Tag Archives: Let’s Dance

Modern Love – David Bowie

Update: 12/01/16. Sad news about Mr Bowie. I’ve given this a bit of an edit, but have resisted the temptation to soften it much. More a case of fleshing out things I just moved over in passing and would have explained more fully if I hadn’t knocked this piece out in an hour on a Sunday night.

As a younger man, I had little time for David Bowie. As most music fans do, I derived a certain philosophy from the music I liked. I saw common attitudes and threads in the people who made it. Now, the musicians I admired were, almost without exception, unglamorous people, people for whom street clothes and stage clothes were the same thing. As a determinedly non-glamorous person myself, this seemed to me to be positively a virtue (signifying authenticity, sincerity and all that jazz), and it hardened into a dogma. A musician who was conspicuously concerned with visuals – to the point that they wore costumes rather than mere clothes, foregrounding the theatrical and performative nature of what they did – was not only inauthentic, but had to be less concerned with the music than they should be, man. (Yeah, I was a humourless little choad.) So David Bowie, a man who early on had built his career out of costumes and personas and haircuts and pseudonyms, was anathema. Didn’t get it, didn’t get what other people got from it.

On a musical level, too, I wasn’t hugely impressed. The big hits of his early years still sound a bit messy, underpowered and half-baked to me, even when I admire the songs (and the harmonic and melodic accomplishment of songs like Life on Mars or Space Oddity are undeniable). The Spiders from Mars, a pub band from Hull, sound pretty much exactly like a pub band from Hull. Even the Aynsley Dunbar/Herbie Flowers rhythm section from Diamond Dogs sounds weedy next to Dennis Davis and George Murray, the magisterial duo who worked with Bowie on Station to Station, Low and ‘Heroes’.

Hearing the second side of Low (particularly Subterraneans) at university opened me up to the idea that Bowie’s music could also be overpoweringly moving, as well as embarassingly am-dram. But the tipping point came a few years later, and hearing Sound and Vision on the radio. I didn’t recognise it (when I was played Low by my college friend Calum, he didn’t play me side 1), and was completely caught up in the intro groove. And then the vocal came in and, oh god, is this David Bowie? This was funky. It was soulful. If this was Bowie music, sign me up.

Since then I’ve heard pretty much his whole catalogue, while reading Chris O’Leary’s wonderful Bowie blog. I’m still on the fence about much of the early stuff, but equally I’m more into his work from the mid-1980s onwards than many, and I’ve developed a huge fondness not just for the Berlin trilogy but for Young Americans and Let’s Dance as well. A lot of fans of his 1970s work get off the bus after Scary Monsters. Marcello Carlin, whose blog is consistently the best music criticism on the internet, is scathing about the album:

Let’s Dance, the album, is a disgrace, one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer. Its eight songs whizz by in an uninteresting and uninvolving blur and commit to nothing except Bowie’s need to be David Bowie for another year.

I don’t agree, though his take-down of the record is brutally hilarious (particularly his characterisation of 1983-era Bowie as the Beckenham Young Businessman of the Year). The thing is, I don’t think Bowie has it in him to be lazy. Nor Nile Rogers, for that matter. And Let’s Dance is David Bowie and Nile Rogers and Tony Thompson and Rob Sabino (Chic’s drummer and pianist, respectively) and Omar Hakim and Carmine Rojas and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Clearmountain. With that much talent in the room, killer moments are inevitable. It’s true that they’re mostly crammed into the first three songs (it’s hard to think of a record before the 1990s so front-loaded as Let’s Dance), and that the first track is the best. But those songs are hard to deny, and while some have heard them as clinical and calculating, I hear them as Bowie having fun with the same sort of R&B derived music he’d played early in his career with a succession of Mod bands.

Modern Love is the hardest to deny. It’s “a Bowie cultural doom-piece like Five Years recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard,” as O’Leary called it astutely. The rough edges of the lyric (modern love, traditional marriage, religion and humanism are all tried by the singer, and all found wanting) are smoothed over by Thompson’s all-time-great drum track, Sabino’s piano and Rogers’s guitar. Those backing vocals, meanwhile… Carlin called them “the stupidest backing vocals in pop since Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World”; O’Leary was also not a fan of them in the wider context of the album (“like a demented glee club”), but, again, I think he’s on the money when he describes how they work as “audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him”.

Lacking the iconic hooks of either Let’s Dance (the Twist and Shout build-up; those heavily echoed guitar-and-horn stabs) or China Girl (the Chopsticks guitar riff), Modern Love is nevertheless the most substantial single from Let’s Dance, and gives me exactly what I want from a David Bowie song and what he specialised in between 1975 and 1983: a hugely intelligent lyric coupled with a fantastic groove.

Bowie ML
“I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into a rock’n’roll version of Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent” – Charles Shaar Murray on Let’s Dance-era Bowie

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song:

Haim, Haerts & the return of gated reverb and sundry other 1980s production trends

I’ve discussed before the move from damped, dead drum sounds to ambient, live drum sounds that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the context of records by Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen. But those artists were relative minnows in the big bam boom game compared to the king of gigantosaur drums: Phil Collins.

But of course you know this, and you may well also know the name of the technique used to create these sounds. Gated reverb was one of the key defining sounds of 1980s rock and pop. It was a solution to a very particular problem. If you record a drum kit in a big room, the whole drum kit gets big, with long decays that muddy and confuse the sound; the faster and more complex the material, the less suited it would then be for heavy reverb.

But what if you could apply this heavy reverb in small doses, snap it quickly on and off to give that snare drum a quick but controlled burst of power? That’s precisely the solution that Hugh Padgham at the Townhouse and, independently, the team at Tony Bongiovi’s Power Station in New York arrived at. Use the close snare mic to trigger a noise gate strapped across a pair of room mics so the huge reverb is applied for, say, a few hundred milliseconds, and then snapped off. If you’re trying to remember what that sounds like, think Let’s Dance (produced by Nile Rogers at the Power Station), think Some Like it Hot (by the Power Station, the other one), think China in Your Hand.

Think Wings by HAERTS. HAERTS are a New York synth-poppy rock band on Columbia. Their debut album has just come out, but it’s been percolating for a while. Wings itself came out in 2012, a debut EP came out last year and the album, HAERTS, has just come out. Yeah, the misspelling and the capital letters are annoying (and from now on, I’m going to drop the all caps). So they’re not off to a great start there.

Not to be cynical, but Haerts seem to me to be an attempt by Columbia to achieve what Polydor has with Haim: same slow drip of material over a couple of years to build a base on college radio (KEXP Seattle has been behind them since the start), similar sounds and influences, taken a step of two further, even an all-capped stylised name.

This is the thing. Production fashions are an arms race. This is how it happened last time gated reverb was the thing. One artist does something, the next one repeats it but takes it further, everyone piles in until a point is reached where someone says, OK, enough, and sets their own trend. There’s some gated reverb on the drums on Days are Gone. Noticeably so, but tastefully so. There are some percussion tracks overdubbed over the backbone drum track — as in, say, the later choruses of Falling — which recall Some Like it Hot. There’s quite a lot of semi-clean palm-muted guitar. Haim, or their producer Ariel Rechtshaid, are expert ’80s glory-moment spotters. To take Falling again, when the song breaks down to a chant of “Never look back, never give up” over handclaps, who’s thinking of Wanna Be Starting Something’s famous “mama-say mama-sa mama-ko-sa” chant section? At least some of us, I’m sure. There’s an attention to detail here: the references aren’t hidden, but they’re not sledgehammer obvious either. If you’re not familiar, they’ll slide right by.

Wings, the aforementioned Haerts single (above), is much less coy about letting you know where it’s coming from. It’s all there in the 4-bar intro of unaccompanied, huge, gated-reverb drums. It’s an extraordinarily confident place to start your debut single from, but the band do have the advantage of knowing that this sound connected with a big audience relatively recently. That being so, why not give them more of the same, but bigger, and louder?

Now, I don’t want to sound too cynical. I like the song. At least, I like the groove, and I admire the construction (for which a lot of credit must surely go to the producer St Lucia, Jean-Philip Grobler). For a record that feels a little like it’s been precision tooled to work in the space created by the success of Days are Gone, it remains a likeable piece of work.

The weird thing for me is hearing the soundworld of T’Pau and early Til Tuesday recreated so painstakingly and then seeing it marketed as indie rock. I genuinely don’t know – do the folks younger than me who are into this remember the stuff that it is emulating? Was it still on the radio in the late 1990s and early 2000s? When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, listening to contemporary rock music and forming my own tastes and preferences, nothing could have sounded older, more tasteless or garish to me than a big, gated-reverb drum sound. It was the preserve of poodle-haired corporate metal bands. Later on when I’d grown up a bit, I had to train myself to put those objections aside, to listen past the obvious signifiers and give the music a fair hearing. But nevertheless, my tastes were formed in the era they were formed in, and despite this being the sound of the popular music of my childhood, it’s not my sound. Perhaps the folks making these records are too young to have these hang-ups.

I fear a gated-reverb arms race is underway, which means the next few years are going to be pretty painful for this Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac fan.

HAERTS
HAERTS – hi there, suspiciously old-lookin’ dude second from right!