Tag Archives: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

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Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

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Sebadoh

Yesterday I picked up tickets for Sebadoh’s London show later this year. I’ve never seen them before and Lou Barlow was and remains a pretty major influence on me as a musician, so I’m fairly psyched about this. I caught the New Folk Implosion line-up at Reading in 2001 and they were really good, but that’s the only Barlow-related gig I’ve ever seen. The ‘Doh pulled out of Glastonbury 1999 (as did Elliott Smith, curse my luck), which was the only previous time I was going to see them. I avoided the resissue-promo/nostalgia tours. So this is it. Jason Loewenstein, new drummer Bob D’Amico and Lou Barlow, at Dingwalls. Yeah, looking forward to it.

So I’ve been listening to Sebadoh since Thursday, more than I have in a long, long time.

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on their catalogue and all I really need with each new record is one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all: a couple of songs to add an iTunes playlist. Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a better version of Morning’s After Me (the original was from the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel multi-artist concept/compilation album) and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Yeah, he’s still got it.

Once you’re in this mindset, it changes the way you hear the back catalogue. You get less concerned with creating lists and taxonomies and Top 5s, and more with the overall shape of an artist’s career. You become aware, perhaps, that there are different accomplishments in music. I reckon Barlow’s one of the best songwriters of the last 25 years or so. He’s probably never written a genuinely great song (a Heard It Through the Grapevine, a Strawberry Fields Forever, a Someone to Watch Over Me – something of that calibre), but he’s written dozens of really good ones. I’m not sure whether that’s a greater achievement than managing to focus all your talent into one flawless song. The pop fan in me says it isn’t; the rock fan says it is. No surprise there.

If he ever made a great album, I think it’s the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, a sorely underrated record I’ve talked about here before. The nature of Sebadoh as a band, with its shifting line-ups and sometimes strained attempts to run itself as a democracy, always made it unlikely that they ever would make a sustained, consistent and great work of art. Lou was too likely to mawkishly overshare or indulge in another anti-Mascis rant; Eric Gaffney was too likely to come unglued (working out what distinguishes a good Gaffney song from a bad one is an entertaining, hilariously difficult enterprise) and unleash an Elixir is Zog rather than an Emma Get Wild.

For me, and I think many long-time fans, this is the point of the band. Barlow’s songs don’t work without Gaffney’s, or Loewenstein’s. Repeat sentence, change the order the names appear in. Listening to the band is like listening to the White Album writ large; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the best stuff is made better by rubbing shoulders with the questionable.

But still, somefans are strangely apt to respond positively to one small era of the band’s history and disregard the rest. III is the oft-cited early 1990s lo-fi sprawlathon that launched a thousand home-taping imitations; Bubble & Scrape the last hurrah of the Gaffney era; Bakesale where the band turned up the drive on the guitars and Jason matured into a songwriter capable of providing an energetic, humorously aggressive foil to Barlow. But these fans, whether they champion III, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale or, in those rare cases, Harmacy, will all agree that The Sebadoh was a stinker (I actually like it a lot), and they’ll usually have little time for what came after/before their favoured era, sometimes repudiating it entirely. The band have achieved elder-statesmen status now so the consensus opinion is mellowing a little, but 10 years ago there were a lot of former ‘Doh fans who didn’t want Barlow around reminding them of the confused awkward teenager they used to be when they listened to this stuff.

For me, that’s not what this band was about. If you like Sebadoh, how can you not appreciate Jason Loewenstein, who’s been a far more effective long-term foil to Barlow than Gaffney ever was? A punk-rock kind of guy with a useful sideline in smoky ballads, latter-day band recording engineer and all-round decent dude, Loewenstein got stronger and stronger as the band went on. There’s no one record containing top-level work from the three principal songwriters who have been members, either because they weren’t in the band at the time, or because they had only just joined, or because they were just a kid drafted in at a moment’s notice. Many things made Sebadoh great, not all of them present at the same time, and so there’s no defining Sebadoh record, and neither is there a best one.

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Early Sebadoh: l-r Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein