Tag Archives: Ringo Starr

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part One: You’re No Good – Linda Ronstadt

Back again for the fifth year running, our reconsideration of well known songs through the prism of their underrated drum tracks. This week, let’s begin with a thought experiment…

Imagine you’re a producer in 1970s LA, working on a country-pop album by a well-known singer. You need someone to cut a drum track for you. Who would you call?

The obvious answer is Russ Kunkel.

Kunkel, the drummer from the Section (who backed James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Crosby and Nash, and too many others to list – they were for all practical purposes the LA industry’s house band) is, naturally, on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. But he didn’t actually play on You’re No Good. The identity of the drummer in question is somewhat surprising.

It was meant to be Earth, Wind & Fire drummer Fred Smith, a left-field call for a country-pop artist, but an intriguing one born from Ronstadt’s love of R&B and desire to bring those influences into her own music. Unfortunately, when Smith and bassist Peter Stallworth cut basic tracks for the song, Ronstadt wasn’t singing with them, and when she did try recording a vocal to their track, she couldn’t get the right feel. The way she phrased the song just didn’t work with the way Smith had played it.

The solution was provided by Andrew Gold, who was playing guitar on the session. Gold handled the drums himself. Producer Peter Asher liked the feel that Gold, Ronstadt’s de facto bandleader and a fine pianist and guitarist, brought to the song, so his drums became the basis of a new version.

Gold called what he did “sort of a pseudo-Motown thing”. Asher thought it was a Ringo thing, and, as a man who knew Ringo, Asher should know. I hear it as a Ringo thing, too. Its lazy backbeat and heavy tom sound (cooked up by engineer Val Garay with his favoured mic, Telefunken 251s) definitely capture that Ringo feel. “I loved the fills he did,” said Garay. “I used to call them ‘the pachyderms’—he’d go ‘pachyderm-pachyderm’.” Those repeated three-stroke fills (two on the snare and then a heavy tom hit to finish), are indeed the defining element of the drum track, and bring a pleasing rough edge to what is otherwise an elaborate and polished construction.

Gold’s Ringo drums, then, are the foundation of a hybrid arrangement that has strong country and R&B elements, but also thanks to Gold a distinct Beatles vibe, too; his harmonised guitar break is as Beatley as his drum track.

You have to give producer Asher, engineer Garay and Gold himself a lot of credit for having the imagination and open-mindedness to try a left-field solution. It would have been easy to just get Kunkel in. But as great as Kunkel is, I doubt he would have been able to improve on Gold’s effort.

Unsurprisingly, pictures of Andrew Gold playing drums are hard to come by. So no photo this time, alas!

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

smoking

 

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

the-beatles-live.jpg

*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

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.

Spoon @ Shepherd’s Bush, 07/11/14

I’ve written before here about how much I love Jim Eno, the drummer from Texan indie-rock veterans Spoon. Watching them from a decent vantage point at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire last night gave me a little bit more insight into how he does what he does, and why it hits me so hard. But that was the least of it. It’s the interplay between all the members of the band that makes them so vital. Britt Daniel’s songs are elliptical and sometimes seem like fragments of bigger works, with changes that seem arbitrary the first few times you hear them, so it’s the band that supply the connective tissue that keeps it all together and functioning.

Firstly to deal with Eno, he’s got a few cool tricks. The maracas-as-drumsticks thing I’ve got to try; it gives a subtle 16th-note feel to an 8th-note pattern when he does it. Maybe it’d just be messy in the hands of the unpracticed. He played at least one song open handed, hitting the hats with his left hand (Rent I Pay). When he plays 16th notes on the hats with one hand, he’s got a great feel. The more I watched him, the more I thought of Charlie Watts. Ringo Starr’s key drum was the snare. John Bonham’s the kick. Charlie Watts’s and Jim Eno’s is the hi hat. Surprisingly, given the huge drum sound he often has on record, Eno’s playing is fairly light. He doesn’t use rimshots to choke the snare and get more volume and top end. He doesn’t hit from the shoulder; it’s an economical movement of the elbow and wrist, nothing more. His bass drum work suggests and R&B and soul influence.

Notably, he was the only band member not introduced by name by Britt Daniel, who just commented at one point to the audience, “Jim’s good tonight, isn’t he?” – Spoon members come and go, with Eno and Daniel the only ever-presents, and the other guys probably a bit younger (Eno’s 48!). Probably Daniel felt that Eno needed no introduction.

But he’s only one part of the collective, great as he is. There’s a lot of talent on the stage when Spoon play. Rob Pope, the bassist, is always in the pocket, providing solid low end without swamping things or getting in the way. Any contribution he makes beyond the obvious is always telling. OK, sure, that makes him the archetypal bass player, but every band should be so lucky as to have one.

Meanwhile, Alex Fischel and Eric Harvey both switch between guitar, keyboards and percussion, sometimes in the same song. Both play all three with a sure touch, whether playing squonky guitar solos, a pseudo harp solo on the keys or a Motown tambourine pattern. Their versatility is key to the band’s on-stage power, which was sometimes more telling on the quietest songs. The touches the band added during the second half of The Ghost of You Lingers made it one of the evening’s most thrilling moments, proving the group are just as effective playing off Britt Daniel’s surprisingly adept falsetto vocal as they are stomping through the Motown-esque You Got Yr Cherry Bomb or the late-Beatles-ish Don’t Make Me a Target.

If it sounds like I’m minimising Daniel’s contributions, I don’t mean to. Obviously they’re his songs and it’s his voice that puts them over, but Spoon are a band I love because of the ensemble playing, and last night – on the last night of the tour, at their biggest ever headlining show in Europe – they tore it up. It was great to see.

spoon
Britt Daniel, some other show