Tag Archives: Session players

Never Any Clapton, Part 5 – The Electrician by the Walker Brothers

Big Jim Sullivan was a giant among British session musicians. A guitarist of impressively wide stylistic talents, Sullivan was a professional in his teens, when he’d only been playing for a couple of years. After playing with early Brit rockers like Vince Eager and Vince Taylor, he met Marty Wilde and joined his band, the Wildcats. During this time, Wilde gave him what’s thought to be the first Gibson Les Paul to be owned by a British player.

Sullivan soon found his way into session work, where his ability to play just about any style of music made him a godsend for producers, and a man constantly in demand. He played with Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Frankie Vaughan, Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Frank Ifield and Cilla Black – so many pop and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the era, it’s easier to say who he didn’t play with. Visiting American artists sought him out, too: the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bobby Darin and Del Shannon.

In 1977, Sullivan got the nod to join a Walker Brothers session. The “brothers” (the entirely unrelated Scott Engel, Gary Leeds and John Maus) had already made two albums since reforming in 1975, and with their contract with GTO records running down and Scott in particular unhappy that the band’s first two reunion records had not been artistically fulfilling, Engel, Maus and Leeds felt it was time to take some risks. This meant writing their own material rather than relying on covers as they had mostly done in both phases of their career.

Scott truly rose to the challenge. His four songs represented the best efforts he’d made as a writer since the days of Scott 4 (Duchess, Boy Child, The Old Man’s Back Again, et al). The album’s finest moment was The Electrician.

It starts with a tolling-bell-style bass, nicked from Bowie’s Warszawa, overlaid with the dissonant string chords Walker had been using since It’s Raining Today on this first solo album. During the song’s middle section, the band comes in and Walker unveils the voice that he’d increasingly rely on for the rest of his career – straining half an octave above a comfortable range, its unsettling, hard edge replacing the romanticism of his baritone range.

The song is crowned by its exquisite string arrangement and Big Jim Sullivan’s short but masterful solo on classical guitar. A song about the CIA’s involvement in shady goings-on in South America in general and its use of torture in particular (the middle section is from the psychopathic point of view of the torturer himself), The Electrician is full of Latin signifiers – castanets, lushly romantic strings and, of course, classical guitar. Sullivan’s solo, then, beautiful as it is, is also the darkest of musical jokes – it’s the soundtrack to a torturer’s most sadistic fantasies.

Rare indeed is the solo that advances, and ironically comments upon, the narrative of the song itself. For this, and many other reasons, The Electrician is a central work of the Scott Walker canon, and its solo deserves to be remembered as much as Sullivan’s celebrated, poignant lead work on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally) – also played on classical guitar.

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Never Any Clapton, Part 2 – Hello by Lionel Richie

I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.

By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louie Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.

The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco).

Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic

He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, I seldom add string bends to my lead playing, as my technique isn’t what it might be even when I switch to a 10-gauge-eqipped electric, so I love hearing a solo that avoids the technique entirely yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.

Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.

In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.

Louie SHelton

*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 9 – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – The Hollies

I hope you’ve been enjoying our series deconstructing some of the less heralded great drum performances. Our 2014 series is nearly at an end. I’ll do one more this weekend, then it’ll be back to business as usual

As we noted in the last installment, a truth known to record-makers through a process of deep listening and bitter experience yet understood by the majority of pop fans by instinct is that popular music is about rhythm first and foremost. Successful pop records are, in the main, built on great rhythm tracks. Even songs you might not think of as particularly rhythmically driven are often enhanced by and even built upon really good-feeling rhythm tracks, whether they were played or programmed.

For an example of this, we might take a perennial favourite like He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in its most famous version, by the Hollies. Sure, the track is defined by the group’s vocal harmonies (even after Graham Nash left, the group remained a formidable harmony-singing collective) and by Alan Clarke’s passionate lead vocal, in which his commitment to the material is audible and moving. Music trivia fans might point to the piano — played by a pre-fame Elton John — as the crucial element in the arrangement. But this is my blog and I’ll say it’s the drum track, played by the group’s drummer Bobby Elliott.

The song is a taken at a slightly brisker tempo than you might remember if you haven’t heard it for a while. For a song with a weighty lyric, it’s light on its feet, by turns authoritative (those build-ups on snare and floor tom going into the second and final choruses) and graceful (the middle eight, where the canny Elliott plays dancing triplet rolls while Clarke proclaims that he’s not laden, or if he is it’s only with the fact that people don’t feel the same love he does). It’s a drum performance that’s as full of emotion as the vocal and a huge part of why it’s such a great record. If you can hear that 4-stroke snare fill and the five mighty cymbal crashes that accompany the line “and the load doesn’t weigh me down at all” without getting a little misty-eyed, you’ve got a harder heart than me. This song gets me, has always got me.

Produced by Ron Richards and recorded at Abbey Road in 1969, He Ain’t Heavy has an of-its-time mix, with of-its-time wide stereo panning. The drums are out hard right, the piano’s hard left and the bass is soft left. Listen to the song with the right channel only and you’ll be able to hear just the vocal, strings, harmonies, drums and a little bit of bass. It’s a really instructive way to hear the track’s most compelling elements, as well as Elliott’s little stumble at around 1.40 – a neat reminder that a drum track doesn’t have to be perfect to be a perfect drum track.

Bobby elliott hollies
The Hollies, c.1968 (Bobby Elliott w/hat)

Some of my recent work:

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 3 – Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs

Session players will play on a lot of crap. It’s part of the job. You’re hired, you go in and play the songs to the best of your ability, you accumulate credits and you get more work. The quality of the material you play on is almost irrelevant. Unless you’re at the very top of the A list, you can’t afford to turn anyone down, and folks who are at the very top of the A list, well, they didn’t get there by turning down opportunities. If there’s a player on the session you’ve never hung with, or a producer who you’d like to connect with in future, who cares if this particular song is a no-hoper? This is a career, after all. You have to play the long game. If you want to understand the session player mentality, consider Matt Chamberlain, once the drummer in Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians, who was asked to do a tour with Pearl Jam in 1992, just when they were blowing up. The tour went well enough that he was offered the slot permanently (yeah, Pearl Jam weren’t Mudhoney; being a former New Bohemian didn’t disqualify you). Yet Chamberlain turned it down to play in the Saturday Night Live band. He was 25 years old. Call me an unreconstructed punk rocker if you will, but being in the SNL band should be no 25-year-old’s dream gig.

In any generation, only the most technically gifted players get to make that choice. Only the very few can make a living as a recording drummer, particularly since the advent of drum machines and drum programming software. Rock fans tend to lionise favourite players in favourite bands, but usually these guys would be the first to admit that they’re stylists, not technicians. If you want to know who the best drummers of this generation are, ask some record producers. Look at the credits for recent big-budget singer-songwriter albums: you’ll see people like Chamberlain, Joey Waronker and Jay Bellerose.

Once upon a time, you’d have seen Jeff Porcaro.

Porcaro’s credit list is a fascinating read. Reading down the list, you see him muscle his way to the very centre of the LA-based rock-soul interface in the mid-1970s when barely in his twenties by playing the hell out of some fiendish Steely Dan charts and grooving like a mother through Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees. His performance on Lido Shuffle is a favourite of mine. It’s an all-time-great drum track. It’s as tight as can be, yet it feels ridiculously good. There’s a half-hour instructional video of Porcaro’s on YouTube (and watching it gives you an insight into why he was so continuously employed; he put a lot of care into his bass drum patterns and his approach to both to choice of hi-hat pattern and employment of dynamics within that pattern is eye opening). He picks apart his Lido Shuffle groove for the benefit of dullards like me. On the hat he plays the first and last note of the triplet on each beat of the bar, while the second note of the triplet is played as a ghost on the snare. He plays the backbeats (two and four) on the snare. On the kick, he plays first and last note of the triplet on the first beat and the last note of triplet on the second beat, repeating that pattern for the third and fourth beats. It’s intricate, for sure, but it makes a lot of sense when he plays it. And his ability to jump in and out of it – to play his fills at the end of each verse, just before the line ‘One for the road’ – is really impressive. This guy, clearly, was a hell of a player. Yeah, he was a member of Toto. So what? He played on Bad Sneakers and Lido Shuffle.

Yet getting an overview of his career by reading his credit list is overall a dispiriting exercise. As you get further down the list into the late 1980s, the artists who employed him get ever more washed-up and irrelevant, further and further from anything you could defend artistically. I’m sure he got paid a shedload for playing on Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness and Richard Marx’s Rush Street in the early 1990s, and sure, he was at an age where Pearl Jam wouldn’t have been calling him up to occupy the drum stool anyway, but there were genuine artists working in the major label system too, and to actively choose Bolton and Marx seems such a waste, given how abruptly his life would end in 1992, when he had an allergic reaction to pesticides he’d used in his garden.

porcaro
Mr Porcaro

If you’d like to hear some of my recent work, here you go!