Tag Archives: r&b

Guilty – Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb

In the mid-1970s the music industry rose to Olympian heights after a tough few years. Records by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton sold in thitherto unimaginable quantities and everyone involved made correspondingly astronomical sums of money. But sitting top of the heap, king of the unit-shifters, was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Not actually a Bee Gees album (their picture is on the cover sleeve, but it’s a various-artists record – the Gibbs brothers wrote only six and performed just five of the 17 tracks on the original release), Saturday Night Fever nevertheless turned the Bee Gees into the pre-eminent kings of disco, all off the back of half a dozen R&B songs they’d cut in Miami over the course of three years for various album projects.

Their success made them sought-after producers and writers for hire and, in 1980, Barbra Streisand asked Barry Gibb if he’d write an album for her. Streisand had risen to prominence in the 1960s as a cabaret belter, singing with Judy Garland and Ethel Merman for TV specials, until in 1969 she released an album of contemporary pop and rock material. She stayed in this idiom throughout the 1970s, faring best with ballads (who can deny The Way We Were?) but dismally when trying to be hip with the kids. She even managed to make Donna Summer seem uncool when the two duetted on No More Tears (Enough is Enough) in 1979.

Taking on the challenge of writing for Streisand, Gibb responded by adapting his style somewhat, slowing the tempos and allowing greater space for the lead vocal in the arrangement. The songs that Barry (co-writing some of the tracks with Robin and Maurice) gave Streisand were some of the best she’d ever had to work with, and they brought out the best in her. Singing Gibbs’s material, she dialled down the eyes-and-teeth, can-you-hear-me-in-the-back-row projecting that mars so much of her work. Most of the time when she sings, Streisand sounds imperious, a star who knows she’s a star. It’s a polarising, divisive vocal persona. Singing Guilty and Woman in Love, she sounded softer, much more human. They’re the perfect Streisand records for a Streisand sceptic like me.

Both songs are masterful slices of post-disco balladry, but force me to pick one and I’ll plump for Guilty. I’m particularly fond of Guilty’s asymmetrical phrases and the sudden jumps created by dropping in a bar of 5/4 here (in the verses) or 7/4 there (choruses) – a neat trick that Gibb would repeat in the intro to Dionne Warwick’s Heartbreaker a few years later. Gibb’s contrasting  vocal in the second verse works beautifully, and when those three-part harmonies come in during the final chorus with Barry’s moneymaker falsetto on top, it’s a triumphant moment.

Thirty years on, though, and “We’ve got nothing to be guilty of” is still a grammatical howler.

barry & babs

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 7: Nights on Broadway – The Bee Gees

Nights on Broadway is, as much as any other song, the one where the Bee Gees become the Bee Gees that live on in popular memory, the late-seventies Bee Gees of wide collars, tight trousers, leonine hair and innumerable bad impressions.

The latter is of course the key. The first single from 1975’s Main Course was the deathless Jive Talkin’, with its squelchy synth bass, disco bass drum and the metrical tricks (in the instrumental section) of which Barry Gibb was always fond. And unlike Nights on Broadway, Jive Talkin’ is on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But Gibb sang Jive Talkin’ in a something like a conspiratorial whisper, with the falsetto in the chorus harmony coming from Maurice, until then the usual supplier of the highest vocal parts on Bee Gees records.

But while recording Nights on Broadway, producer Arif Mardin asked the brothers if any of them could scream in tune, Barry gave it a go and for ever after the Bee Gees had a new hook: not so much a scream as a piercing bleat, it could drown out traffic noise, the din in bars and clubs, any amount of general background noise. Some records just cut through in this way, seem to come out of the radio twice as loud as all the others. Thanks to Barry’s falsetto, every new Bee Gees song did this. Perhaps that’s why they became as huge as they did.

A readily identifiable sonic signature sure helps a band to become huge, but if you want to play R&B music – and it can’t be stressed enough that in 1975 that’s what the Bee Gees thought they were doing: Jive Talkin’ was not custom-built as a disco song – you simply have to have a great rhythm section.

The Bee Gees did. Maurice Gibb remains an underrated bass player, but the drummer they had in their glory days, Cardiff-born Dennis Bryon (a veteran of Amen Corner), is criminally overlooked.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear why one version of a song works by comparing it to a performance that doesn’t. When the Bee Gees played Nights on Broadway live in the late 1980s in Melbourne on their One for All tour, it was all wrong. The tempo was too quick, and the drummer pushed both kick and snare until he sounded half a bpm ahead of the band. Contrast that with Dennis Bryon’s masterly studio take and an excellent live version on the Midnight Special. It’s a busy performance – complicated kick drum pattern, 16th notes on the hats, frenetic whole-kit fills – but a tasteful one, full of little details, in the hats especially. Listening to his drum track soloed allows you to hear how he accented certain strokes and underplayed others, giving the 16ths on the hats a rising and falling feel within each bar. 16th notes of unvarying dynamic would get really boring really quickly. The groove just wouldn’t be the same.

Bryon’s abiliity to insert a shape to an 8th- or 16th-note hi-hat pattern was key to what made him so perfect for the Bee Gees during their disco years, when a great deal of their songs were built on top of the same basic 120bpm, four-to-the-floor chassis. While Nights on Broadway wasn’t a disco track rhythmically, it shows all the qualities he brought to that kind of material while also displaying his ability to play more complex patterns with the same easy musicality.

Dennis Bryon
Dennis Bryon, funky Welshman

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 2: Don’t Let Go – En Vogue

En Vogue began their career in the new jack swing era, which meant that the rhythm tracks on their records were created with the use of samplers and drum machines(such as the ubiquitous Roland TR-808). The typical new jack swing drum track combined layers of elements so heavily syncopated that the overall track would have been all but unplayable by a single human drummer. The aesthetic of new jack swing – sonically and visually – was brash and loud, and these hyped-up, super-complex 808 tracks were a key element. They were not intended to be an undetectable replacement for a live track; the mechanistic quality was the point.

New jack swing’s moment passed quickly (by the time Michael Jackson released the NJS-influenced Dangerous, it was already becoming old hat), superseded by the more classic-sounding hip-hop soul of Mary J Blige, which relied heavily on samples from classic soul records, giving a less frenetic feel to the backing tracks and making new jack swing seem gauche in its raw energy. Hi-top fades quickly went out of style, as did the primary-colour wardrobe of NJS. Watch an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to remind yourself of the eye-popping NJS aesthetic. This was a time when grown men and women wore dungarees and romper suits

When En Vogue released their last single with Dawn Robinson on lead vocals, Don’t Let Go (from Set It Off), they were worlds away from their early sound and look: in was a piano line out of a James Bond theme and what sounded for all the world like a live rhythm section; the only holdover from their early sound was a wah-wah guitar, of which the group and their producers had apparently always been fond. The street feel of NJS had gone: the group’s new image looked expensive, and their new song sounded expensive. There’s even an orchestral tympani.

That rhythm track was, indeed, live, played by bassist Preston Crump (with an earth-shakin’ tone) and drummer Lil John Roberts, who has also played for Jill Scott, Monica and Janet Jackson. From the opening snare flam of his first whole-kit fill, Roberts’s performance is a monster, entirely suited to what is effectively an R&B power ballad. The groove is one of the the simplest possible: kick on one, snare on two, kick on three (played on both the fifth and sixth eighth notes in the bar) and snare on four. Roberts gives his high-tuned snare quite a thumping, playing the whole track with rimshots, to choke the snare’s low end and create more volume and cut, but there are lovely little details in the right hand, extra sixteenths and dotted notes, creating a subtle swing feel that subliminally links the song back to the group’s early hits, even as its arrangement is vastly different.

Lil John Roberts
Lil John Roberts, and his iPod-style bass drum resonant

Long as I Can See the Light – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival remain as cool as they come. I’ve never met anyone with a bad word to say about them. They managed to make something hugely difficult look very easy: they had an instantly recognisable core sound, built on the most basic garage-band foundations, but their music reached out in all kinds of directions – to the blues, to soul, country, psychedelia, hard rock – all at the same time. They could be anything they wanted, yet were always themselves too. Down on the Corner, one of the band’s most exuberant moments, was a double A side with Fortunate Son, probably the group’s angriest. Think on that pair of songs for a moment.*

John Fogerty’s vision for his music was clear-headed and allied to a single-minded, relentless work ethic that, at least initially, the whole band shared: four albums in two years, three in 1969 alone (one of them called, not coincidentally, Cosmo’s Factory). Their singles were always hits, and in an almost unique achievement for a white rock band, they were R&B hits as well as pop hits. As Marcello Carlin put it in his write-up of Cosmo’s Factory, “Fogerty’s men spoke to the working man but the beauty about Creedence’s brief fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them or stir up something deep and important within them.”

The more I listen to Creedence, the more I hear Long as I Can See the Light as the quintessential CCR song, in that best it demonstrates the band’s soulfulness and their resourcefulness, their ability to realise their vision all by themselves. Slow and bluesy, its arrangement is dominated by Fogerty’s Fender Rhodes, moaning horns and his white-soul holler (which gets into stratospheric Robert Plant territory during the third verse: “But I won’t, won’t…“), but contains a delightful surprise in a saxophone solo halfway through, played of course by Fogerty, showing his skill on the instrument went further than the sustained notes he holds in the verses (or the endearingly out of tune honks on Travelin’ Band). Like everything else about Fogerty’s music – which constitutes, as Carlin argued, some sort of Grand Unifying Theory of American music – it’s just so entirely without bullshit or fuss.

Creedence2
Creedence: John Fogerty left

*Possibly only Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby contains a wider emotional range than this double A.

Sail On – Commodores

Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.

You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?

For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.

In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.

Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.

Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was.”

The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.

By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.

A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.

commodores

*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.

Love Has No Pride – Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 album Give it Up is the sort of front-to-back solid record that sounds better listened to in toto than it does when you pick out individual songs. The trick is how the songs draw strength from those that precede and follow them, right from the start of the record: Nothing Seems to Matter (featuring none other than Dave Holland on double bass, two years on from Bitches Brew – worlds colliding indeed) wouldn’t be so affecting if it didn’t follow the rollicking, New Orleansy Give it Up or Let Me Go. All the elements that are thrown into the mix – R&B, soul, blues, folk, country – sound thoroughly natural sitting side by side with each other, and they add up to a record that sounds substantially earthier than just about anything else being made in California at the time. Certainly anything being made in Laurel Canyon. It’s worth noting too that Raitt, more famed as a guitarist (BB King’s favourite slide guitarist, no less) and singer than writer, was solely responsible for the two above-mentioned songs, which are among Give it Up‘s best cuts.

The last of the record’s ten songs is Love Has No Pride, by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus*, the most LA-sounding cut, but also one of the most moving. In fact, the track succeeds almost in spite of itself. Its opening lyrics are a syntactic muddle so grievous that I promptly switched it off the first time I heard it. Surely no song that started “I’ve had bad dreams too many times/To think that they don’t mean much anymore” could ever be any good? Its middle section is a lopsided 20 bars long and feels like it should finish four bars earlier.

Yet Raitt makes everything out of this song that’s there to be made and turns it into something really special. Her vocal, unaffected as always, is devastating, and her arrangement choices are exemplary: she resists the temptation to pump the song up and make it big with the addition of drums or extraneous instrumentation, instead keeping it simple and intimate. Compare Linda Ronstadt’s much showier version from a year later, which adds strings, gospel backing vocals, and half a dozen instruments. No prizes for guessing which one has more emotional heft.

Raitt’s been doing this time and again over her career. By the standards of their era and locale, even her Don Was/Ed Cherney albums (overexposed and overgarlanded at the time, but so darn likeable it’s hard to begrudge her – they’ll never be a time when I’m not happy to hear Something to Talk About come on the radio, which is just as well) from the late eighties and early nineties sound warm, organic and earthy. If you want to hear what makes her so good, though, skip Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and go back to 1972’s Give it Up.

Check out this version, too, with Raitt guesting at a CSN show, and David Crosby on Graham Nash singing backing vocals. The old-timers proceed to show the youngsters how it’s done:

Bonnie
Bonnie, with Strat and slide

Southern nights – Glen Campbell

I have appreciated so many genres of music coming up, so I’m not too far away from what comes at me later on

Allen Toussaint

One of those genres apparently was the smashed and blissful psychedelia of records by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, to judge from Toussaint’s own recording of Southern Nights from 1975.

Allen Toussaint is a towering figure in popular music. Working in a Coal Mine, Mother-in-Law, Lady Marmalade and Southern Nights are all his. He produced Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Nevilles and Irma Thomas. He arranged horns for the Band. His songs have been covered or sampled by scores of artists.

Given that it became a signature song of sorts and given that Toussaint will forever be associated with the second-line sound of New Orleans R&B, Southern Nights was a very strange record indeed, and not one you’d necessarily think would catch on. Its beat is kept only by a hi-hat. Toussaint’s voice is sent through a Leslie cabinet. The arrangement is dominated by an overlapping tapestry of pianos: an untuned upright, a couple of electrics and a big old grand. The familiar riff that would power the Glen Campbell version is underplayed to the point where you could miss it entirely. This was a very personal dreamlike sound, not a production looking to be a hit record.

Glen Campbell had felt those Southern Nights, too, and Toussaint’s idiosyncratic and personal record touched him. His own recording of the song, though, went a very different way. 1976, when Campbell began work on what would become the album Southern Nights, was just about the peak of the disco era and the records being made in New York, with their huge low end and hissing hi-hats, were making country music sound very white, very small and not very swinging. Campbell’s Southern Nights, then, was one of those country records that attempted to come to a sort of rhythmic accommodation with disco. While some attempts to do this (Dr Hook’s When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman, say) came off cynical, or even desperate, the success of Southern Nights is that it sounds genuinely overjoyed, while retaining just a little of the wistfulness of Toussaint’s original. In fact, with its horns, soulful backing vocals, offbeat guitar and playful swing, it sounds much more like a Toussaint record than Toussaint’s own recording did. It’s a fitting tribute from one master to another.

Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell

Allen_Toussaint
Allen Toussaint