Tag Archives: synth

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 9: Are “Friends” Electric?/Cars – Tubeway Army/Gary Numan

Even cyborg pop stars have uncles.

Gary Numan’s uncle, Jess Lidyard, was also his drummer.

It was unusual enough that an uncle would be playing drums with his nephew, but even more so that he would be playing this music, in 1979: a song with barely a scrap of melody, no chorus whatsoever and a lyric that talks baldly about sex with androids. Jess Lidyard, clearly, was an unusually cool uncle.

His playing on Are “Friends” Electric is as key an element of the track as Numan’s pained, nasal vocal and those Minimoogs and Polymoogs. While other electronic musicians were evangelical about all-electronic music (OMD’s Andy McCluskey reportedly told the members of Kraftwerk after he’d seen them perform live that he and his band were going to bin their guitars and do it all with synths from now on), Numan’s music was essentially a rock/electronic hybrid, with synths being a late addition to their sound (Numan only played a synth for the first time when in the recording studio working on second album Replicas). The rhythm section remained an analogue affair even after Numan’s conversion: Lidyard’s acoustic drums and Paul Gardiner’s bass. This digital/analogue, rock/electronic hybrid finds its most perfect expression on Are “Friends” Electric.

It’s not a fresh insight to note the influence on Numan of JG Ballard, or of dystopian science fiction generally. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Numan’s brand of futurism felt lived in and down at heel. This music belongs to a world not white and gleaming but bodged, a world built on top of what was already extant. I’m trying very hard not to say the word “steampunk”…

Jess Lidyard provided the steam. Not only are his driving 16th-note hi hats the most apparent and persistent rhythmic element in the track, but he provides added push by reinforcing the synth bass line with his kick drum. I don’t think Are “Friends” Electric would be half as good if it had been powered by a drum machine. It was Lidyard that stopped the music from being too gleaming, too synthetic, too perfect.

Cars (from Numan’s next album The Pleasure Principle), similarly, derives a great deal of its power from its performed drum track. By this time, Lidyard had been replaced by Cedric Sharpley (Lidyard wasn’t keen on the touring musician’s life). Sharpley’s drumming is ever so slightly more elegant than Lidyard’s and he sounds more “live” on Cars than Lidyard did on “Friends”. Cars has a subtle continual lift in tempo throughout its duration, its kick-drum pattern becomes increasingly complicated and the drum fills get more frantic with every verse. Lidyard seemed to power the music from within. Sharpley fed off it and responded to it in his playing. I can imagine hearing Are “Friends” Electric and thinking the drums were from a machine. I’d be staggered if anyone thought that about Cars.

After around 90 seconds, Numan has said all he as to say about life in cars, and the band takes over. This is where Sharpley is really at his best, with a performance that’s urgent and mechanical and weirdly funky all at the same time. I didn’t get Numan’s music for a long, long time. Granted, his public persona had a lot to do with that, I didn’t respond to anything in the music either. As has so often been the case for me, I got into the music once I started following the drums. And while Are “Friends” Electric is the more important, and ultimately better, track, it was Cars that began the process, which is why I had to write about them both.

Some recentish work

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Give some to the bass player, part 4 – How the West was Won and Where it Got Us by R.E.M.

Bill Berry: My favourite song is probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Mike Mills: Do I have a favourite song? […] It’s probably How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.

Scott Litt: There’s one called How the West was Won… they’ve probably talked about this.

Peter Buck: At this point in my life, How the West was Won and Where it Got Us is probably my favourite song, because we just wrote it a week ago.

These quotes are from a documentary made at the time of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Michael Stipe was unavailable for comment, presumably. I assume the question was “What’s your favourite song on the New Adventures in Hi-Fi?”, rather than a more general one about the band’s whole back catalogue, but it’s pretty clear that band and producer knew what they had with How the West was Won and Where it Got Us as soon as they’d finished it.

Mike Mills had always been crucial to the arrangements on R.E.M.’s records, particularly in their first few years (between, say, 1982-85), as he was probably the group’s most accomplished musician early on. His bass lines – whether driving (eg Carnival of Sorts) or melodic (eg Radio Free Europe) – frequently carried whole songs. He also decorated the songs with piano (Shaking Through) and was almost as recognisable a vocal presence on the songs as Stipe himself.

But it’s easier to gauge his importance in those terms than by saying which songs he wrote, as R.E.M. have never revealed too much about that. Their credits were always split equally between band members (one of the reasons they lasted 30 years as a group). Specifics of composition seldom got talked about in public. Of course, we know that Losing my Religion began with a Peter Buck mandolin riff. It was often said, and has been confirmed by Mills, that Berry was responsible for the bulk of Perfect Circle and Everybody Hurts. But who would have assumed the guitar-heavy What’s the Frequency Kenneth was written by Mills rather than Buck? Yet it was so.

But to return to How the West was Won and Where it Got Us, it’s a pretty great example of the importance of Mike Mills to the band’s sound, since he wrote and performed the main piano riff and the discordant piano solo, as well as playing bass guitar and synth on the track.

It’s a muted opener for a big record, and New Adventures was a big record. The group had just signed an $80m record contract. There’s a certain sod-you quality to leading off with something off-kilter and brooding with a piano solo inspired by Thelonius Monk, something that doesn’t sound like the average fan’s idea of what an R.E.M. record should be. This can only be applauded.

The song’s bass line is determinedly minimal, with a verse part built on just five notes, phrased to basically follow the piano and leave wide open spaces for Berry’s drum groove. Very astute. The chorus is recognisably more Millsian – it’s more legato, with more notes, almost straight eights, in fact (possibly the verse is Buck on bass; he’s miming the bass in the video).

There are other things that make it one of the finest R.E.M. tracks. The “ennio whistle” played by Berry. The intricate drum pattern (again, Berry – one of his finest moments, too). Michael Stipe’s ear-grabbing interjections at the end of each chorus – a more singerly singer might have ruined these, afraid to be so naked. Stipe just puts them out there: part shout, part cry, part whimper, and not a little bit out of tune. Yet they are crucial to the song’s success, releasing all the tension built up by the coiled music. Not so much a case of Give some to the bass player, then, as Give some to everyone.

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R.E.M. circa New Adventures; l-r Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe

Just Another Day – Jon Secada

In 1984 the Miami Sound Machine released their first major-label album, the multi-platinum success of which turned singer Gloria Estefan into the biggest Latin musician in the world and her husband Emilio into one of the most successful producers in any form of pop music. For the rest of the eighties, they maintained their upward trajectory and the Estefans fully transcended Latin-music stardom, becoming truly global pop stars in the process.

In 1990, a semi-truck crashed into the Estefans’ tour bus during a snowstorm and Gloria broke her back. After a successful operation to stabilise her spine with two steel rods, she needed a year of intensive rehab. Although she managed to take part in the recording of a new album towards the end of this process, the Miami Sound Machine juggernaut had slowed somewhat and her English-language career never quite recovered from the lost momentum. In any event, the 1990s were already shaping up to be a more naturalistic decade in terms of production and presentation; the blaring horns and big bam boom of Emilio’s music was becoming old hat, redolent as they were of the Reagan-era excesses of the most excessive decade in that most excessive of American cities.

With all this to consider, Emilio began to invest more of his time in his protégé Jon Secada, who had served time as an MSM backing singer and had already co-written some ballads with Gloria, at which he showed a talent. Secada’s eponymous first album duly got a full Estefan treatment, but in a modified and subdued form. Emilio’s signature synth-brass was largely absent, Secada’s breakthrough single being notably minimalist in arrangement. Aside from the vocals (Gloria’s voice is audible in the mix, and she was present in the video for a little extra commercial punch) the track was just bass, piano, a little synth, and drum programming with a notable Teddy Riley influence (this being the back end of the New Jack Swing Era). While it sounds surprisingly skeletal today, Emilio’s touch was never less than sure back then and the single hit no. 2 on the adult contemporary chart and no. 5 on the Billboard and UK Top 40 charts. The moody black and white video with a wet-shirted Secada walking disconsolately on a beach probably helped too, but the song’s success is largely a result of canny production and Secada’s writing.

Just Another Day is a surprisingly elusive piece for a commercial ballad, the verses not seeming to follow an exact structure, chords being held for varying lengths of time, changes being more dependent on the detours taken by a meandering, unhurried melody. It’s an odd structure. In the early 1990s a lot of songs — in surprisingly disparate styles, as this was true of house as much as grunge — were structured around progressions of a small number of chords (often four), repeating in defined, frequent cycles. Just Another Day is much more slippery. How much of it is design and how much is happy chance only Secada and his co-writer Miguel A. Morejon could answer, but it does some cool things where chords that end a short section of the verse sequence get unexpectedly held a long time, and then the vocal begins a new phrase over that same chord, subverting the expectation that he’ll go back and repeat the phrase we’ve just heard. It never feels like anything overly odd is going on (we’re always in 4/4, we’re always in the home key), but it definitely rewards close listening. It gives the impression that the verses are being made up on the spot, that they’re a spontaneous outburst of emotion, which is really appropriate to the song’s mood and subject matter. Without a strong chorus to pull it all together, the song would simply have floated up into the atmosphere and the chorus is the song’s trump card. 22 years since Just Another Day’s release (yes, we are now that old), the marriage of a passionately despairing lyric and a switch to the major key is still a move guaranteed to get my attention, and this song may have been the first time I noticed the trick.

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In my head Jon Secada lives on a beach. Chris Isaak too. Possibly they’re neighbours

Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime – Beck

The original Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime was by the Korgis, a group formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a 1970s prog band. The Korgis, then, in 1980 were a little too old, a little too bald, a little too paunchy for their new wave suits. They were far from the only group shedding their old fanbases and trading in student union worship for mainstream acceptance (at this point, Gabriel and Collins were already huge stars, Fripp was producing Daryl Hall and playing guitar for Bowie and Talking Heads; in two years Asia would have the best-selling album of the year). But still, even in times that were sympathetic to their cause, the Korgis were made to be forgotten. Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime hit big (number 5 in the UK, number 18 in the US) and still gets radio play, but no one remembers who made it, and everyone has their own favourite version, often not the original. The song, sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is nothing more than pastiche), is ideal for cover versions. It’s been done as breakbeat house by Baby D, as adult-contemporary dance-pop by Yazz and by Italian rock singer Zucchero (a typically over-the-top reading). The song is almost a blank canvas.

Beck cut it with Jon Brion for 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It starts out with him alone at the electric piano, singing in his deepest, most mournful register. The bass and electric guitars slide in almost unnoticed, joined by a drummer at the first chorus. The drums are muffled, damped, it’s very seventies. All the bells and whistles of the Korgis’ version (the delays and echoes on the piano and voice, the electric sitar playing the riff at the end of the chorus, the icy synths that play the three-note hook in the chorus) are gone: we get strings instead. The prankster Beck of 10 years before is nowhere to be seen. He’s playing the straightest of bats. He sounds invested in what he’s singing.

Jon Brion, it has to be said, lets the side down a little bit. Listening to this, it’s small wonder that Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple had ended their partnerships with him by this time – he’s on autopilot. The song’s said all it really has to say by around 2.30. But instead of wrapping things up, we get three minutes of The Jon Brion Show: every analogue keyboard, every guitar pedal, every fairground noise in his collection is pulled out of the cupboard and strewn over the studio floor. There’s not an idea here he hasn’t already worked over past the point of diminishing returns on Mann’s Bachelor No.2 and Apple’s When the Pawn… A carnival-esque soundworld was not what was called for here. Some attention to the mood of the song proper would have been infinitely more desirable.

I’m sure Beck had some input into the long instrumental coda, and he’d sung the song so well that that the record finishes with plenty of money in the bank. Perhaps, too, if you hadn’t heard Jon Brion’s other work, you could find his work here charming, or moving, or compelling. I find it a little bit redundant; it takes over and spoils the mood. Beck’s reading of the song, though, is excellent.

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This is Beck

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This is Jon Brion

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999

Inside Out – Odyssey

Odyssey had several big UK hits between 1977 and 1982, yet all of these songs were musically and emotionally distinct from each other. The band seemed to transform themselves with every single: the world-weary elegance of their first hit, Native New Yorker, gave way to the resigned despair of If You’re Looking for a Way Out; the Caribbean dancefloor celebration of UK no.1 Use it Up and Wear it Out was followed by the triumphant nostalgia of Going Back to My Roots. This puzzlingly diverse but magnificent run ends here, in the bleakest and most disturbing of their singles, Inside Out.

Written by the helmeted, kilted and claymored Scotsman Jesse Rae (watch Over the Sea here and give yourself a New Year’s treat), Inside Out – like If You’re Looking For a Way Out – deals with a love affair that the singer knows is all but over. This time, though, the lover is already on his way, and Lillian Lopez sounds empty; the warm, agile voice she sang in on her earlier records is absent, replaced by something tired, strained and hollow. If Billie Holliday had lived long enough to record disco, it might have sounded a little like this.

Inside Out was produced, phenomenally well (in standard Odyssey fashion), by Jimmy Douglass, who assembled a crack band for the occasion. Steve Arrington (from the Ohio funk band Slave, whose style this song resembles) is on drums, and Sandy Anderson channels Arrington’s bandmate Mark Adams for his magnificent performance on bass guitar, while Lenny Underwood (like Anderson, a member of New York group Unlimited Touch) creates the patchwork of squiggly synths that gives the record so much of its colour.

The result is a track made up of fragmentary hooks, stray bits of melody, hard-funk slap bass, disco strings, and harshly staccato backing vocals (‘In! Side! Out!’), yet the result is a record that not only coheres, but adds up to something I find as just as compelling as the timeless Native New Yorker (which, as those who’ve been following this blog a while may remember, is my push-comes-to-shove favourite single of all time) despite the vast sonic and emotional gulf between them.

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Odyssey

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Jesse Rae

More Than This – Roxy Music

I want to talk about this song’s drum track. When the Great Paul Thompson (as his fans called him) left Roxy Music in 1980, Bryan Ferry, possibly at the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies, did what most musicians in his position would have done: he called in a session player or two to fill the gap. On 1980s Flesh & Blood, one of those players was Andy Newmark. On Avalon, two years later, Newmark would drum on eight out of the album’s ten songs.

It’s hard to go wrong with Andy Newmark. If a drummer’s good enough for Sly Stone (Fresh), John Martyn (One World), John Lennon (Double Fantasy), Laura Nyro (Season of Lights) and Randy Newman (Good Old Boys), he’s good enough for you.

He’s a magnificent player, but seldom a showy one, and his work on More Than This is as unshowy as it gets. A mid-tempo groove, slightly on the brisk side, two and four, bass drum in quavers, no big fills – this is a drummer playing for the song, with just a few interjections (mainly on tom-toms, and short press rolls going into choruses), to make the track his own. Newmark’s judgement about how much to play is perfect, although it’s worth noting that his gig was to come in when the songs had been all but finished, with full arrangements built up over programmed Linn Drum patterns, and either augment or replace the Linn groove. Although playing to pre-recorded songs necessarily puts the drummer in a different position than most are used to – partly because the amount of available space in the arrangement is decided for you, but also because as in this situation the drummer isn’t the song’s engine, as the tempo is locked – it does provide unusual challenges, foremost among them being the insertion of a feel, something other than completely rigid, mechanically perfect eighth notes of unvarying velocity. How much you can swing against the track (a full arrangement, remember) and have the whole thing still work, well, that’s a big part of the game. And Newmark is a master at it.

Of course, session drummers had existed almost as long as there’d been a recording industry (and certainly since rock’n’roll bands started showing up whose songs and/or star quality ran ahead of their musical chops), but in the studio environment of the 1980s, the session drummer suddenly had this whole new avenue of work open up for them (it started with disco really, as consistency of tempo was a big deal in that style) – it wasn’t just about solo artists calling a drummer up to play on their record because they didn’t have a regular band.

The successful ones, like Newmark, adapted themselves brilliantly to this new environment. But evolution was forced on all musicians in the brave new world of automated consoles, polyphonic synths, drum machines, samplers and sequencers. This is a Roxy Music track where Bryan Ferry is dominant almost to point of elbowing out his bandmates completely. Phil Manzanera is present in the intro but is almost immediately pulled right back in the mix, and thereafter pops up now and then to play little variations around his main riff, and only returms in the long fade. Andy MacKay, meanwhile, plays all of seven notes throughout the whole song, all sustained, all easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether it was his choice, Ferry’s or Rhett Davies’s, it’s another admirably disciplined and selfless performance on what for my money is the finest song Ferry ever wrote and the best record Roxy ever made.

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Andy Newmark, one of the very, very best