Tag Archives: Russ Kunkel

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!

 

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Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

Graham Nash David Crosby Part 2; or a great-sounding record deconstructed; or a case study in LCR mixing

I’ve seen Crosby, Stills & Nash. They’re groovy. All delicate and ding-ding-ding.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi wasn’t wrong. CSN were delicate and ding-ding-ding; particularly in an era of heavy freakout records, Crosby, Stills & Nash could scarcely have sounded more different. Jimi’s own music sometimes traded sonic clarity for head-turning effects or the raw spontaneity of a captured moment. Such a mindset was pretty alien to the CSN way of working.

How did they achieve this?

When I hear the records the Crosby, Stills & Nash diaspora made together and separately in the early to mid-seventies, the word that springs to mind is lucidity. The parts are largely simple, recorded in a relatively no-fuss manner, with little in the way of trickery, and presented in mix in the most straightforward way possible. They’re bright without being cutting and harsh. They’re warm and intimate but not sludgy and ill-defined. There’s strength and muscularity there, but never in a way that overwhelms the music.

By the time Bill Halverson recorded and co-produced 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby — by which time he’d already worked on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Déjà Vu, Stephen Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name and Songs For Beginners — he’d got the CSN thing down to an art. There are great songs all over the album, as we discussed on Sunday, but there are also great performances and sounds. And while Halverson gives Stephen Stills a lot of credit for the sounds on the CSN debut, Stills does not play on Graham Nash David Crosby; the sounds come from Halverson and from the musicians, who as we noted the other day, comprised the very best players on the West Coast/Laurel Canyon scene: Craig Doerge, Danny Kortchmarr, Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead; CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves; the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason.

Doerge, Kortchmarr, Sklar and Kunkel are known collectively as the Section. When you listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne, it’s the Section you’ll hear. They were a key component of the sounds of the records made in LA for about a decade, starting in around 1971. No wonder they also called these guys the ‘Mellow Mafia’. Peter Asher had brought Kunkel and Kortchmarr in on drums and guitar for Sweet Baby James, looking for players who wouldn’t get in the way of Taylor’s vocal or intricate acoustic guitar playing. After that record’s success, the pair were involved in the recording of King’s Tapestry. Completed by pianist Doerge and the truly remarkable bassist Lee Sklar, the Section appeared as a full unit on the Jackson Browne and Nash and Crosby records, and later with Ronstadt and Carly Simon too.

On Graham Nash David Crosby, it all came together. A great group of musicians, playing strong songs and recorded by one of the best in the business at the top of his game.

Let’s look at a couple of songs. One thing you might notice listening to pre-1980s records is that the stereo image tended to be wider. There’s an approach to mixing often called LCR. LCR stands for left, centre and right. What it means is that elements within the stereo image are panned to those points only. Nothing is panned a little bit left, or a little right, or to 10 o’clock, rather than 9. There are advantages to this method. It’s bold, it clears a lot of real estate in the centre of the stereo image for the stuff that sells the song or holds it together (usually bass drum, snare drum, bass guitar, principle rhythm instrument if there is one and lead vocal), making the mix feel spacious, and it tends to provide a stereo image that feels stable even if you move around relative to the fixed positions of your left and right speakers. It’s something of an old-school technique, a legacy of an era where some mixing desks allowed you to rout tracks only to the left or right channel or both. It started to disappear a bit in the 1980s, an era where – coincidence or not – the craft of record making began its slide into the rather dispiriting mess we have today.

When you listen to say, Girl to be On My Mind, which has some fairly big drum fills from Russ Kunkel, you can hear a drum sound that appears to be a very narrow stereo (probably an XY overhead pair with close tom mics, breaking the LCR ‘rule’, panned to the positions where they appear in the overhead image), with an LCR mix constructed around it. Piano on the left, rhythm guitar on the right, bass and lead guitar in the middle, a stereo organ, and all vocals in the middle. It’s well balanced and extremely spacious. Everything has its place. It is, as I said up top, lucid, with a great sense of depth. While allowing for some lovely details – the manually ridden vocal delay at the end of the bridge for example – it’s extremely unfussy. Bold Southern European brush strokes, if you will.

Here’s the rub: a mix this good is not achievable with a half-assed arrangement. Pan LCR with an arrangement that didn’t balance in the rehearsal room and it won’t balance on record either. A lot of young mix engineers are scared of LCR mixing as they haven’t worked with musicians that give them arrangements that create this natural internal balance. Or they’ve tried to create a wide stereo mix out of two or three elements (in a sparse mix, you’ll have a hell of a time creating a coherent whole if you insist on panning the acoustic guitar out on the left and the vocal in the middle, with a mono echo on the right – but then, there are some complete wingnuts crashing around out there).

If you’re into the details of record making, and God me help I am, Graham Nash David Crosby is a treat. It sounds so good, it’s actually a little depressing hearing a modern record after it. I don’t think I’m simply romanticising the old-school methods here; I hear few records that are played as sensitively and mixed as lucidly as this now, where the details are all so clearly audible, where the sounds themselves are so rewarding. But then, I’ve never been one for a big, soupy wall of sound. I like clarity and audible detail. Halverson, Henry Lewy, Alan Parsons, Ken Caillat, Roy Halee, Tom Flye, Ron Saint Germain…

Bill Halverson

Bill Halverson

Graham Nash David Crosby

Long-time readers may recall that I’m a big David Crosby fan. Yeah, he’s an easy punchbag, but he’s also been a fearless musician, staking out a musical territory that is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them his. He imitates no one, and you have to respect that. He may have the smallest body of work of any musician of his stature, he may have wasted the latter part of the seventies and all of the eighties in a cocaine haze, but I’ll take 25 David Crosby songs over 200 of almost anyone else’s, thanks very much.

This week a cover spread on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s infamous 1974 world tour prompted me to pick up Mojo for the first time in getting on for a decade. This is a period I’ve got reading material on already (Shakey, Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California), but it came with a CD of stuff from the upcoming live album (compiled painstakingly by Graham Nash over several years), so I dug into it over the course of a journey home, the train journey courtesy of Southeastern lasting nearly twice as long as it should.

Among the article’s sidebars was a round-up of CSNY-related records from 1970-1974, in which After the Gold Rush, Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name, Harvest and Graham Nash David Crosby and On the Beach all received rapturous, 5-star reviews. If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably know all of these already, but if any of them is unfamiliar to you, it’ll probably be Graham Nash David Crosby, a 1972 collaboration between Stephen Stills and Neil Young.

Just kidding. It’s by Graham Nash and David Crosby.

“Now oddly overlooked, this is the most blissfully lovely of all the CSNY side projects,” reckons Mojo. Yes, I’d agree with that. I bought it looking for another couple of those precious David Crosby songs. If you like the Cros, you’ll end up buying a lot of records with a lot of crap on them to get at the one or two moments where he was on peak form. But to my huge surprise, I ended up loving almost all of Graham Nash David Crosby.

It helps that there’s no Stills; it’s not that his songs are always terrible, though he is by a distance my least-favourite writer and singer in CSNY, but without Stills in there, the mood is more low key. C&N aren’t trying to take over the world; they’re just trying to express themselves and impress each other. What really hit me about the album, though, was the quality of Nash’s work. I’d never previously liked his songs all that much. Marrakesh Express is not for me. Our House even less so. Teach Your Children is a lovely tune, but sickly sweet, and swallowable only rarely. Yet, his voice, presented alone, retains a surprising Mancunian bluntness, and it’s this quality that pervades much of his solo album Songs for Beginners and on Graham Nash David Crosby. Southbound Train, Stranger’s Room, Frozen Smiles (with its accusatory pay-off, “You’re supposed to be my friend”) and the beautiful Girl to be on My Mind are all great songs with far less hippie-dippyness than his contributions to Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu – being confused and a bit pissed off suits Nash well. Only Blacknotes betrays any of the childlike whimsy that sinks some of his work elsewhere.

nash
(photo by Henry Diltz)

Crosby, meanwhile, is on magisterial form. All his contributions reward repeated listenings and detailed study: Whole Cloth, the harmonically confounding Page 43, Games, The Wall Song and the delicate, gorgeous Where Will I Be?, which with its distinctive polyphonic organum-style harmonies is very much in the mould of Orléans and I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here, from If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby would have made a good 12th-century French monk.

cros

A huge part of what’s so appealing about the album is the lucid, spacious engineering of Bill Halverson and Doc Storch, and the ensemble playing of the backing musicians, a who’s-who of the early-1970s West Coast scene: all of The Section (Craig Doerge on piano/keyboards, Danny Kortchmarr on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums), as well as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh, CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason. The drumming throughout is stellar, with sounds that do the performances ample justice. Kunkel, in particular, is on especially impressive form on Nash’s Girl to Be on My Mind and the tricksier Crosby compositions Games and Page 43.

If you’re agnostic about Graham Nash or David Crosby, this album may just convert you. If you like either of them and haven’t yet heard this, remedy that now, please.

nash and crosby
(photo by Joel Bernstein)

Wide open spaces, tiny little rooms; or, recorded drum sounds in the late 1970s

In the seventies somebody decided that all ambient sound was bad. Studios created this completely unnatural environment with not a hint of any reverberant sound coming off of anything. And if you listen to a lot of records from the seventies, the deadness on them, I find, it makes my skin crawl.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 1976 a long-running, well-respected band with roots going back to the English blues-rock boom of the late 1960s were in a California studio, making the follow-up to their first popularly successful record in the US. While astutely and occasionally adventurously arranged (principally by the group’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is not a sonically radical record and it adheres to the engineering and production orthodoxies of its time in most respects. The drums may be mixed a bit louder than the Eagles had theirs, but they were recorded close and dry, and presented that way in the mix. The snare has a pillowy, plumpy sound: it goes ‘duh’ rather than ‘tssch’. The drums on Dreams go ‘buh duh, buh-buh duh’, not ‘boom tssch, boom-boom tssch’. This dampened drum sound, coupled with the sense of closeness to the band that results from the relative lack of echo and reverb, is the defining sonic quality of seventies records.

In the autumn of 1977, Bruce Springsteen, working at the Record Plant in New York, had had enough of it. Perhaps his band only rehearsed in vast, reverberant spaces, but he felt that the sound of the times was unnatural and that the music should be as big on record as it was at a big show, which, since the success of Born to Run, was the increasingly the sort of show he now played, as he moved out of clubs and into theatres. In particular he wanted a big, reverberant drum sound that was all about body, not attack. This type of drum sound felt “bigger” to him than the standard, damped-and-dry 1970s sound, and he was willing to suffer for it.

In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, bassist Garry Tallent and engineer Thom Panunzio recall ruefully the torturous process Bruce put them through trying to get a drum sound that discarded the sonic qualities that had thitherto been synonymous with high-budget records in the seventies. While Springsteen sat on a couch in the control room, with engineer Panunzio and producer Jimmy Iovine working the desk and attending to microphones, drummer Max Weinberg was required to hit his snare drum. If Bruce could hear the attack of the stick hitting the skin – which naturally enough he always could – he’d drawl “Stick”, and the engineer and producer would be required to do something to lessen the apparency of the stick hitting a skin. But, of course, that’s exactly what was happening. He nearly drove his bandmates and the studio staff crazy with his obsession. Usually it’s engineers and producers driving musicians crazy with their quest for perfect drum sounds.

The result of all this work is a drum sound that is the opposite of close. But Weinberg’s snare drum on Darkness goes “tssch” even less than Mick Fleetwood’s on Rumours. It’s more like a cannonball hitting a crash mat in a cathedral. It’s an absurd sound, and Darkness is one of the records that began a decade and a half of absurd drum sounds (other key influences being Bowie’s Low and of course, a couple of years down the line, Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight from Face Value).

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac’s breakout star Stevie Nicks fell into this enormous new soundworld when Jimmy Iovine (and Tom Petty) produced Nicks’s solo debut album Bella Donna at LA’s Studio 55, recreating the gargantuan Max Weinberg/Darkness on the Edge of Town drum sound on the West Coast. The subtext was clear: This is my own thing. This is not a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s tons of space around the instruments, Russ Kunkel sounds like he’s playing the world’s biggest drums with a pair of clubs – it’s all very impressive. But I do wonder what kind of acoustic spaces Springsteen was used to if this was his idea of a “natural” sound picture when he began work on Darkness. It’s as much an exaggerated presentation of music played within an acoustic space as the damped, small-room sound of seventies clichés. Record-making, after all, is not about documentary depictions, if it ever was; it stopped being that a long time ago, the first time someone panned a drum kit in stereo.

Fleetwood Mac themselves never really went the way of the ambient drum sound, even at the height of the silliness in the late eighties. As much as it was possible for a superstar band to go a different way from the crowd to pursue their own sound, they did, and so Fleetwood’s drums on Tango in the Night are relatively small, relatively close, by the standards of that decade at least. Certainly they are not the musical heavy artillery of, say, Bad or Hysteria from the same era. Listening to Stevie Nicks on Bella Donna, then, represents the sonic road not taken for Fleetwood Mac. It’s a curious experience, not always pleasant for someone like me who loves dry drum sounds and thinks Rumours the best-sounding record ever made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Gypsy, from the 1982 Mac album Mirage, on which the band went back to their little room, where they should be.

nickspetty

Who’s draggin’ whose heart around? Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, 1977.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 3

6) Beware of Darkness – George Harrison

There are still people in this world – people without functioning ears, I assume – who labour under the misapprehension that Ringo Starr wasn’t a good drummer. Lennon’s joke in an interview that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles hasn’t helped his reputation amongst non-musicians (and people who don’t understand irony), but even though Lennon’s humour could be cruel, this wasn’t what he intended when he made the crack, I’m sure – after all, who is the drummer on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band?

The former Beatles were prize catches for any session player in the early 1970s and as much as Lennon obviously respected and trusted Ringo’s musicianship, it was only natural that after 10 years with the same guys, the ex-Beatles would look to cast their nets a little wider when making their own albums, play with other people, see what others could contribute to their songs. Such was their colossal reputations, to get a nod from a Beatle and get to play on a song would establish the musician’s own rep among his peers. Alan White was not a ‘name’ when he played on Instant Karma but, impressed by him, soon Lennon introduced him to George Harrison and so White was added to the pool of drummers who appear on All Things Must Pass, along with Jim Gordon, former Delaney & Bonnie sideman, and a member of the nascent Derek & the Dominoes at the time of the All Things Must Pass sessions.

Added to this short and august list is Ringo Starr. Playing Guess the Drummer is one of the greatest pleasures of Harrison’s solo debut. You often need acute ears to tell the three apart, which speaks to the adaptability of the trio, their ability to inhabit the music, to put themselves at the music’s service.

At a brisker tempo (say, on Wah-Wah), Ringo’s playing starts to feel more identifiably Ringo-esque, but on Beware of Darkness, you could be listening to Jim Keltner, to Russ Kunkel, or to anyone else who built their career in the seventies on being able to play slow four-four grooves that swing rather than plod. There is so much more to Ringo Starr than splashy open hi-hats and backwards fills. Listen to Beware of Darkness. Listen to Ringo’s groove, the spaces he leaves for the music to breathe, listen to fills he plays, the emotional responses he’s having to the song when he plays them. You’re listening to the most important drummer in popular music.

Ringo

7) Careless Whisper – George Michael

Those who know me best know I’m not averse to a little bit of cheese in a good ballad. For many people, Careless Whisper goes too far. Maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe the saxophone riff, maybe George’s Princess Diana hair in the video, but it’s too much for them.

For me, though, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s one of the best records of its type. A key reason why is the drum track, played by Trevor Morrell, who was one of George Michael’s go-to guys in the Wham! days. Morrell is a very steady timekeeper with a good feel and who (according to the Posies Ken Stringfellow, who a few years ago chanced upon him while producing a record in Spain and ended up bringing him into the session) gives the drums a surprisingly hard battering.

There’s a lot to learn about the success of Careless Whisper as a recording by listening to the Jerry Wexler-produced version, which was shelved by an unhappy Michael but eventually released as a B-side. Jerry Wexler producing a soulful ballad by a great singer in Muscle Shoals – this had been a recipe for success for 30 years before Careless Whisper, yet when you listen to the two versions, it’s clear why Michael nixed the first one and chose to start again, producing it himself.

The rhythm track is a key difference. It just doesn’t feel very good. In the key early bars, the bassist is ahead of the kick drum, and while they feel their way into it by the first chorus, I’m surprised the take was judged to pass muster without editing in a new first verse. But even if they had been super-tight, the drum track would still have been inferior to the Michael-produced version. Wexler’s version has the kick drum and bassist playing this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                     x      x

bass     x                      x     x

Whereas the Careless Whisper we know and love is this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                         x  x

bass     x                      x     x

Small difference in terms of what is played, huge difference in terms of how it feels.

Another simple decision, to have 16th notes on the hi-hat rather than 8th, thus giving the song a greater sense of internal propulsion, was the other factor that made the drum track, and hence made the record. I’m not sure whether they were doubled on a drum machine for the second version, as a hi-hat pulse is present under the opening fill (which would require more hands I imagine Morrell has), but the difference the double-time hats make is plain. Morrell pushes Careless Whisper along while never forcing things, never stepping on Michael’s turf (or the saxophonist’s). Some of his fills, too, are inspired – I really like the big floor tom-and-snare build-up Morrell plays at around 4.35 as he goes out of the tricksy groove with displaced snare strokes back to the main groove. My guess is that he was having a bit of fun, assuming the track (or at least the radio mix) would have faded out already but his off-the-cuff fills felt so good that Michael decided to keep the whole thing for the unedited version. Good decision, George.