Tag Archives: Quincy Jones

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 1: The Groove Line – Heatwave

It’s back.

It’s time, once again, to discuss underrated drum tracks. For the third consecutive year, I’ll be doing a series of posts, each concentrating on one song with a great, and comparatively unappreciated, drum performances. They may be well known songs, but if they are they’ll be songs that tend to be discussed for elements other that the drums.

OK, here we go then.

Heatwave were a truly international bunch. Two American vocalists (both former GIs who had been stationed in Germany), two Englishman (one of whom went on to become trusted right-hand man of one of popular music’s most legendary producers, but more of him later), a Spaniard and a Czech.

The latter was Ernest Berger, nicknamed “Bilbo”, a portly, baby-faced drummer, gifted with one of the most solid right feet and funkiest left hands you ever did hear.

Disco comes in two basic flavours: 16th notes on the hats or eighths (quavers). Whichever you play, the snare will be on two and four, and the kick will be on every quarter note. The kick being played on every beat (which is often known as a four on the floor beat) is fundamentally what makes it disco. Not every disco song has this kind of drum pattern, but the vast majority do.

A disco track is nothing without a good steady pulse, but a machine can provide that if that’s all that’s required. It’s the ways in which a drummer can impart his or her own feel that really lifts a song. If you want to hear this for yourself, import Billie Jean into a DAW, chop out everything except the drum intro and loop it. Listen to it, feel it and absorb it. Then quantise it and play it back. Quantising is a process whereby a musical performance (usually a part played on a MIDI keyboard or a drum part) is snapped to a predefined grid, so that every event happens on a precise subdivision of a bar). Quantise the opening drums to Billie Jean and you’ll realise pretty quickly that something pretty major, and obviously detrimental, has happened. In the manner of funk drummers since time immemorial, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, the drummer, played the backbeat on the snare late – not late as in, not in time; late as in, on the very back of the beat. It’s the push and pull between the kick that hits on the middle of one and three and the snare at the very back of two and four that makes it feel so great.

Ernest Berger did the same thing on Heatwave’s hits, notably The Groove Line and the deathless Boogie Nights. The basic groove (a 16th-note pattern) is supplemented by handclaps, which add to the funky feel; they seem to “drag” the backbeat even more. Berger’s performance is full of cool little details and live-sounding fills, but my favourite details is how he modifies the hi-hat pattern for the choruses (under the lines “Rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re riding on the groove line”), switching to a swingier feel for a few bars, playing two strokes strokes on the hat on the hats between the 1 and 2 (kick, left, right, kick/snare, left, right, etc). It’s a fantastic detail to really lift the choruses.

The song itself was written by the band’s keyboard player, Rod Temperton. The blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. The story, oft told by both, is that Quncy was flabbergasted to hear that the guy who’d been writing some of the baddest R&B, funk and disco hits of the era was a geeky-looking white guy from England. Hugely impressed with Temperton, Jones took him into his inner circle. Temperton’s songs are on Off the Wall (Rock With You, Off the Wall, Burn this Disco Out) and Thriller (Baby Be Mine, Thriller, The Lady in My Life), and he also wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson and hits for Patti Austin, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne and Rufus.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 2

What’s exciting and endlessly fascinating about recording drums (and the same is true for when you’re listening to music too, I think, although when I began placing microphones I became consciously aware of all the practical implications of something I’d previously understood unconsciously) is that every drummer in the world – every single one – is different. Give them the same boom-boom-bap drum pattern to play and the same tempo to play it at, and every drummer will be different. Different feels, different internal balance between the kick, snare and hi-hat. Some will feel almost metronically perfect. Others will get on top of the beat and look to push the excitement by playing the snare right on the very front of the beat. Some will lay back, adding a don’t-hurry-me swing. Hopefully these three wildly different drum tracks will demonstrate this (listen to the first 30 seconds of #4, then switch to #5 – you should really hear what I’m talking about!

3) Rock With You – Michael Jackson

John ‘JR’ Robinsons’ drums on Rock With You are almost superhumanly tight, but they’re not rigid. It feels great. You could never listen to this song and assume that the rhythm track was programmed – it’s too playful. Two and four on the snare, 16th notes in the intro and choruses, 8th notes in the verse, displaced quarters in the pre-chorus (by which I mean he plays the ‘and’, as in one-And-two-And-three-And-four-And), endless little ‘pssts’ and emphases – he’s having a ball.

The recording of the drums, by Quincy Jones’s long-time engineer, Bruce Swedien, is fantastic. Like Alan Parsons (qv), Swedien is not a fan of compressing signals with heavy transient content (like drums). Over to Bruce:

Good transient response is especially important when recording acoustic instruments. This is one case where it’s extremely important for one to have equipment that is able to capture as much of the initial transient as possible, and all its accompanying delicate details.
In the music that I am normally involved in, I have always felt that good transient content is one of the very most important components of the recorded image.
I would even go so far as to say that transient response has at its core a direct relationship to the emotional impact of a recording. Particularly in the main genres of music that I record…. namely R&B and pop recordings.
The faithful recording and reproduction of sound source transients makes the strong rhythmic elements in R&B and pop recordings much more dramatic. These are the elements that are so important, such as the ‘kick’ or bass drum, the snare drum, hand-claps, percussion… etc.
I think that well recorded transients give R & B and ‘Pop’ recordings a feeling of tremendous energy.
To me, the excessive use of compression and limiting diminish the drama of sound source transients in recorded music.

(from a Q&A on gearslutz.com, where Bruce did his best to school the tin-eared masses)

Back to JR. As well as being the creator of some of the most danceable drum tracks in this history of popular music (Rock With You, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, The Way You Make Me Feel, Give Me the Night), his opening snare fill on Rock With You is one of the all-time fills.

4) Every Breath You Take – The Police

Stewart Copeland is a famously ‘busy’ drummer, so it’s not a surprise that his simplest part may be also his most underrated. But it perhaps also allows us a little look at what makes him tick as a player. Copeland’s tricky hi-hat fills in songs like Walking on the Moon showed a player who liked to fill space, but the choruses to songs like Roxanne revealed the power and energy he had in the tank when he chose to use it (listen to the outro when Copeland plays a double-time backbeat alternating between the snare and toms – he’s clearly giving the toms what for).

So Copeland’s playing had an oafish streak to it, at odds with his reputation as a progger and reggae fan. But there’s another factor in his drum part to Every Breath You Take: his frustration at Sting’s insistence that he play a very simple kick and snare part with no hi-hat in the verse, and no fills. This tension boiled over frequently in the studio and soon enough would end the band. But in terms of this recording, we ended up with a drum track in which Copeland strains at the leash all the way through. He’s right on top of the beat, almost to the point of being early. He’s this barely contained energy animating the whole song. Again, the indispensability of Copeland’s contribution is confirmed by listening to any of the godawful cheesy versions Sting has done live since the Police split up.

5) If It Makes You Happy – Sheryl Crow

Every time I hear this song on the radio I’m tickled by just how lazy the drum track feels. I don’t mean that the drummer can’t be bothered; I mean that the drummer couldn’t be any more at the back of the beat without the song grinding to a halt. There’s no doubt that this effect is intended. The lazy swagger of the song is the whole point. The drummer wisely keeps the fills to the minimum, concentrating on placement of the backbeat at the very back end of the beat, but his sudden, frantic 7-stroke triplet drum roll at the end of the last verse, under the song’s key line ‘So what if right now everything’s wrong?’, is a great addition.

According to Discogs, the drummer was Michael Urbano. Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas (the Attractions) also play on the parent album, and as much as I love those two guys (Pete Thomas on Elvis Costello’s Sulky Girl is one of my favourite drum performances ever), I can’t imagine even those all-time greats playing the song better than Urbano did.

George Benson – Give Me the Night

The CVs of George Benson and Quincy Jones are so absurdly overstuffed with accomplishments in jazz that their pop records can seem like mere trifles in comparison. Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning trifles.

Just another day in the office for Q, who won 27 Grammys during his career and more lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees than I can list. In fact, he’s probably won another award since I finished typing that last sentence. But for Benson, making the first record to be released on Quincy’s new label Qwest, this was the peak of his second career as an R&B singer and hitmaker, begun four years earlier with an early vocal performance, a cover of Leon Russell’s This Masquerade (a song that, in truth, Karen Carpenter had sung better. But she sang everything better than everyone else, so there’s no disgrace in that).

Benson had thitherto been known as a virtuoso jazz guitarist, who had played on Miles in the Sky and Songs in the Key of Life. He employed a picking technique adapted from gypsy jazz, and had a way with hyperspeed octave lines that even Wes Montgomery would have envied. If he veered towards the commercial end of jazz, it was by instinct, not because he couldn’t hang with the heavy players. He could play his arse off. But still, if around the time of Breezin’ (1976) you’d been asked which contemporary jazz player might also become a pop star, Benson would have been a good guess, a guess proved right when Benson recorded The Greatest Love of All for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest. I’ll quickly declare a prejudice here: The Greatest Love of All is high up my list of the worst songs of all time. Absolutely loathsome from the first bar to the last. I’m a forgiving guy and don’t hold it against George, Whitney or anyone else who’s committed the aesthetic crime of recording that most mawkish of instant showstoppers, but I’d be very happy never to hear that song again.

Jones clearly recognised a kindred spirit in Benson and so picked him as the first artist for Qwest, setting his A Team to work on the new boy’s next record: engineer Bruce Swedien and songwriter Rod Temperton, the blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. A typically strong Temperton song, Give Me the Night employed the arrangement style developed by Jones for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. Prolonged contact with Benson’s pop work might induce hyperglycemia, but as a one-off single Give Me the Night sits halfway between the revelation of Off the Wall and the apotheosis of Thriller.

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George Benson, octopus hands

Phil Ramone

If my appreciation for lo-fi rock music was partly an ideological one – founded on an adolescent need to carve out an identity for myself as a musician and listener – my love for the music of Paul Simon was the reverse: instinctive, soul-deep and already in place when I was too young to even grasp that some music was new and some music old, some music cool and some square. At that age – eight, nine maybe – I hadn’t heard a whole Paul Simon record. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and we used to listen to it on car journeys to visit relatives. It took me places, made me feel stuff I didn’t understand yet. The post-divorce ennui of Simon’s Still Crazy-era songs shouldn’t have resonated with such a young kid, yet I absorbed every note, learned every word. I loved the way these records sounded, the way they felt.

After Simon himself, the man most responsible for the sound and feel of those records was Phil Ramone, who engineered and co-produced Simon’s mid-seventies records There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. Ramone died yesterday, aged 79. He was a true giant of record-making. Big Band Bossa Nova, Genius + Soul = Jazz, Getz/Gilberto, Blood on the Tracks, Still Crazy and Blood on the Tracks – Ramone recorded them all. He recorded Do You Know the Way to San Jose, The Look of Love (Dionne Warwick’s version and Dusty Springfield’s) and We Have All the Time in the World. Most engineers and producers would kill to have even his more minor artistic successes on their CVs: Rock of Ages, Ram, 52nd Street. Ramone’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself.

His records do, too. A sense of space, an ability to tailor instrument sounds to a particular recording while still retaining their identifiable sonic signatures, attention to detail, to the little things that lift a record – these are the Ramone hallmarks. It’s something of a shame that over the last twenty years or so this magnificent recordist and producer didn’t move a little more with the times and work with some younger, hungrier artists. I’d have loved to hear the work he might have done in the 1990s with a good songwriting guitar band, like Albhy Galuten did with Jellyfish and Glyn Johns with Belly. Instead he worked on a series of Duets records (two each with Sinatra and Bennett) and Rod Stewart’s execrable American Songbook series, seemingly happy to work on music that recalled that of his early career, despite the degradation of his collaborators’ vocal abilities.

But no amount of late-career clunkers can detract from the brilliance of his early work and his name will be remembered for as long as folks collect vibrations in air, mess around with them and make them come out of little speaker cones. Year by year we lose more of the greats from Phil Ramone’s generation, and things have changed so much in the industry that it’s unlikely we’ll see their kind again. But as long as millions continue to listen to Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, they’ll still be listening to Phil Ramone too.

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Phil Ramone, ©Ken Weingart/Getty Images