Tag Archives: Moondance

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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Some more thoughts on Tennis’s Ritual in Repeat/Where Dreams Go to Die – John Grant

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Tennis’s new album Ritual in Repeat. I was a little disappointed by the album at first, and I still think that a couple of tracks (Timothy and Never Work for Free) could have had better, more dynamic and less cluttered, mixes. I mentioned how surprised I was by this, given that the mixes were by the normally reliable Michael Brauer.

But if the record isn’t quite the straight-up indie pop classic I wanted it to be when I first heard it – a sort of 21st-century Reading, Writing & Arithmetic – and ordered it from the US, further listening has convinced me that Needle and a Knife and I’m Callin’ are more or less perfect in their studio-recording incarnations, that Bad Girls (engineered and produced by Jim Eno and powered by his inimitable drumming) isn’t the kitsch throwaway it seemed to be at first, that James Barone (who drums on all other tracks) grooves like a dream, and that this band are maybe one album away from doing something truly great.

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I bought Uncut this week, for the first time in years. Ten years probably. Really this was because the new Yo Zushi record, It Never Entered My Mind – which I mixed, played a bunch of stuff on, and co-produced and engineered – has been reviewed in the current issue. This is the first time a record I did engineering work on has got a review in the national press so it’s a bit of a milestone for me, and I wanted the magazine as a keepsake.

Uncut comes with a CD. Early in the magazine’s history, these used to be rather good. The new one isn’t awful, but there’s some dreck on there for sure. I’m not sure why Uncut are going for Matthew E White in such a big way, but for those of us who remember how much they got behind Ryan Adams and everyone who associated with him in the early noughties (“Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Adams), their championing of White’s protégée Natalie Prass looks unwise. Guys, Van made Moondance in 1970. Go listen to that if you want to hear white people singing soul music with country chord changes and horns. It’s better.

But there is one treat on the CD: John Grant’s live version of Where Dreams Go to Die from his new live album, recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at MediaCityUK. I bought that record for Mel, a Grant fan, for Christmas and heard half of it at low volume last weekend. It sounded good, and I found myself enjoying it more than I did the live set I saw in Oxford when he was touring with Midlake about five years ago. A lot more.

I’ve never been too sure about Grant, but this is a bit of a revelation. Firstly, he turns in a superb vocal performance (deeper and richer than on his studio version – he sounds like Nick Cave, if Cave could actually sing) on one of his best songs. But that’s not all. Fiona Brice’s orchestral arrangement is grander than on record but still sympathetic and humane, and the sound of the thing is astonishingly good. The BBC has long had a reputation for giving its audio technicians a thorough training; this still seems to be the case, thankfully. The drum sound is glorious – big in a tasteful, large-room kind of way – and the strings have both clarity and woody richness.

A word, too, about drummer Kristinn Snær Agnarsson. If you can judge a drummer by how well they play a straight 4/4 rock beat on a moderately slow ballad (around 70bpm, say) – by the timing of their backbeat placement, by the dynamic and timbral consistency of those snare shots, and by how good it feels – then Agnarsson is top class. Earl Young or Jim Keltner couldn’t have played it better.

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John Grant, intense sidelong stare

A recent one-man-band recording of one of my songs

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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Streets of Arklow – Van Morrison

Rained mega-heavily this morning. I worried for a second is was going to get in through the sash windows. The joys of an English autumn! No better time, then, to go on a sodden travelogue with Van the Man.

In 1973, Van Morrison took a holiday in Ireland, having not set foot in either the Republic or his native Northern Ireland since leaving for America after Them broke up in 1967. He had by this time released his early single, Brown Eyed Girl (which to this day is still probably his defining song, tired of it though he, and many of us, may be), he’d made his masterworks Astral Weeks and Moondance, established his critical and commercial reputation in America, gone through a divorce from his first wife Janet Planet and become engaged again, and was fresh off a long tour (which would later yield a live album, Too Late to Stop Now, recorded in Santa Monica, LA and London). So the Irish holiday was a chance to recharge his batteries after a few years of sustained activity. It certainly worked in that degree; he ended up writing the bulk of Veedon Fleece during this period, and began laying down tracks in California a month later.

Beginning with Moondance, Morrison had settled into an idiosyncratic groove, creating a sound that mixed country, gospel and soul with a strong celtic feel in lyrics and instrumentation. But the albums – fine though they are, and sometimes transcendent (check out Listen to the Lion from St Dominic’s Preview for evidence of that) – lacked just a little something of the questing, exploratory jazziness that was the essence of Astral Weeks, with the majority of the tracks being conventionally structured, relatively concise songs built on a rock/R&B rhythm section. Veedon Fleece, then, as a return to the jazz-infused, pastoral and acoustic sound of Astral Weeks, was perhaps a little unexpected, even unwelcome, for those who had come to associate Van with the commercially successful sound that he had been working with since Moondance. Of his peak-era studio records, it’s consequently the least well known, the hardest to find in record shops, and least likely to be heard on the radio.

This is the casual listener’s loss, as Veedon Fleece is a masterpiece, one that feels like an attempt to be Astral Weeks on side one and Moondance on side two, an audacious ambition if ever there was one. Its first side is perhaps the best 25 minutes of music he ever assembled (Fair Play, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man?, Streets of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River), and if it wasn’t for a couple of slightly pedestrian tracks on the second side, Van would have succeeded in his grand plan to bridge the two sides of his creativity in one record. As it is, his first two Warners records remain his essential must-buys, but Veedon Fleece should be on your shopping list ahead of St Dominic’s Preview, His Band and the Street Choir, Hard Nose the Highway and the rather drippy Tupelo Honey.

Veedon Fleece is perfect late-night autumnal listening, its tone accurately captured in the cover photo of Morrison sitting on the grass outside a house in the country near Dublin Bay with two Irish wolfhounds, the grass he’s sat on almost preternaturally green, the sky behind him threatening yet more rain. I picked Streets of Arklow as representative of the album’s sound, tone and lyrical themes, but could have picked anything off side A or one of a few songs on side B. If you’re not familiar with Veedon Fleece, track down a copy.

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Outtake from Veedon Fleece cover shoot, 1975

For anyone who’s interested in hearing some more contemporary acoustic folk rock with  double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine: