Tag Archives: Stevie Wonder

Fairlight CMI

By its sounds shall ye know it. By its oohs and aahs, its orchestra hits and its handclaps.

On the records of Kate Bush shall ye hear it. Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder, and, yes, Yes.

It is, of course, the Fairlight CMI, one of the mighty achievements of late-1970s, early-1980s synth technology, the other major triumphs being the Synclavier and the Emulator. These three machines were transformative pieces of technology, the most transformative in popular music since the invention of multitrack recording.

The Synclavier was a synthesiser, the Emulator a sampler. The Fairlight was something of both, as well as an early software sequencer, via its Page R function – the first example of a computer music GUI.

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Page R

It did all of those things at what today seems an incredibly basic level, but it helped to open up a new world for musicians, especially for musicians who didn’t come from a background in old-school analogue synths.

I’m an acoustic guitar player, and know comparatively little about synths and programming. When recording, I treat the DAW as essentially an intelligent tape machine, using very few VST instruments and getting most of my sounds in front of the microphone with analogue instruments. The world of synthesis and sampling is one where I know enough to be intrigued, and not nearly enough to claim anything like an understanding. I know just enough to be completely in awe of the people who had to do this for real, whether with a room-sized modular synth in the 1970s, or with a Fairlight or Synclavier in the brave new world of the digital 1980s.

In 2016, records made at the very start of the 1980s can sound very strange indeed: dated, yes, but tremendously exciting in the fearless way they look to the future and incorporate all kinds of new ideas – textural and rhythmic – into their basic frameworks. The most fascinating moments come when the new technology meshes seamlessly with the old.

Consider Kate Bush’s Never for Ever.

Listening to the record, you hear a mix of traditional analogue instruments and cutting-edge sampling and synthesiser technology, filtered through Bush’s one-of-a-kind melodic and lyrical sensibility.

The Fairlight had been demonstrated to her halfway through recording sessions for the album, so while she immediately grasped the machine’s potential, she initially used it to augment songs that had already written and were partially recorded – the famous breaking-glass noise in Babooshka, for example. As such, Never for Ever is a fascinating tipping-point record: you only need to listen to the first few tracks of her next album The Dreaming to hear the profound effects that composing with Page R sequencing – in effect, using the Fairlight as a compositional tool – had on her music. The traditional drum kit (and most notably its cymbals) are entirely missing, with all kinds of sampled percussion and found sounds assembled into rhythm tracks, instead.

But as innovative as The Dreaming is (or Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo record – sometimes called Security but officially titled Peter Gabriel– to take another example), there’s something about that moment where the emerging technologies were employed at the same time as the old that really speaks to me – the stuff I’m familiar with in dialogue with the stuff I don’t understand and find eerie and uncanny. It’s the tension between the two that’s so thrilling.

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Kate Bush with Fairlight, early 1980

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Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

State of Independence – Donna Summer

Donna Summer was among the original crop of artists to sign to David Geffen’s new Geffen label, along with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Geffen was perturbed that, Double Fantasy apart, the first records by his chosen signees all flopped. This was an intolerable state of affairs; the artists had all received large advances that would now not be recouped in one album cycle, but more importantly, they had harmed the reputation of his new label in its very earliest stages. Asylum had been a boutique operation, an artists’ label (“I don’t think that every record we make is a hit or that every artist we record is going to be a star but I think that all the music we put out is very valid”, said Geffen in a TV interview); Geffen Records was about making money, and being seen by the industry to be making money.

When Summer was working on the follow-up to The Wanderer, that flop first Geffen record, David stepped in, cancelling the project and insisting that she work not with her usual collaborators, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, but with Quincy Jones instead. It may be no exaggeration to say that Summer, Bellotte and Moroder had changed the course of recorded music when they made I Feel Love, but for Geffen this was not enough. Jones’s involvement, Geffen felt, would guarantee a hit (after all, Quincy had made Off the Wall and Give Me the Night) and Summer needed a hit. Geffen needed a hit.

Recorded between late 1981 and early 1982, Donna Summer was the last record Jones worked on before commencing Thriller and tells us quite a bit about where his head was at, particularly in regard to rhythm tracks. For Thriller, Jones made use of the new drum machines that had come on to the market (his engineer Bruce Swedien namechecks the Univox SR55, but it’s safe to assume the ubiquitous Linn LM1 was in there too) as well as his first-call session drummers (John JR Robertson, Jeff Porcaro).

State of Independence got there first. The herky-jerky swing of Summer’s Jon & Vangelis interpretation foregrounds its mechanical qualities and doesn’t pretend to have been played by people. Jones:

We started with a Linn Drum Machine, and created the patterns for different sections. Then we created the blueprint, with all the fills and percussion throughout the whole song.

From the Linn, we went through a Roland MicroComposer, and then through a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers that we lock to. The patterns were pads in sequencer-type elements. Then we program the Minimoog to play the bass line.

The programs were all linked together and driven by the Roland MicroComposer using sync codes. The program information is stored in the Linn’s memory, and on the MicroComposer’s cassette.

Interview with Recording Engineer/Producer magazine

The question becomes, how do you add humanity, soul, to this kind of production? Fortunately Summer was adept at this kind of thing. She had done it ever since I Feel Love. Jones was moving into her territory on this tune, not the other way round.

I’d love to know if Summer handpicked State of Independence for her record. Jon & Vangelis’s original is, politely, all over the place. Anderson’s vocal is staccato, playing up the abstract, disjointed nature of his lyric and downplaying the gospel. Only in the “Sounds like a signal from my heart” does he seem to relax in his phrasing. Summer takes this as her starting point. The track’s early-days sequencing be as Brian Eno pointed out in a BBC documentary “crudely mechanical”, but Summer’s vocal is as sinuous as Pharaoh Sanders tenor solo.

But what truly puts the song over the top is the all-star chorus, described by Jones as a dress rehearsal for We Are the World: Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald. Jones and Swedien created the most glorious-sounding vocal texture in recorded-music history. Nothing else sounds like it. Every time, every time, I hear this song, the chorus give me goosebumps. But Summer earns the right to bring so much heavy-duty vocal power to bear in the preceding section with her own performance; there’s so much spirit and joy in her own interjection of “hey, hey” after the “holy water to my lips” line, and when she insists “his truth will abound the land”, it’s hard not to believe her, whatever you believe when the record finishes.

Not a big US hit, State of Independence did much better in Europe and still gets airplay in the UK. It deserves it. Outside of his Jackson work, it may be Quincy Jones’s finest production; outside of I Feel Love, it may be Donna Summer’s finest record.

donna summer

New recording by the author. The author cannot sing like Donna Summer or produce like Quincy Jones

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis