Tag Archives: Silk Degrees

When did the eighties become the eighties? or, transition periods in mix fashion

I had an interesting conversation with Yo Zushi the other night about fashion in music production and mix.

Both of us have a soft spot for Boz Scaggs and his super-cool ultra-smooth blue-eyed soul, and I remarked on Middle Man being one of the best-sounding records I could think of. For all its song-for-song quality, Scaggs’s masterpiece, Silk Degrees, doesn’t have the drum sound that graces Middle Man cuts like JoJo. It’s precise, it’s powerful, and it seems to me to retain far more of the sound you hear when you’re seated on the drum stool

Middle Man, released in 1980, was recorded at the back end of 1979, using old-school analogue technology. By then, recording and mix engineers had had a few years to become familiar with the technology of 24-track analogue, learn how to compensate for the reduced track width caused by cramming that many tracks into two inches of tapes, discover ways to warm up the relatively sterile transistor-based desks that were now the rule rather than the exception, and begin to derive the benefits of new automation technology, which allowed for more precise mixing, particularly of vocals (automation allows you to program your fader moves in advance, rather than having to do them on the fly).

So Middle Man, produced by Bill Schnee (who’d engineered Steely Dan’s Aja three years before) came out during a sort of period of grace. It was also a period where fashions were changing. The tight, dry West Coast sound of Middle Man was falling out of favour, especially in New York and in the UK: Jimmy Iovine (an East Coast guy through and through, even when he was working in LA) had already made Darkness on the Edge on Town (at the Record Plant New York) and Damn the Torpedoes (at Sound City in Van Nuys), and soon he’d apply that same absurd cannonball-hits-crash-mat drum sound to Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna. In the UK, meanwhile, Hugh Padgham had stumbled across the gated reverb effect while recording Peter Gabriel’s third solo album. In 1981 Phil Collins would unleash his gated mega drums on In the Air Tonight and it would be all over for the Californian aesthetic.

Except, no. I wouldn’t.

Things aren’t that neat. There were still plenty of records made in the first few years of the 1980s with the dead sound associated with the 1970s (think of something like Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit album If That’s What it Takes, which sonically speaking could have been made the same year as Aja), and a lot of the things we think of as being key to the eighties sound were invented so late in the 1970s or so early in the 1980s that their true impact wasn’t felt until the decade was well underway: the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator, the Synclavier, digital reverb units like the Lexicon 224 and so on.

The same was true at the start of the 1990s. Sure, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, with its startlingly bone-dry sound, may have pointed to the way things were going and acted as a necessary corrective to the never-ending decays on vocals and snare drums that were so prevalent at the arse end of the eighties. Sure, Bob Clearmountain’s mixes were coming back down to earth (by 1993 he’d be doing his best ever work on Crowded House’s Together Alone) after his big bam booming period mixing Hall & Oates, Huey Lewis and Bryan Adams. And sure Andy Wallace’s Nevermind mix was, despite its use of reverb samples, far drier than it could have been in someone else’s hands. But as late as 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters could have a platinum record with an album that deployed extremely prominent gated reverb on the drums* That’s to say nothing of Brendan O’Brien seemingly tracking Pearl Jam’s Ten in a cave**.

At some point a trend gets overdone and a small vanguard starts going the other way to distinguish themselves from the herd. The question is, in our own era, who’s going to do it and what’s going to change?

big head todd
Promo shot, circa Sister Sweetly: Todd Park Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires

*If you’re not American – hell, if you weren’t living in the Mountain States in the early 1990s – you may not be aware of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Let me assure you, then, that this was not a case of a behind-the-times band from the boondocks getting lucky: Sister Sweetly was produced and mixed by Prince sideman David Z at the Purple One’s own Paisley Park studio. The record, for whatever reason, just completely ignored the production trends of the preceding two years or so, and must have sounded almost laughably old-fashioned the moment it was released. Nonetheless it’s a decent record and it sold a million in the US.

**The Pearl Jam guys disliked the mix enough that the 2009 re-release included a remix of the whole album. It’s noticeably drier.

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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!

We’re All Alone – The Walker Brothers

This post was previously published on Yo Zushi’s Board of Fun blog, about 18 months ago. Hope you like it!

We’re All Alone was a standard almost the minute that Boz Scaggs finished writing it. Released on his masterwork, Silk Degrees, in 1976, within a year it had been covered by Frankie Valli, Bruce Murray, Rita Coolidge, the Three Degrees and the Walker Brothers. It’s been covered plenty more times since.

It’s easy to see what would attract a singer to such a song, but Scott Walker is no ordinary singer and in light of his work since The Electrician remade his career in 1978, one does have to wonder whether he sang the song with his arm twisted behind his back. Nonetheless the Walkers’ version is one of the most appealing, the track mixed drier and closer than the cavernous Scaggs version, Scott’s vocal managing to combine the warmth that Coolidge’s alto brought to the song with some of the soaring lightness of Boz’s performance.

Such AOR covers are not what Scott Walker is known for today. To the extent that he is known at all, it’s for his quartet of solo albums from the late 1960s — Scotts 1 through 4 — and the three arty, avant-rock albums he’s made since the Walkers broke up for the second time, a sound that was previewed on his contributions (including The Electrician) to the last Walker Brothers record, Nite Flights. These records are apt to leave reviewers groping for superlatives or scratching their heads.

Like many others, I often feel humbled in the presence of latter-day Scott Walker. His work is clearly that of a rare imagination and aesthetic sensibility. He creates music that wouldn’t occur to most people, and his sonic curiosity is obvious. Yet while prettiness and beauty are not the same thing, they’re not mutually exclusive either and since his music began moving away from conventional tonality, melody and rhythm in the 1990s, Walker has paradoxically limited his scope as a songwriter. For him to present a straightforward expression of an everyday feeling, like love, hope or empathy, in the declamatory, highly theatrical voice he has sung in since Tilt would be ridiculous; he knows it, so he doesn’t.

But people (myself included) like music that expresses of love, hope and empathy. Walker’s writing is now so ornate, so stagey (“Samuel Beckett at La Scala”, as one critic described it), that it can no longer be a vehicle for reflection on the small moments in life, the minor disappointments and simple consolations. Death, disease, pestilence, terrorism, the fathomless horror of existence — these are the subjects he’s left himself. And while that is radical subject matter within popular music (at least, outside of thrash and death metal), surely what would be truly radical would be a sensibility that allowed for both The Cockfighter and covers of We’re All Alone? That treated both the same? I’m not being conservative here; I’m not arguing that he should stop recording the sound of himself punching dead animal carcasses; I like that, too. Tilt and The Drift are excellent records. But his first producer, John Franz, was right when he judged Walker one of the great ballad singers and it’s a shame that we no longer get to hear him do something he was so good at.

Yet Walker is on his own little-travelled path — from teen idol to intrepid adventurer in form and sound — and it’s reassuring to know that such journeys can be made by anyone, wherever they start from. I’m looking forward to hearing the found-sound records that Justin Bieber will no doubt be making in 2050.

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Scott Walker