Tag Archives: John Simon

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.

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Sleeping – The Band

We return once again to the Band. But they are one of my absolute favourites, so no apologies from me, I’m afraid!

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. Not that the town’s elders were opposed to rock musicians in general or the Band in particular – in one interview Rick Danko revealed that the local judges and the police referred to them rather fondly as ‘the boys’. But with their first plan not viable, 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 an ad hoc control room. Producer of the first two albums John Simon was eased out and in his place was the incongruous red-trousered, green-haired figure of Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman’s latest boy wonder. There was reportedly some tension, particularly between the Runt and Levon Helm. One can only imagine.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to argue Stage Fright is on the same level as the Band’s first two albums. It’s not. There’s something alchemical, something magical, that exists in their early work but that is evident only fitfully from Stage Fright onwards. By this time, the Band had divided into factions: the partiers (Danko, Helm and Manuel) and the ‘grown-ups’ (Robertson and Hudson). If he hadn’t been before, Manuel was now a full-blown alcoholic; Danko was an undiscriminating user of whatever was being offered; and Levon was taking fistfuls of downers, which undoubtedly mellowed him out, but didn’t do much for his ability to get up in the morning.

Undoubtedly all of this had an effect on the Band’s cohesion and focus, but even more serious was the drying up of Richard Manuel the songwriter, who had been such a presence on the Band’s first two albums (he wrote or co-wrote In a Station, We Can Talk, Lonezome Suzie, Whispering Pines, Jawbone and When You Awake) and the increasingly humourless didacticism of Robertson’s own po-faced and overwrought songs. The lightness of touch he brought to Jawbone and Across the Great Divide would be less and less evident from hereon in.

This knowledge makes it hard to take the lyrics of Sleeping at face value; the desire to be cocooned and protected from the world was all too real for these guys. Nonetheless all the members of the group step up as players (the instrumental chorus is ecstatic, and Helm’s jazzy drumming superlative) for Manuel’s last great songwriting effort. As with the Manuel songs on The Band, though, it’s actually a Manuel-Robertson co-write, and one wonders how much the lyrics are Robbie projecting himself into the shoes of his bandmate.

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The Band, up on a roof: l-r, Hudson, Manuel, Helm, Robertson, Danko

Stormbringer – John and Beverley Martyn

Every year I find the same thing: as the mornings get darker, the days get shorter and the nights colder, only one kind of music really seems to satisfy me. Jazzy folk rock. I want to hear double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums. The perfect autumn music. Here’s the first in a series of posts I’m going to do over the next week or so on some favourite records and artists: expect Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Pentangle, Fotheringay and the like. No apologies for returning again to the music of John Martyn…

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words ‘Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?’ to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, probably a bigger ‘name’ than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to ‘John and Beverley Martyn’.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – ‘When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him’ (White Bicycles, 2006). But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, who was the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right

Softly Through the Darkness – Cyrus Faryar

So maybe you’re a fan of folky, acoustic guitar/piano-playing singer-songwriters, but you’re already familiar with the top-division names: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison and so on. You know them all, and you’ve formed your opinions as to their worth. And maybe you’re well up on your cult songwriters too: Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Gram Parsons, Janis Ian – you’ve heard them all, you’ve judged them all. Maybe you’re down with the likes of Fred Neil, Judee Sill and Evie Sands too, and you don’t do the more mainstream likes of John Denver, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg.

Where can you go? Who to listen to for more of that good stuff?

This is going to be one of this blog’s recurring themes, actually. Because if you’re asking yourself that question, you’d be where I am, fifteen years or so after first beginning to work back through the big names of sixties and seventies singer-songwriterdom. I’m not putting myself forward as any kind of expert in these matters, by the way. I’m just stumbling around in the dark and sharing some of what I blunder into.

A year or so back, shortly before my hospitalisation and diagnosis, I came across mentions of Cyrus Faryar’s solo records on the internet. Not being a Modern Folk Quartet fan, Iranian-American Faryar was previously known to me as a Fred Neil sideman, a dude who played guitar on Fred Neil and Sessions and whose other work was therefore automatically of interest to me. So I downloaded a couple of tracks, one off each of his two records, Cyrus and Islands, to see what Cyrus did on his own.

He didn’t actually move very far from that sound: his is a more pop-minded and carefully arranged take on Neil’s 12-string folk-jazzery, but the similarities are clear. Faryar has a strong, light baritone, not as deep and rich as Neil’s, perhaps more agile and more adaptable, but without as much of that unmistakable charisma. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so if I hadn’t heard Neil first, but when Faryar hits that low note on the word ‘depart’, it’s impossible not to think of Neil and the many occasions he pulled off the same trick. It’s a good trick, though: if I had the kind of voice to pull it off, I’d do it too.

Perhaps it’s unfair to keep working the Fred Neil angle here (maybe there are elements to Faryar’s music that he inherited from the MFQ, but having only heard their Phil Spector record, I can’t claim familiarity with their real sound – to me, I’m afraid, Henry Diltz is a photographer and Jerry Yester is Tim Buckley’s producer) – but perhaps if he hadn’t slipped into semi-retirement after Sessions, Neil might have taken his music down a similar road to this: drums, (that is, slightly bigger rock drums than those present on Fred Neil), tabla (Colin Walcott?), double bass, organ, strings, woodwinds, choirs – it’s a great sound.

Softly Through the Darkness is a really fine song, too. It is a slow-burner; it begins the album Cyrus (1971), and it feels like it was specifically written to start a record, taking four minutes to unwind and slowly build to its full arrangement, resolving on a wordless chorus of massed voices. Unfortunately on the album it’s immediately undercut by a pretty terrible version of Randy Newman’s I Think He’s Hiding, taken too fast, stomping inelegantly over the tempo and feel changes of the original and with a vocal conveying none of the subtle mockery of Newman’s performance. I understand why a singer might have wanted to take on a song like this, but someone should have nixed it early in the session and suggested he do I Think It’s Going to Rain Today instead.

So Cyrus (the album) isn’t a classic; there’s a couple too many missteps. But there’s four or five strong songs on it (follow-up Islands, produced by John Simon, has a mighty-good version of Neil classic The Dolphins, too) with Darkness being the pick of them, and anyone interested in Fred Neil or this kind of music should check the Faryar’s solo work out – Fred Neil original recordings are, after all, in distressingly short supply.

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The back cover of Cyrus