Tag Archives: Gus Dudgeon

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

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Streets of London – Ralph McTell

I was going to write a piece about a different song that came out of the British folk rock scene of the late sixties and early seventies, but in a digressive introduction, I found myself writing and thinking about Ralph McTell instead. So later for the original piece, I’m afraid.

Streets of London is such a fixture in British culture that we don’t notice it, may go years without thinking about it. I remember a teacher playing it to us one morning at assembly when I was primary school in the 1980s, twenty years after McTell had written the song and 15 years after it had been a hit. We were too young, too sheltered (most of us), to have encountered too much wretchedness first-hand. What I took from the song was its pretty tune and its bottomless melancholy.

Now, as an adult, I find that, away from the experience of listening to the song, I don’t actually agree with its sentiments all that much. It’s not of much help to most people struggling with depression, loneliness or isolation to simply remind them that others have it worse. There’s always someone who has it worse, but in the moment that doesn’t lessen real grief, real sorrow or real hurt. Emotions are impervious to appeals to reason.

Yet, I love Streets of London. More than just a pretty tune, some deft picking and a deathless chord sequence taken from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it is full of compassion, empathy and wisdom. For its four-minute duration, McTell’s reminder that we should reserve our deepest sympathy for someone other than ourselves feels authoritative and common-sensical, even if most of the time I don’t feel it’s practical, or even possible.

Streets of London exists in its most perfect form wherever McTell happens to be playing it. It’s a song that doesn’t have a wholly satisfactory studio recording. Its original recording is found on his second album, released in 1969 and produced by Gus Dudgeon. It’s a spare reading of the song, recorded in one take, guitar and vocal alike. It’s an effective and affecting take, but when you listen to the 1974 re-recording that became a hit, it’s undeniable that his voice had become deeper and richer in a very pleasing way in the time between. But the 1974 arrangement is over-egged: the guitar is doubled (tightly but unnecessarily), a high and lonesome harmonica is present to no real effect, and the backing vocals that enter in the second verse, intended no doubt to evoke a folk club, sound cheesily showbiz.

The perfect version would be a simple live recording of the song sung by McTell alone, without the audience aping the 1974 version by joining in the choruses. I hope to hear one.

McTell has gotten something of a raw deal in music history as it is written down. A modest man, he lives in the shadow of his peers: the spell-weaving guitar players Bert Jansch and Davy Graham; the questing, visionary John Martyn, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson; the yeoman Martin Carthy; Nick Drake and Sandy Denny, with their romantic early deaths. Having a huge worldwide hit made him somehow other to them. He was left out of Rob Young’s Electric Eden, which deals comprehensively with the British folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, yet he was indubitably there – busking in Paris, playing at Les Cousins, releasing records on Transatlantic – following the same paths as his more storied contemporaries and he wrote the songs to prove it. Streets of London is merely the most famous one.

by Brian Shuel, modern bromide print from an original negative, 1968
Ralph McTell, 1968 – the year he wrote Streets of London (Brian Shuel)

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved

I play the drums a little bit, but really I’m a guitarist. Nevertheless, since my mid-teens I’ve spent a good deal of my music-listening time focusing on drum tracks. My biggest peeve about the dominance of over-compressed mastering is the way it tends to make the drums smaller and more indistinct, taking away the impact and punch at the front of a stroke. It just reduces the physical response you have to the rhythm. And music, at bottom, is all about rhythm.

So in the past, I’ve done posts where I’ve specifically talked about songs in terms of their drum tracks (here and here, but even my post the other day on Fairport’s Genesis Hall ended as a discussion of Martin Lamble’s drums). Today I’m just going to give a nod to a bunch of songs that I think have great drum tracks and that rarely get discussed in terms of what the drummer’s doing.

1) Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

The backbone of Year of the Cat is the groove created by drummer Stuart Elliott and bassist George Ford. Elliot’s bass drum (that heartbeat quaver pattern I associate most closely with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams) moves the song irresistibly forward, but it sounds so easy. And sure, as grooves go, it isn’t rocket science, but it is most assuredly not as easy as he and Ford make it sound. Beautifully recorded and mixed by Alan Parsons (purveyor of the most 1970s of 1970s drum sounds), Elliott and Ford are super tight but relaxed, and even a little lazy-sounding given the brisk tempo. Put another rhythm section behind this song and it just wouldn’t have been the same. Elliott adds some nice little emphases and fills during the electric guitar solo (the song has three soloists – it was the seventies, after all) and extended outro, too

2) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John

Nigel Olsson has been playing drums with Elton John since the early seventies and his rhythm tracks with bassist Dee Murray are inimitable. Any producer or engineer can tell you that to get a big drum sound you need to leave a certain amount of space in the music. The denser the music being played, the more emphasis will have to fall on the attack of the stroke; if the drummer’s playing lightning-fast tom rolls all through the song, a big decay with prominent reverb and a lot of emphasis on the low end will make things murky and indistinct. So if you’re playing fast heavy music with a lot of steady-state energy from distorted guitars, before you know it, your drums sound like Lars Ulrich on …And Justice For All, which is to say, all clicky and ticky, like a large typewriter.

Olsson understands this, and he really seems to enjoy playing his huge tom fills, the sense of weightlessness that happens every time the song gets to that huge chord change and he plays his big fills (with extremely wide stereo separation courtesy of engineer David Henstchel and producer Gus Dudgeon). You know the chord change I mean: ‘this boy’s too young to be singing the blues‘, ‘…beyond the Yellow Brick Road‘. Elton (and Bernie Taupin of course) was lucky to have a drummer on his team who was so attuned the nuances of his songwriting.

nigel-olsson

Nigel Olsson. Note the drums without resonant heads. Very seventies, that.

More soon.