Tag Archives: George Martin

Howard Goodall’s Beatles programmes

Last week the BBC broadcast a programme about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Howard Goodall.

Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution is well worth watching while it’s still available on iPlayer and catch-up services. Goodall’s a genial screen presence and, a composer by trade, is really good at explaining music theory and recording techniques for a general audience while going deep enough in his analysis at a compositional and technical level to make things interesting for those who already know their modes, their calliopes and their ADT.

Above all else, Goodall’s a fan, and his enthusiasm for the subject is genuine. Television’s so full of fake enthusiasm and feigned excitement that the real thing stands out a mile. At one point, having explained how Strawberry Fields Forever is constructed from two takes of the song, recorded more than a week apart, at different tempos and in different keys, and then how George Martin and his team went about manipulating the two takes in order to be able to edit them together seamlessly, Goodall plays the end result and simply comments, “Awesome”. This is not routine hyperbole of television; you’ve no doubt he means it.

This isn’t the first time Goodall’s taken on The Beatles on TV. In 2004, he made a series for Channel 4 (I think) called 20th Century Greats – an hour each on Lennon & McCartney, Bernard Hermann, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. As in the Pepper programme, he went deep on a handful of songs (I Am the Walrus, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Jealous Guy/Child of Nature) rather than look at dozens only on a surface level. It’s equally good. The series seems to have received a limited release on DVD (I’ve seen it come up on eBay – possibly an American import or something), but it pops up on youtube pretty regularly.

Both programmes are essential viewing for Beatles fans. They don’t contain anything you couldn’t learn by reading Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive accounts of the band’s recording sessions or Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, but Goodall’s love for the music is not poisoned, as MacDonald’s was, by the conviction that nothing could ever be this good again. For non-fans, or outright sceptics, Goodall might just get you to hear The Beatles the way he hears them.

 

 

 

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Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

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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.

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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 White Album – The Beatles

Yesterday evening I caught up with my friend Yo Zushi on the phone. As usual, we went through a bunch of subjects: jazz harmony, songwriting processes, logistical stuff related to this. But the bit of the conversation that got me thinking the most was about the creepy atmosphere of certain late sixties’ artists, particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We talked about the White Album and discussed that thorny old issue: would it have been better as a single record?

For me, the answer’s no. There are, to be sure, a lot of albums that are simply too long, that could have done with a few songs being removed and the remaining edited somewhat to trim their running times. The bloat of the late CD era (roughly c.1998 to c.2005) is a well documented phenomenon, caused by the slow realisation that the technical deficiencies of vinyl no longer applied and so running times didn’t need to be kept to around 22 minutes a side. People stopped making albums as if the delivery medium would be the LP, and simply filled the CDs up. Probably most music fans can think of a bunch of albums from that era that just feel bloated and distended, particularly hip-hop/R&B fans; Yo and I spoke particularly about R.E.M.’s Up, which we both agree is their final interesting album, with a bunch of strong, atmospheric, slightly loungey songs that did something that was new for them, and was a brave response to Bill Berry’s departure. At 65 minutes, though, it’s too much of a slog to sit through in one sitting without the attention wandering. I’d excise Lotus and Sad Professor and would be happy to have had shorter versions of most of the remaining; Airportman, Daysleeper and At My Most Beautiful are fine at the lengths they are, but why on earth is Diminished six minutes long?

Then the White Album question. Yo’s in the camp that would prefer a single-album version. I’m not. When we went through out preferred tracklistings, I concluded that I could make a case for removing 11 of out of 30 tracks, but that the record would then not have worked as a single LP in the vinyl age (it would still have been too long), and that a lot of the context that make the great songs great would be missing. To misquote Greil Marcus on Electric Ladyland, the White Album is a mess, but it’s a sprawling, fascinating mess. To take away The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (and I understand why many want to) may make the record ‘better’, but at the expense of changing what it is, its character, its shifts in mood, which combine to create one very singular mood.

The interest in listening to the White Album derives from how those songs play with each other, how McCartney’s raucous Birthday is succeeded by Lennon’s despairing (or faux-despairing) gutbucket Yer Blues, which in turn gives away to McCartney’s solo acoustic Mother Nature’s Son, before being unceremoniously followed by Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, with its frantic bell and babbling voices. The White Album may not be the finest demonstration of songcraft in the Beatles’ career, but it showed how expertly they constructed songs into albums.

The White Album has so many facets to it that it prompts debates between fans as to what its strongest elements are. Yo is a fan of Lennon’s acoustic fingerpicking songs, written during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh: Dear Prudence and Julia. Both songs have pretty big reputations, Prudence’s at least partly based on the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover. I don’t care that much for either of them. The slippery, elusive Lennon of Happiness is a Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and Cry Baby Cry interests me far more. Similarly, of McCartney’s rock songs only Back in the USSR stands up as a composition, and it’s hampered by the author’s ham-fisted drum track (recorded while Ringo was absent, having temporarily quit band and session). McCartney’s acoustic songs, on the other hand — Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, I Will, Martha My Dear — are all beautiful little miniatures, with all of his talent for expressive, expansive melody intact. Blackbird may be a weighty metaphor, and Martha My Dear may start out being about a sheepdog and end up being about nothing at all, but all these songs share a lightness of touch that’s completely disarming. (Junk, which appeared on McCartney’s first solo album, was demoed at this time too, and is almost impossibly lovely. I wish it had made the cut).

Which leaves George Harrison to encapsulate the White Album issue. He has four songs on the record, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. He never wrote anything better than the hushed, devotional Long Long Long; he never wrote anything worse than Piggies, which is without a single redeeming feature. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is ponderous, and hampered by El Clappo’s deep-as-a-puddle ‘blues’ guitar, but it succeeds on the strength of its chorus, and certain live versions down the years have caught fire and shown the song’s underlying robustness; Savoy Truffle (about, rather than featuring, Eric Clapton) would be the worst entry in his Beatles songbook if Piggies hadn’t got there first. Played four: won two (one by a whisker); lost two, ignominiously.

Ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with the White Album. In the iPod playlist era, with any amount of alternate versions and demos available, we can all create our own favoured White Album (or Smile, or whatever), but I can’t believe any other tracklisting could create the fragile spell the unedited White Album weaves over the course of 94 minutes. And if the concluding trio of Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9 and Good Night don’t leave you feeling a wordless, inexpressible panic and leave you looking over your shoulder into the shadows in the corner of the room, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

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You know who these people are and which one’s which, don’t you? Good.

From Russia with Love – Matt Monro

Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again?

There are many fine Bond themes – Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, We Have all the Time in the World, Nobody Does it Better – and a few shockers (All Time High, Die Another Day, Another Way to Die, Licence to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough). My favourite is seldom heard unless the film to which it was attached is rebroadcast: Matt Monro’s From Russia with Love.

Monro made his name with the BBC show band, before which he’d driven a bus, meaning he’d for ever be saddled with the nickname ‘The Singing Bus Driver’, but he was a quick study and a natural talent, soaking up all he could from his time at the BBC and his stint as vocalist for Winifred Atwell, who gave him his stage name. But his initial burst of fame didn’t last and, by the late fifties, he was working as a song plugger in relative obscurity.

His second big break came from an unlikely source: Peter Sellers. He was making a comedy record with George Martin, and Martin wanted a singer to record a Sinatra pastiche that Sellers could study and copy, with a view to making his own version. Monro, with his Sinatra-like voice, was hired. But Sellers liked Monro’s version so much that he decided to use it to open his record, billing him as Fred Flange. Dispirited by this lack of recognition at the time, Monro wasn’t aware yet of how lucky he was: he’d impressed the man who would soon be the most powerful record producer in the country. They’d hit it off personally too, so soon the two of them were working together on a new run of Matt Monro singles. Portrait of my Love was a big hit and he came second in the 1964 Eurovision, but the key moment in their partnership had come the previous year, when they’d recorded the title song for the second Bond film, From Russia with Love.

From Russia with Love (the song) was written by Lionel Bart, arranged and played by John Barry and his Orchestra and produced by George Martin (one hears echoes of the work he was doing with the Beatles at the same time: wide stereo separation, rejecting the idea of the stereo field as a representation of musicians on a stage, for example: the drums are wholly in the right channel), so the record had some heavy duty talent on it, and it was these guys who were doing the job of defining what we think of when we think of Bond songs. Dr No hadn’t had a theme song, and as the second movie in the series, From Russia with Love laid a lot of groundwork unwittingly.

Most of it’s here: a sense of arrangement and harmony more classic-cool than contemporary, inventive arrangements, big orchestrations, a charismatic lead vocal, and most importantly, a sense of foreboding. The sped-up piano* in the left channel (another quintessential Martin touch), recurring throughout the song, hangs over the record like a question mark, and for a song about returning to a lover, when Monro sings ‘I fly to you from Russia with love’ at the song’s climax, it sounds ominously like a threat. All that’s missing is the thunderous brass, which would become inextricably associated with the Bond franchise after Goldfinger, but which was, presumably, not composed with that in mind.

Monro’s performance is a classic. This man had the publicly acknowledged respect of Frank Sinatra (‘his pitch was right on the nose: his word enunciations letter perfect: his understanding of a song thorough,’ said the master on Monro’s death), and it’s easy to hear why. Obviously indebted to Frank but not a slavish imitator, Monro was blessed with a voice that was both an authoritative light baritone and a classy tenor, but Sinatra had it right when he remarked that Monro understood the songs he was singing. His performances are thoughtful. You sense that he (and Bart, and Barry and Martin) knew this song had slightly sinister undertones (they’re there in the score as well as the words), and, alive to both text and subtext, he hints at all possible meanings without coming down too firmly one way or the other. A lesser singer and the song might have devolved into winking camp or sung through it, oblivious; Monro was too rigorous and disciplined to allow that.

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Matt Monro – so much more than a singing bus driver

* Recording geeks may be interested to listen to the left channel, containing the sped-up piano, at 1.04. Hear a chipmunk voice? That’s someone (possibly Barry) saying, ‘Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again.’ Back in the analogue days, a lot of things made it to the master that would be simple to clean up nowadays. This is a prime example.