998, Juliana Hatfield’s moment had passed. Her moment, a brief one, came with the release of My Sister and its parent album Become What You Are in 1993. When Bed came out five years later, it was on a new, smaller label, and to respectful reviews but commercial indifference.

Her time at Atlantic had ended acrimoniously after the label nixed several versions of a proposed release to be called God’s Foot. They let her out of her contract one record early, at the cost of the songs recorded up to that point remaining the label’s property (recording costs reported to be around $180,000 had already been spent). Her next release, Bed, was recorded in six days for new label Zoe, and was left purposely rough around the edges. She had a couple of excellent supporting players in drummer Todd Philips and the late Mikey Welsh on bass (a Weezer veteran), and the performances from the pair are impressive throughout. The songs are a spotty bunch, though, and the album sags badly after a strong first half.

Philips, an ad exec by day these days, has had a long and varied career. He played drums with Bullet LaVolta before working with Hatfield in the 1990s, Nowadays he plays in a reformed Juliana Hatfield Three and the Lemonheads (of whom Hatfield is also a veteran).

He was rock solid all the way through Bed, playing intelligent and musical kick drum patterns throughout, and taking advantage of the spare arrangements to make every element of his drum performances count. With mixes and arrangements as sparse as these, it matters when you hit the bell of the cymbal or play a ghost on the snare. Philips knew it, and filled his parts with telling details.

My favourite track on the album is weary ballad Backseat. OK, I love half-time feels generally, and Hatfield’s clean guitar sound is gorgeous, but it’s Philips who puts the song over. The short pre-choruses benefit from his tom-and-snare build ups (authoritative but not heavy-handed – Philips knew he wasn’t in a stadium), and the choruses see him displacing the backbeat to emphasise Hatfield’s chord changes, while adding further accents on the cymbals.

Hatfield’s worked with a lot of drummers and made a lot of records now, but nowhere else in her discogrpahy has a drummer paid such close attention – and given such sympathetic support – to her songs. Hatfield’s in the news this week because of her just announced new band with Paul Westerberg (the I Don’t Cares), but even so, this is unlikely to change.

Todd Philips at a JH3 reunion show at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, earlier this year

Todd Philips at a JH3 reunion show at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, earlier this year

The Sound of The Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of Hüsker Dü

This is a revised and updated version of a piece I first published in July 2013. Excuse the repost, but it’s been a heavy couple of weeks and I’m fried. Back soon!

The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in 1996. He was writing about how to make “a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process”. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.

Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear – and in effect your own studio – and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why hurry? Why not go at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days – or weeks – one element at a time?

In 1984, a punk rock band like Hüsker Dü on a punk rock label like SST couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade‘s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.

Total Access, the studio in Redondo Beach where the album was recorded, was not then, and isn’t now, an amateur facility. But the way the band worked – first takes being used for all but a couple of songs on the album, the whole band tracking live, the use of SST’s house producer/engineer Spot (Glen Lockett) rather than the studio’s own staff – did lead to a record with a somewhat amateurish sound, one that’s certainly had its detractors. Robert Christgau observed drily, “It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.”

The Hüsker Dü sound was at least partly a product of choice not chance, however. When the band left SST and signed with Warner Bros., they didn’t leave their indie-era sonic signature behind them, like their cross-town rivals the Replacements did. The recordings the Hüskers made for Warners were still very spindly, given how crushingly powerful they were live. Hart never had the meaty, powerful drum sound that is the sine qua non of any rock music worth the name. Greg Norton’s bass was always a clanky, indistinct presence in the mix. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s first record for Warner’s, has a little more polish (there’s a more audible echo on the vocals, the hint of a gated reverb on the drums) than Zen Arcade, but compared to the records that Jack Endino would make in a year or so for Sub Pop (to take an example from indie land), it’s still a tame-sounding thing indeed, no matter how ferocious Mould’s guitar sound was.

Ultimately, though, Hüsker Dü were a band that demanded to be taken for what they were. Greg Norton’s bass may have been largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may have sounded like he was playing the world’s smallest drum kit (and possibly a different song to the one Mould was playing), and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.

Huskers
The Dü: l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould