Tag Archives: guitar sounds

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf – which is to say, bombastic, overwrought and cheesy. I didn’t really have a handle on the man’s story or the shape of his career, and how this could all be part of the same thing.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much, either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation. An artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early. That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention-grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is never the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is barely disguised disco rock (originally written for Donna Summer), with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that’s natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs are more than a little not OK. A clanging misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its very adult, quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three. This gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s just so hard, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

Once More into the Multiverse – R.E.M.’s Monster remixed

Warner Brothers’ ongoing programme of 25th-anniversary editions of R.E.M. albums has reached 1994’s Monster. Part of the package is a remixed version of the album. Let’s see what a reconsidered 2019 mix from original producer Scott Litt can do for the band’s divisive, guitar-heavy used-bin staple.

Monster always was quite an odd-sounding record.

Coming out in 1994, it seemed like a slightly delayed reaction to the dominance of alternative rock, most of which up to that point had been based on scorchingly distorted guitars. In truth, it was more of a reaction to inter-band politics. At some point in 1993 or so, Peter Buck had put his mandolin and dulcimer in the cupboard, turned up the tremolo and distortion on his AC30, grabbed a Les Paul and rediscovered the joy of simple, swaggering rock riffs. Drummer Bill Berry had already threatened to leave the group if the next album wasn’t louder than Automatic for the People and Out of Time, and if the band didn’t go out on tour to promote it. R.E.M.’s follow-up to Automatic was going to have be a loud rock record or there would be no follow-up at all.

The band cut the basic tracks for Monster live on a soundstage, and Scott Litt’s finished mix always suggested to me a degree of overthinking. Having the guitars forward in the mix was a good thing, given how crucial Buck’s tone (and on a few songs temolo) was to the sound of the record, and I’d argue that dropping the level of Michael Stipe’s vocal was a sensible thing to do too, but on some of the songs the weight of the guitars pushed the drums so far back that they became tiny. I’ve always felt the masters contained a more energetic and more satisfying mix, with the drums a bit more prominent.

Sadly, Scott Litt’s remix isn’t quite that, and goes a long way to convincing me that what might seem “wrong” with Monster when listened to critically is actually right in a greater, more fundamental way.

We can surmise from Litt’s new mixes that he felt his original mixes left the vocals too quiet and the drums too processed and too quiet. The new mixes correspondingly give us a whole lot more Stipe, and a less polished drum sound.

For evidence of the latter, A-B the intro of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream – the EQ-ing on the toms in the 1994 mix is absent (or reduced), giving them a perceived higher fundamental, and less detail in the range of stick impact; they boom less, and they cut less. Of course, these decisions are personal, but I prefer the 1994 mix as far as the tom sounds go, and it’s not even close. On the plus side, the snare is EQ’d differently, with a less present, less hyped-sounding top end. It’s an improvement.

Unfortunately, on many songs you don’t really get the benefit of it. One of the issues with distorted guitars is the amount of sonic real estate they take up. Monster‘s guitar sound is crazy huge. This necessarily leaves less space for the drums. Perhaps the top-end hype on the snare on the 1994 mix was to try to bring it out against the guitars. In the 2019 remix, Litt goes a different way: he adds more compression, to flatten the transients, turn up the sustain of the drum and position the reshaped snare as a solid block in fixed audibility against the guitars. But he goes rather too far for me. On What’s the Frequency Kenneth, the drums actually feel like they lag behind the beat due to the heavy compression as they fight against the wall o’ Buck and the newly prominent Stipe. They have no transient left at all. I’ve never previously heard an R.E.M. record and felt like Berry was dragging. If anything, he tended towards being a little early. The new mix is, on the loudest songs at least, extremely unflattering to him. The decision to take off the little bursts of tremoloed guitar in the choruses, meanwhile, merely removes one of the song’s best supporting hooks. A strange choice.

Other weird choices abound. The main guitar and drums crushed into the middle on Crush with Eyeliner, while the sides are crowded with clean overdubs and Thurston Moore’s backing vocal is drowned out by multi-tracked Stipes? Definitely odd. Anchoring Tongue with a tom-heavy drum track right from the intro? Yep, strange again. Other choices, such as remixing of the guitars on Let Me In, are just misguided. The whole point of Let Me In is that incandescent distorted guitar sound, presented so ambiently that actual strums are hard to make out. With only a minimum of pick attack and volume change to tell you where the beats were, the guitar sound became disortientating and weightless, but also uncanny and beautiful. The new version sounds all too earthbound, with Stipe mixed so dry it sounds like he’s singing into your earhole from six inches away. Being brutal, it almost suggests Litt didn’t get what worked about the song first time round.*

Of course, this is just a bonus-disc remix, a parallel-universe version (a Bizarro World remix, if you like). It doesn’t replace the actual album mix of Monster. But it does spotlight the choices made by the band and Litt 25 years ago, and reinforce to the non-audio-engineer fan that so much of what we hear when we listen to recorded music is mediated by mix engineers and producers. When different choices are made, the result is a different album.

monster

*Just to prove how subjective all this stuff is, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott talked about the remix on their podcast, R U Talking REM Re Me? Both preferred the remixes to the album mixes for the majority of songs, and both felt Let Me In is the biggest improvement. To which all I can say is, whaaaaaaaaaaaa?

 

Memory Cassette – Hurtling

Here’s the first of a couple of posts about some new music…

If you were lucky enough to have gigs playing additional guitar for Graham Coxon, Charlotte Hatherley and My Bloody Valentine, what kind of band would you form as a vehicle for your own music?

Jen Macro, faced with exactly that decision, went with a power trio. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you? However satisyfing, however much a privilege, it might be to get called in to provide extra firepower for celebrated guitar wranglers like Coxon, Hatherley and MBV’s Kevin Shields, when playing your own music you’d want all that sonic real estate for yourself. To just go out there and blast without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes.

Hurtling’s debut album, Future From Here, came out a couple of weeks ago, and has already gotten some strong reviews and good airplay. Rightly so: it’s a top-to-bottom solid record of guitar-heavy pop songs in the vein of Last Splash-era Breeders and Bakesale-era Sebadoh. Which is, to say the least, my kind of thing. Especially when it features an awful lot of that guitar.

Memory Cassette, the band’s new single (I assume it’s a single, as it has a video), is my favourite track on the album, and there’s nothing I don’t like about it. It’s all brilliant: the sparing but well-chosen use of vocal harmony to lift key lines, the whisper-to-a-scream quality of Macro’s delivery when she sings “Get set, go!” as the band drop out for a brief second then pile back in, the “From here” backing vocal by Simon Kobayashi, whose bass playing might be the band’s secret weapon, Jon Clayton’s drum part, which knows exactly how exciting a four-stroke snare fill can be when the band’s going headlong into the chorus, and – most of all – Macro’s absolutely enormous guitar sound.

Future From Here is a great-sounding record generally, but the guitar tones are particularly cool, a product of both the tones Macro dials in (a function of instrument, amplifier and pedal choices) and the way drummer and recording engineer Jon Clayton captures them. Jon runs a studio called One Cat near Brixton (if you’re a London-based musician and don’t know about One Cat, you’re missing out), and he’s an excellent engineer I’ve had the pleasure of working with several times over the last five years or so*. On Memory Cassette, with the arrangement stripped down to drums, bass and a single guitar track (the bass and guitar are panned off left and right), Hurtling are at their most primal and exciting, and the quality of the sounds and playing is clearest.

I’ve not seen them play live yet, but I can’t wait.

Here’s the video for Memory Cassette.

*Jon recorded basic tracks on some of the songs on James McKean‘s and Yo Zushi‘s recent albums. More recently, he recorded all the drums, bass and scratch guitar tracks for the upcoming third James McKean record, and being a multi-talented, Captain Manyhands kind of guy, played a beautiful cello part on one of my songs from the EP I’m working on with Melanie Crew, which I absolutely cannot wait to share with you.

 

Twice the strings, twice the fun

I’ve had my Seagull S12 since 2001. No guitar I own has put in more hard yards for me. It was my main acoustic guitar in both the bands I was in between 2006 and 2011, so it went to every rehearsal and every gig, it got tuned and retuned endlessly, it got dropped, dinged, scratched and beaten up, and I went through more high Gs than you can count. It’s a pretty great-sounding instrument and, by the standard of 12 strings, pretty easy to play too. The neck is wide enough that you can actually use it for fingerpicking, but not so wide that barre chords are problematic, and the action is reasonable too. You can’t really ask much more from an acoustic guitar

I should play it more really – these days I pretty much only get it out for recording. I’m still, years after I started doing it with my old band (the Fourth Wall, god rest them), really into the tonal effects you can get by overdubbing acoustic guitars, especially 12 strings against 6 strings.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you can do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are from each other or – worse – the snare drum, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open-tuned part can be super fun. Imagine using a C-based tuning like CGCFGC on a 12-string guitar in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

Coolest of all, but oh so difficult to do even vaguely well, is blending 12- and 6-string fingerpicking parts. I think that’s what Lindsey Buckingham’s up to on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, the first album the band made with Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). The part on the right sounds like it’s got octave notes in it, but it might be some clever psychoacoustic trick. However he did it, it’s super-cool, and it definitely sounds like a 12 string is in there.

 

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

Jack Endino, recording engineer

Although I’ve spent a lot of hours listening to music recorded and mixed by Jack Endino, it didn’t occur to me until the last few years that the recording and mixing was a big part of what I was responding to in the music.

Casual fans will know of him as the guy the recorded Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, for $600 in 1988. Grunge heads will know him as the man at the desk for Green River’s Dry as a Bone, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, Afghan Whigs’ Up in It, Screaming Trees’ Buzz Factory, the first couple of Mark Lanegan solo records and innumerable Seattle indie records since. As is the case for his Midwestern counterpart Steve Albini, as fewer people have been paying attention, his record-making craft has got better and better.

The Jack Endino sound is not a product of the machinery employed. The Otari MX-5050 8-track analogue tape recorder that he used to record Bleach is in the EMP museum in Seattle, yet the man’s work is still readily identifiable. If I had to encapsulate his sound in a single word, it might be something like “unfussy”, but that would be doing him a disservice and wouldn’t really get to the heart of what I like about his sound and what I hear in it.

So here’s the longer version. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 13, which means I’ve been playing music with other musicians on stage and in rehearsal rooms and recording studios for twenty years. I know what it sounds like to stand a few feet away from a drummer giving the cymbals what for, or from a guitarist whose tone could strip paint off a wall. I’ve sat on a drum stool and given a snare drum an undeserved pounding, my ear maybe a foot and a half away from the drum head, and I’ve been in the presence of bass players seemingly in search of the mythical brown note. Endino’s recordings retain more of this sense memory for me of what this all sounds like than just about any other engineer’s, Albini included. His instruments sound like instruments, not instruments mediated by the tastes of the producer and the production fashions and orthodoxies of the era.

The internal balance of the drums, for example. Many times in recording and mixing, an engineer will dramatically alter the balance of the drum kit – that is, how loud each part of the drum kit is in relation to all the others when the drummer – to get a desired sonic picture. Typically, the snare drum will be emphasised, the close-miked snare jacked up, and various other points of collection gated and/or filtered to achieve the same end result (for example, gating the toms to reduce the amount of bleed from the hi-hat, making the snare seem louder in comparison). Endino’s work doesn’t sound like it’s been fussed over in this way. Not to say that he doesn’t use those techniques, but if he does, it’s not obvious, so the intent isn’t to foreground his own craft.

When you listen to Nirvana’s Bleach you’re hearing the same band-members-in-a-room approach you hear on Slippage’s Tectonica, released twenty years later and featuring Endino himself on drums and bass (along with Allison Maryatt on vocals and guitar and Skin Yard/Gruntruck veteran Scott McCullum on drums). Let’s look at an even more recent track: Storm, by Soundgarden. The track was recorded for, but not used on, a demo tape in 1986 (Cornell was still the group’s drummer). Endino unearthed the original tapes, and on a whim remixed it and sent it to the band. They liked it enough that they decided to get together with Endino and do a new version. Of course, any track with Matt Cameron drumming on it is automatically better than the same track with anyone else drumming on it, but it also gives us a nice demonstration of how little things have changed in Endinoland.

About three and half minutes in there’s a cool breakdown section where Cameron plays tom patterns, laying off the snare for maybe 20 seconds or so, then slowly bringing it back in for emphasis, then going totally hog wild over the full kit, snare, cymbals and all. The drums sound great. It’s not a spectacular sound, not as instantly ear-grabbing as the ones employed on Superunknown, but damn, it sounds like a drum kit, rather than an idealised version of one.

In the meantime, the bass is as rich and full as you’d hope (it’s kind of a 2-layer sound, with a clean-sounding low end and a grindier top that gives it a presence in the track – might be a trick of the ear though), and Kim Thayil’s guitars are frequently hard-panned, shrieking and screaming across the whole stereo image. Cornell’s voice, sometimes doubled in octaves, is subtly modulated but occasionally heavily, obviously delayed. The track’s a great example of how an Endino recording can combine an approach to drums that’s very straightforward and faithful to reality with time-domain effects on vocals and guitars and create a very natural-feeling and coherent whole.

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Jack Endino, in the studio

Songs, not recorded by Jack Endino

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

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Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk