Tag Archives: Give Me the Night

Bruce Swedien RIP

Bruce Swedien, who died on Monday at the age of 86, is straight-up one of the greatest to ever move a fader or hang a microphone.

He’s best known, of course, for his work alongside Quincy Jones recording Michael Jackson, but his career stretches back to 1950s Minneapolis, where he ran the recording studio owned by the Schmitt Music Company while still in his teens. He did well enough to buy it from them not long after, recording artists including Tommy Dorsey there. In 1957, he moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and then Universal (at the invitation of the legendary Bill Putnam), working with numerous jazz legends in the process, among them Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, with whom he forged a partnership that would endure for the rest of his career.

In the 1960s, he moved into pop and rock ‘n’ roll, recording Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as collaborating with Q on his soundtrack work. In the 1970s, he recorded the Brothers Johnson and Chi-Lites, and did his most enduring work with George Benson and Jackson.

I understand that many are queasy talking about Jackson’s music, in the light of 2019’s Leaving Neverland. Swedien’s legacy being tarnished through no fault of his own is of course nothing compared to what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. But almost no music is made by a single individual, and those records by Jackson are the product of extraordinary labour by a whole team of vastly talented individuals, most of whom are blameless.

Off the Wall and Thriller, in particular, are wondrous sonic achievements, and for all Jackson’s own artistry, they are what they are because of the contributions of Quincy Jones, of songwriter Rod Temperton, and of gifted musicians such as drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Steve Lukather and pianist Greg Phillanganes. And, bringing everything together, the audio engineering and mixing of Bruce Swedien himself.

If you can’t listen to Jackson anymore (and if so, I understand; I don’t either*), try the work Swedien did around the same time on George Benson’s Give Me the NIght. Throughout that album, Swedien and Jones employ the arrangement style they developed for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. The drums, meanwhile, have a glorious, irrepressible energy that just leaps out of the speakers because Swedien, more than almost any other engineer, refused to rely on compression to make his drum tracks fit inside the mix. He always retained the belief that the transient energy of uncompressed percussion was where the excitement in music lived. If you compress that, you start to suck the life out of it. He was unrepentant, and would pretty much write off modern mix topologies as bad – or at least amateur – engineering. “Compression is for kids,” as he was fond of saying.

That philosophy is immediately apparent when listening to any of the records he recorded or produced, whether they’re big band, or pop, or R&B, from the fifties through to the nineties, when he began to slow down. Swedien stood among the very best, an artist and an artisan, a genius of microphone and mixing desk.

*I’m not going to get into any debates about “cancel culture”. Too many people take bad-faith positions to make it worth the time. I understand and have some sympathy with the idea that one should be able to separate the art from the artist. If you can, I don’t have a problem with that. I read, watch and listen to plenty of art by creators who didn’t lead morally pure lives. I think probably most of us do, even if unwittingly, because we simply don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But I simply can’t feel the way now about Thriller and Off the Wall as I did when I heard them as a child, and that’s despite knowing about and wanting to celebrate the achievements of Bruce Swedien and the extraordinary musicians who played on those records. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now that’s how it is.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 1: The Groove Line – Heatwave

It’s back.

It’s time, once again, to discuss underrated drum tracks. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be doing a series of posts, each concentrating on one song with a great, and comparatively unappreciated, drum performances. They may be well known songs, but if they are they’ll be songs that tend to be discussed for elements other that the drums.

OK, here we go then.

Heatwave were a truly international bunch. Two American vocalists (both former GIs who had been stationed in Germany), two Englishman (one of whom went on to become trusted right-hand man of one of popular music’s most legendary producers, but more of him later), a Spaniard and a Czech.

The latter was Ernest Berger, nicknamed “Bilbo”, a portly, baby-faced drummer, gifted with one of the most solid right feet and funkiest left hands you ever did hear.

Disco comes in two basic flavours: 16th notes on the hats or eighths (quavers). Whichever you play, the snare will be on two and four, and the kick will be on every quarter note. The kick being played on every beat (which is often known as a four on the floor beat) is fundamentally what makes it disco. Not every disco song has this kind of drum pattern, but the vast majority do.

A disco track is nothing without a good steady pulse, but a machine can provide that if that’s all that’s required. It’s the ways in which a drummer can impart his or her own feel that really lifts a song. If you want to hear this for yourself, import Billie Jean into a DAW, chop out everything except the drum intro and loop it. Listen to it, feel it and absorb it. Then quantise it and play it back. Quantising is a process whereby a musical performance (usually a part played on a MIDI keyboard or a drum part) is snapped to a predefined grid, so that every event happens on a precise subdivision of a bar). Quantise the opening drums to Billie Jean and you’ll realise pretty quickly that something pretty major, and obviously detrimental, has happened. In the manner of funk drummers since time immemorial, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, the drummer, played the backbeat on the snare late – not late as in, not in time; late as in, on the very back of the beat. It’s the push and pull between the kick that hits on the middle of one and three and the snare at the very back of two and four that makes it feel so great.

Ernest Berger did the same thing on Heatwave’s hits, notably The Groove Line and the deathless Boogie Nights. The basic groove (a 16th-note pattern) is supplemented by handclaps, which add to the funky feel; they seem to “drag” the backbeat even more. Berger’s performance is full of cool little details and live-sounding fills, but my favourite details is how he modifies the hi-hat pattern for the choruses (under the lines “Rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re riding on the groove line”), switching to a swingier feel for a few bars, playing two strokes strokes on the hat on the hats between the 1 and 2 (kick, left, right, kick/snare, left, right, etc). It’s a fantastic detail to really lift the choruses.

The song itself was written by the band’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. The blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. The story, oft told by both, is that Quncy was flabbergasted to hear that the guy who’d been writing some of the baddest R&B, funk and disco hits of the era was a geeky-looking white guy from England. Hugely impressed with Temperton, Jones took him into his inner circle. Temperton’s songs are on Off the Wall (Rock With You, Off the Wall, Burn this Disco Out) and Thriller (Baby Be Mine, Thriller, The Lady in My Life), and he also wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson and hits for Patti Austin, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne and Rufus.

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

donna summer

New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones