Tag Archives: mellotron

Never Any Clapton, Part 4 – Starless by King Crimson

I’ve written about this one before, so please excuse me for returning to a favourite.

Once again, we must confront the Dark Lord of Skronk. Dare ye look upon his face a second time?

fripp

Oh yeah, Robert Fripp: the gentlemanly looking guitar torturer behind some of the finest uses and abuses of the instrument in rock music.

Every solo I’ve looked at over the years has had an emotional point. I’ve never been a fan of shows of virtuosity for their own sake. Robert Fripp’s playing on Starless radiates emotion, though the feelings being communicated are, to say the least, ambiguous.

The song begins in a minor key, with held Mellotron chords. Fripp plays a haunting melody over these chords, demonstrating his total control over tone and articulation. Every note has the right amount of sustain and vibrato. His choice of which string and fret to play the notes is equally precise and assured.

After three verses sung by Wetton (the main writer of this section of the song), the band drop out and Wetton plays a threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time, long past the point where it begins to make the listener uncomfortable. Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford go through the sequence a second time, and it’s only towards the end of this repeat that Fripp starts climbing, semitone by agonising semitone, upwards in pitch. As he and Wetton begin to play with more volume and distortion, Bruford (the author of that bass riff) joins in. After another repeat of the full sequence, during which Bruford has kept things moderately quiet, playing games with backbeat placement and generally adding to the rising tension, the band finally abandon restraint and go at it hard.

Fripp plays oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone, Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted, and Bruford switches to the ride, playing less abstractly and more like a conventional rock drummer (albeit one who can count odd-numbered beats in the bar), hitting hard and keeping things straighter. As Fripp goes higher and higher, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking. Finally the tension breaks, and the band goes into a double-time section, with saxophonists Mel Collins and Ian MacDonald playing dueling solos.

What does it all mean, this eight minutes or so of profoundly uneasy music? In an earlier piece on this song, I commented that while the lyric was straightforwardly about a personal pain so deep that the singer becomes unable to experience any other emotion and is thus alienated from everyone around him, the music was working on a bigger canvas:

“Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain.”

I’d pretty much still go along with that. This music has an evocative power I’ve not heard anywhere else. I’m not sure whether any of what Fripp and co did here was improvised or whether it was all through-composed. I suspect the latter, but either way, it’s guitar playing of the highest order, so far ahead of what the band’s contemporaries were doing in 1974, it’s untrue. It seems scarcely believable that the day Starless was released, the number-single in the UK was Annie’s Song by John Denver, having taken over the day before from Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.

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Kashmir – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin were formed out of Jimmy Page’s desire to create a supergroup, a behemoth, a world-conquering monster that could cast all opposition aside, and everything they did thereafter was done while conscious of the fact that they were Led Fucking Zeppelin, Destroyer of Worlds.

So Kashmir, then, is the self-consciously epic centrepiece of their most self-consciously epic record, Physical Graffiti, a double album from 1975, roughly the halfway point of their 11-year career.

Eight minutes is not an eternity, even by the standards of rock music, but it’s long enough for a band to develop quite a head of steam, and Kashmir does depend for its effect partly on accumulated momentum. Yet it’s far from being a mere musical bulldozer; Zeppelin always swung far too much to rely on power only.

The song’s principle motor is the relationship between Bonham’s simple drum pattern in 4/4 and Page’s exotic guitar riff in 3/8. Bonham maintains a common-time pattern, with a ‘heartbeat’ semiquaver bass drum (albeit one that begins on the one, rather than the semiquaver before the one), while Page’s guitar climbs from A to D and then after four bars (if you’re following the guitar riff) or three (if you’re counting with Bonham) the pattern repeats itself. The tension between the two parts – the constant rising and falling of the guitar, chord changes and emphases falling in different places in each bar – leaves the listener just a little unsure of where they are.

But then we come to John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon. In the band’s more ambitious pieces, Jones’s role was to provide the colour. As the band only very rarely used name session musicians (Boogie with Stu was a notable exception: “Stu” is Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart), Jones’s resourcefulness was often tested. In the case of Kashmir, he wrote string parts for both orchestral players and Mellotron, which he played himself. The Mellotron strings are audible in the bridges (“All I see turns to sand”, etc.) over the F and G chords – they’re the bits that sound most Arabian (geography not being the band’s strong point, or perhaps they didn’t know what Himalayan music sounded like). Live, Jones combined both parts on his Mellotron, played a bass line on the organ pedals and ditched his bass guitar early. He was the band’s most musicianly member: a former choirboy (rumours persist that at the height of Zep’s success he considered quitting the band to become choirmaster at Winchester) who can play about 17 instruments, and who played with a discipline and solidity that underpinned the rawer, sloppier virtuosity of Page and Bonham. He’s always there in the background, doing something vital but unshowy.

But what everyone remembers about Kashmir, ultimately, is the power of Page’s DADGAD-tuned riff and Bonham’s drums. They are what make the song one of Zeppelin’s crowning achievements, of which Page, Plant and Jones are all justly proud.

P&P
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both pulling what I like to think of as “the Led Zeppelin face”

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

My Secret Life – Redd Kross

The first for-real band I ever saw play a for-real gig on a for-real stage with a for-real PA in a for-real venue was Redd Kross in 1997 at the Astoria in London, supporting the Foo Fighters. They sounded fantastic. I’d never (literally) heard anything like it. I was 15 and I’d played a gig or two with the terrible high-school grunge band I played bass in, but that hadn’t prepared me for what a focused, tight and loud rock band on stage would sound like. They had loud guitars, bashing drums and glorious harmonies. Nostalgia may be playing a part in this assessment – and granted, 15-year-old me had nothing to compare it to – but still, their set remains one of the best I’ve seen by a support act.

That and a recommendation in (I think) the Melody Maker prompted me to go out and get their then single, My Secret Life.

Redd Kross was founded by brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald in 1982, and its first gig was supporting Black Flag. Probably because of their love of everything kitsch about the 1960s and ’70s, Redd Kross are sometimes left out or downplayed when the history of American punk is retold, but they were there and part of it almost from the start. On guitar in the band’s early days was Greg Hetson, later of the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion, and a virtual who’s who of LA punk would go on to pass through its ranks: Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes (both Black Flag), Vicki Peterson (the Bangles), Robert Hecker (It’s OK) and Jack Irons (Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers), to name a few.

My Secret Life was pretty far removed from the band’s on-stage sound, which mixed sugary harmonies with some seriously loud distorted guitars. My Secret Life is a big – huge – melodramatic ballad, with piano, acoustic guitar, tympani, Mellotron strings and the band’s trademark 3-part harmonies, a sort of updated Spector. Surprisingly grand for a band that spent most of its career celebrating everything low-brow and trashy about Californian teen culture.

It’s customary for a certain type of critic to point at a cult guitar band (those artists that take Big Star and Raspberries as the starting point for their sound) and say that they made “perfect pop music”. This sort of boosterism is usually misplaced. There’s always something that stopped those bands being as big as the Beatles were (or even as big as the Raspberries or Cheap Trick). Marshall Crenshaw was too gawky. The Posies started off too fey, then got too muscular. Jellyfish lacked a really great lead singer. Teenage Fanclub didn’t quite have the choruses. But any band can produce a perfect moment. That’s what’s so great about pop music. And when Redd Kross crash into that final chorus of My Secret Life – this time complete with tympani – and harmonise the word “life” over an unexpected F minor, it pretty much is a moment of pop perfection.

ReddKross-Steven-Jeff-
Steve and Jeff McDonald from Redd Kross, in the studio, 1993

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: