Tag Archives: organ

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing drums for the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

The Band as players and singers

Just an addendum to the piece I wrote the other day on The Band. Not nearly enough gets said about these guys as singers and players. If Robertson isn’t quite the player I once held him to be – he’s never really convincing again as a rock ‘n’ roll player after the Dylan tour of 1965-66, and his clean, soul-style playing is just too slavish in its imitation of Curtis Mayfield for him to be considered a player of the first rank – Danko, Hudson and Helm are among the most immediately distinctive players of their primary instruments. And Robertson was, for a couple of years at least, a songwriter of idiosyncratic brilliance

Rick Danko’s bass style is unlike anybody else’s. He never made a feature of locking in with Helm’s kick. He wasn’t a root-fifth country plonkster, or a straight-eights guy. He did this weird syncopation thing that was totally his own. Bass Musician magazine called it Danko-ing. There’s no better term for it; it was totally his own thing. He compared it to playing horn bass, and there was something very tuba-esque about his tone at times.

Here’s how to Danko:

danko-ing

Levon Helm, I’ve said before, is one of my very favourite drummers. He was a very danceable drummer. Funky, with a lazy late backbeat, like Al Jackson’s was late, like Earl Young’s was late, like Ringo Starr’s was late, like Jim Eno’s is today. He put it right where it felt best. And he did it while singing lead and harmony vocals.

As for Garth Hudson, weird eccentric polymath Garth Hudson, you’re talking about a guy who could play a lightning-speed organ solo, create ever-shifting textures with his Lowery, custom build his own effects boxes for totally unique sounds, tear it up with a honking tenor-sax solo or make you cry with a tender soprano sax solo. He’s totally unique. A true one-off.

The Band’s harmonies were great, too. While they swapped lead vocals – and in the early days tended to trade lines with each other within songs – there was a defined three-part harmony they tended to fall back on: Helm at the bottom, Danko in the middle and Richard Manuel on top, often singing falsetto. You can hear it clearly on the beautiful Rockin’ Chair. Manuel sings the verses, but in the choruses, that’s him right at the top. Then he drops down to take the lead again. They’d do it the same way live as on record. It’s not a slick sound. They didn’t hit their consonants at the same time, take their breaths in perfect synchronisation or soften their distinctive timbres to better blend their voices. They sang from the heart, and they sounded wonderful.

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.

Space music – Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic

Like most kids, I was interested in space as a boy. I used to read the space section of my family’s junior encyclopaedia over and over again. I read sci-fi books, had space-themed toys, wrote little spacey stories. This was the late 1980s, and though the Challenger disaster was a terrifying recent memory to those older than me (I was only four when it happened) and therefore able to process and absorb what had happened, near-space exploration still seemed to be just the beginning of what we could, and in time would, do. The moon landings still weren’t that far in the past, I suppose.

In recent years, I’ve come to find the idea of space (as well as the idea of ocean depths) oppressive, bordering on scary. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, I find just thinking about space overwhelming, a situation perhaps not helped by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, around five or six years ago: that dreadful shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL, his oxygen supply severed. I probably hadn’t thought about space much as an adult, and to an adult – with an imagination more vivid and powerful than that of a child, but simultaneously more grounded in physical reality – the idea of being out there in such a blankly hostile environment wasn’t cool and exciting, it was terrifying.

We aren’t meant to be up there. We’re not built for it.

It’s improbable that these things were occupying Gustav Holst all that much when he wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and his movements are named after the qualities associated with the planets in astrology rather than astronomy.

The Planets‘ two most famous movements are Mars, the Bringer of War, the barnstorming opener, with its hysterically aggressive final section (emulated thousands of times in Hollywood movie scores) and relentless 5/4 ostinato, and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which contains at its heart the beautiful melody Thaxted, grievously misused (with Holst’s weary acquiescence) by Cecil Spring Rice as the tune for I Vow to Thee, My Country – loathsome, sentimental, nationalistic nonsense. (Thaxted was Holst’s home in my native county of Essex – in the 1910s and 1920s, Thaxted was a hotbed of Christian socialism, with Conrad Noel and Daisy, Countess of Warwick at its centre, and Holst as a sort of orbiting moon.)

The movements that interest me most are very different: Venus, the Bringer of Peace and Neptune, the Mystic. Venus’s beauty is heavenly, lulling flutes, a tinkling celeste, soft harps and mellifluous French horns, with only the double bass hinting of mystery and danger hidden behind that impassive-looking cloud structure.

Neptune (like Mars, in 5/4 time) is something else again, with its emphasis more on texture and atmosphere than melody (not to say that its melodies aren’t exquisite). This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. It’s most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble from the organ accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be. At this point the voices enter.

Holst does thrilling things with this chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams, fellow composer and a lifelong friend of Holst’s, wrote penetratingly on its effect:

Such a work as Neptune, the Mystic seems to give us such a glance into the future—it ends, so to speak, on a note of interrogation. Many composers have attempted this, sometimes bringing in the common chord at the end as an unwilling tribute to tradition, sometimes sophisticating it by the addition of one discordant note, sometimes letting the whole thin out into a single line of melody; but Holst in Neptune actually causes the music to fade away to nothing. We look into the future, but its secrets remain closed to us.

The chorus does, as Holst says, “fade away to nothing”. The singers, screened so as never to be visible to the audience, slowly walk out of the concert hall into an adjoining room, and a door is closed quietly behind them. This in itself was a daring, near unprecedented, move, but in its totality, Neptune creates a vocabulary of space music that is still being employed today in movie scores*: delicate, sparse orchestration and quizzical chords, high, sustained strings, the interplay of deepest bass and lightest treble, the choice of instruments to create uncanny timbres – Neptune succeeds so well in evoking space (in a way that the other movements of the suite, no matter how successful, don’t try to – as they are intended to, they evoke the moods and humours the planets are associated with in astrology) that it spawned hundreds of imitators in the movies, and may fool us into thinking that Holst himself was working in an extant tradition rather than calling one into existence through the sheer scope of his imagination.

Neptune_Full
Neptune, currently somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 billion kilometres away

* Perhaps the most obvious Planets reference is in John Williams’s Star Wars music, which quotes the ending of Mars almost exactly. The mood of Neptune, meanwhile, is Hollywood’s default “mysterious space” mood, with the gentle moments of James Horner’s Aliens score, for example, deeply in hock to it.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

JW
Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!:

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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Judee Sill’s first album

The greatest 35 minutes in the history of recorded music is the first (eponymous) album by Judee Sill. A big claim, but I’ll stand by it.

To go into the particulars of her life story would take more time than I have here, but a brief summary may put her music into context. She was born Judith Lynn Sill in 1944. Her father and older brother both died when she was a young child. Her mother remarried, to a Tom and Jerry animator, and both her mother and stepfather had alcohol problems. She fell in with the bad kids at school and her situation at home became increasingly strained; she couldn’t stand her stepfather, whom she saw as mean and narrow-minded. At fifteen she ran away from home and met a boy a couple of years older who made his money as an armed robber. The pair of them held up liquor stores and petrol stations across the San Fernando Valley until they were caught and Sill, still a minor, was sent to a reform school, where she learnt to play organ, piano and guitar.

On her release, her mother by this time dead, Sill married a man named Bob Harris (not that Bob Harris) and the pair became addicted to heroin. Sill was arrested and sent to prison – a real one this time – where she was left to go cold turkey, puking and convulsing in solitary confinement. Once out of jail, she began using again, working as a prostitute to fund her habit. It was at this time that she began writing songs, songs that would eventually bring her to the attention of David Geffen, manager and mogul-in-waiting, who made her the first signing to his new label Asylum.

Despite this tumultuous personal history (I have only time to mention in passing her bisexuality; her time spent writing for the Turtles, who discovered her living in a car; her crush on Geffen (who is gay); her shatteringly unsuccessful relationship with fellow songwriter John David Souther (who has had the good grace to admit her dazzling artistry – ‘She’s school for all of us’); her later car accidents (one of which she was rescued from by a passing John Wayne); and many other episodes besides.

But really, none of this is the point. None of this makes her music any better or worse. Knowing it probably doesn’t even really help us understand her any better.

The point is that there has never been a songwriter who handled the big stuff with as delicate a touch as Sill. The really big stuff. Existence. God. The universe. Everything.

A Christian of deep but unconventional faith (she was an avid reader of apocryphal, mystical, and Rosicrucian texts, which all fed into her writing, and perception of God), her religious songs were shot through with erotic imagery, while conversely her love songs have a holy reverence to them. Yet her music is substantial without being weighty. It’s deep but seldom heavy. It is free of the self-seriousness that characterises even the best work by, say, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young,

Sill released two albums in her lifetime of the most astonishing quality, the influences of Bach chorales and early church music clear in her chord structures, her lyrics reflecting the theosophical texts she eagerly devoured, her melodies like no one else’s in the history of popular music – the end result not that far removed from the work of her contemporary Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters sonically and formally, but elevated by a grace that none of them could achieve.

A junkie armed robber and former hooker who looked like a librarian and sang like an angel, Judee Sill was the greatest singer-songwriter who ever picked up a guitar.

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Judee Sill, conducting. Pic from Heart Food sleeve

The author’s recent EP, to download or stream for free: