Tag Archives: Michael McDonald

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

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Holiday Harmonies Part 7: My Old School – Steely Dan

Steely Dan weren’t a harmony group in the Everly Brothers sense. A few tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill aside, Donald Fagen always sings lead. The other voices are always subservient to the lead, and few songs have sustained two- or three-part harmony sections other than in choruses, though we’re looking today at a song that does. The band members were there for their musical chops rather than their vocals.*

That said, the band’s first line-up had three strong voices in it beside Fagen’s, in drummer Jim Hodder, bassist Walter Becker and kinda-sorta lead singer David Palmer.** Betweem them, those guys are responsible for all the male backing vocals on Can’t Buy a Thrill (including some stratospheric high parts on Dirty Work), so when they bring in (female) session vocalists on Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) and Kings, it has a very different effect.

And achieving different effects was always the thing with Steely Dan. They used harmony vocals in just about every way conceivable, and they cast the parts unerringly, always making the right call on whether it should be a female trio*** or multitracked Michael McDonalds, or covered by the guys in the band.

My Old School is from the second Dan album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Countdown doesn’t enjoy its creators’ favour all that much, but I’m very fond of it. Recorded during breaks from touring, and featuring songs that were written to be played live (and presumably tried out live on stage before they were cut in the studio), it’s the group’s most “rock” album. That it’s heavy on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar playing just seals it; Skunk was always a rougher, noisier player than the clean, precise and more jazz-inflected Denny Dias.

Famously, My Old School is about a drug bust at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, during which Becker, Fagen and Fagen’s girlfriend were arrested, along with some 50 other students. Dismayed that the school was complicit in this, Fagen nursed a grudge for years, even refusing to attend his graduation.

Accordingly, Fagen sings My Old School in a tone of sustained mock outrage, and the harmony voice, whoever it belongs to****, matches it note for note, getting truly querelous at times by going up on the last syllable of the line (“doing what she did be-fore“; “tumbles into the sea“). In the choruses, the backing trio come in and, as so often, the band milk all the humour they can from the incongruity of the soul revue-style vocal arrangement and the lyrical content – “Woah, no,” the singers interject. “Guadalajara won’t do now,” answers Fagen. It’s tremendous fun.

Steely-Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

*And after a few albums, most of the band were regular session players rather than official members anyway.
**David Palmer sings lead on Dirty Work and the amazing Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me). He was brought in on Skunk Baxter’s recommendation because Fagen wasn’t a confident vocalist, particularly on stage. But Fagen’s vocal persona was so crucial to the songs that he was eventually persuaded to handle the job full time and the band asked Palmer to step aside. He went on to write Jazzman with Carole King.
***Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews were Fagen and Becker’s go-to trio, when available. And why wouldn’t you get them on board if you could?
****And who is that harmony singer? I wish I knew for sure. Judging from his vocal contributions to Turn that Heartbeat Over Again it’s very possibly Walter Becker, but it could be the album’s credited male backing singer, Royce Jones. Or it could even be a second track of Fagen, but the vocal sounds less warm and round than 1974-vintage Fagen.

Holiday Harmonies Part 5: I Want You by Marvin Gaye

I’ve written about this song before, but in a first for this blog, I’m going to write about it again. Because it’s one of my favourite songs ever.

Nobody ever sang harmonies with themselves like Marvin Gaye. Not Prince. Not Joni Mitchell. Not Michael Jackson. Not even Michael McDonald, the self-harmonising hero of many a Steely Dan tune.

So far we’ve looked at harmonies created by two or more people singing with each other, but since Patti Page first sang the Tennessee Waltz, stacked vocals recorded by just one singer have been an extremely common alternative. Today it may even be the more common of the two approaches, as more and more records are the result of one person beavering away in a home studio by themselves.

In some ways it’s less satisfying for the listener. The way different textures and timbres blend with each other is a big part of what we respond to when we listen to singers harmonising. Some voices that are satisfying by themselves become less so when they double tracked or harmonise with themselves. Too much of a good thing. Too much of the same thing.

Other singers, though, and Marvin Gaye is the foremost example of the phenomenon, can create something magical when working this way.

It’s not just that Gaye’s voice naturally had a different grain when he sang in his low, tenor and falsetto ranges – although it did, and that definitely fed into it. It’s that he was skilled at manipulating those naturally different timbres (for example, making a high harmony part deliberately more wispy and thin to make it sit differently on top of another line that was close in pitch) and that he chose which octave to sing a given note in brilliantly.

Play a C triad on the piano consisting of middle C and the E and G just above it. Now add the A just above that G. That’s a voicing of C6. Now put the A underneath middle C. You might hear that as Aminor7, or as C6, but how you perceive it will depend on the context of the chord progression and the other instruments in the arrangement. Now, play that first C voicing again, add a low C and G in the left hand underneath it, and stretch out the right hand so the A is an octave above where it was in our first example. Each time the effect of that A within the chord is different.

The implications of this sort of game for vocal harmony singing are obvious. Notes that are “distant” from the underlying chord will tend to sound sweeter and clearer if they’re pitched up high. Putting them in the middle of the fray, so to speak, will make them sound darker, or more dissonant. Marvin understood all this and used his adaptable voice and very wide range to create gorgeously rich and often very harmonically dense block chords of oohs and aahs.

I Want You is a symphony for vocals. Although the mix does contain prominent horns and electric guitar, it’s the vocals – the overlapping leads, the ghostly oohs mixed left and right that span an almost unfeasible range – that cut deepest. When they suddenly seem to burst forward in the mix after the line “Ain’t it lonely out there”, it’s a truly spine-chilling moment.

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Marvin Gaye, king of self harmonisers

 

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

Night Walker – Yumi Matsutoya

Yumi Matsutoya (born Yumi Arai, and known to her fans as Yuming) has been one of the biggest stars of Japanese pop music for forty years, having released her first single in 1972, aged 18. She’s sold 42 million records and was the first artist to notch up two million sales in Japan for an album. She continues to have hits, and to write them for other artists. Compare that to the commercial fortunes of her western equivalents (even artistic and one-time commercial giants like Joni Mitchell and Carole King) in the same span of time and the scale of that achievement becomes clear.

I first heard this song wwhen reading a thread on the I Love Music message board. Someone posted asking for recommendations for songs by jazz-inflected singer-songwriters; I guess they were thinking of stuff in the vein of Paul Simon’s late-seventies work. I’d never heard of Yumi Matsutoya, but I was intrigued to listen to a Japanese take on a Western form. It’s a very close take, too, but I’m not sure how the ILM poster heard this and thought, “Hmm, yes, jazzy”. Sophisticated, though, I’d have agreed with. The use of the orchestra suggest the influence of Barry Gibbs’s production work on Barbra Streisand’s Guilty, the steady mid-tempo rhythm suggests Fleetwood Mac (as does the use of the heartbeat kick drum pattern made ubiquitous by Fleetwood’s use of it on Dreams), there’s a bit of Boz Scaggs in there in the electric piano and soul-derived guitar licks – everything about it signified LA around 1979. That is to say, it was a live-and-in-the-wild Japanese take on yacht rock. It’s astartlingly accurate take on a form of pop music that was just beginning to recede in popularity at the song’s parent album, Reincarnation, was released. In 1983, smoothness – as exemplified by Scaggs, Kenny Loggins (pre-Footloose and post-Messina), Michael McDonald and so on – was out and the old guard were having to modernise to retain their careers as hitmakers. Few managed the transition in the US or UK as well as Matsutoya did in Japan. For all their longevity, Scaggs and McDonald haven’t sold 42 million albums.

The sound of Matsutoya’s voice is the central appeal of this for me, as it must be when the language barrier prevents me understanding what she sings. I played the song to my friend Yo Zushi one evening after a recording session, and he confirmed something I’d read about her online, that her understated and unshowy voice is rather unusual for a Japanese female singer, among whom it’s more usual to adopt a cutesy, coquettish tone or emote stridently. From some fishing around on youtube it seems that the production of her records tended to shift with the times (perhaps lagging slightly behind fashions in US and UK record making, as we have observed of Night Walker). A shame, since her songs and voice were matched well with this type of arrangement. It’s a consciously adult sound and probably would not have sold many records after the mid-eighties, but reaching to far outside their comfort zones in a bid to stay relevant rarely did veteran artists any favours. Hopefully she never tried anything too desperate and dropped the pilot or charmed that snake.

yumi

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones

It’s obvious why a young Tom Waits fan would have picked Rickie Lee Jones out of the four-for-£20 rack in Leigh-on-Sea’s Fives record shop 10 or so years ago. Jones, I knew, had been in a relationship with Waits at the start of her career, and I’d heard that her music mined similar territory to Waits’s, with storytelling lyrics drawing on a life spent within a Los Angeles beatnik demi-monde that had somehow still magically existed in the era of The Long Run and the Nervous Breakdown EP.

I was disappointed. While it contains some great songs, Rickie Lee Jones’s debut is a bit of a mess. The heavy-hitting Warner Brothers production team, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, had assembled an awesome array of instrumental talent* to play on her album, the same session kings that also featured on mid- to late-seventies records by LA titans like Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Randy Newman (including Newman himself). But as with Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, the result – heavy on tinkly electric piano and, gasp, slap bass – was polite and bland. On low points like Young Blood, musicians run through their licks but seem to exist in a different world to Jones’s vocal. I can’t imagine the demo to that one wasn’t hugely superior.

(In full disclosure, the Waits records of this era that use electric band arrangements, such as Blue Valentine, are a similar turn-off to me; if Waits is in jazzbo mode, I want double bass and acoustic piano and nothing else will do. I love those sounds in the context of Steely Dan and Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, though, so make of this what you will.)

That wasn’t the only problem, though. Jones wasn’t writing uniformly strong melodies (her songs have never really found favour with other performers, especially compared to those of a certain other songwriter I should probably stop mentioning at this point) and her drawled vocals sometimes sounded less like jazz and more like pastiche or like an idea of jazz. In fairness, this was her debut and she hadn’t had time to grow into herself or her persona yet; even with as sympathetic producer as Waronker at the helm, she couldn’t help but come off as callow.

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 is, then, the standout moment on the album, Chuck E’s in Love aside. Certainly it’s the song that has the biggest emotional wallop. Recorded live at TBS a month after the main tracking sessions for the record, and like After Hours (the other song recorded this supplementary session) featuring only piano, vocal and strings, it benefits hugely from its sparse arrangement and straightforward vocal performance. Jones sounds, appropriately given the song’s themes, more at home here. I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

So many successful songs work this way, because the writer paired the right phrase with the right snippet of melody. Maybe some tunes are so charged with inherent meaning that they lead the writer to pick the correct lyric to pair them with. Fortunately for Jones and for her listeners, when this tune spoke to her, she listened.

RLJ
RLJ, Best New Artist Grammy in hand, doesn’t need to care what I think of her debut record

*Let me run through some of the credits for you: Dr John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, Buzz Feiten, Andy Newmark, Jeff Porcaro, Willie Weeks and, inevitably, Michael Boddicker. Some of these guys are among my favourite players ever. I’ve written about almost all of them in glowing terms elsewhere on this blog.

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

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New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones