Tag Archives: Tear Down the Walls

Holiday harmonies, part 2: I Know You Rider – Martin & Neil

What is it that makes for a good vocal harmony blend?

When you think of the some of the most famous vocal harmony groups, it’s quickly apparent that while there were many that had a certain similarity of vocal tone (sometimes genetically assisted*), many more wonderful harmony groups have resulted from bringing together vastly different voices and finding that somehow or other they worked with each other. Heard solo, there’s no mistaking Graham Nash’s voice for Stephen Stills’s, or Stills’s for David Crosby’s. Levon Helm is an instantly recognisable vocal presence on even the tightest harmonies sung by the Band.

When I first heard Fred Neil (thanks to James McKean, who played me The Many Sides of Fred Neil when we shared a house in our second year at university), it seemed improbable to me that Neil had ever been part of a harmony-singing group. How could that instantly recognisable, deep-as-an-ocean baritone blend effectively with any other singing voice? Surely it would swallow up any other singing voice that tried to harmonise with it, or worse, become an indistinct rumble, obscured by whoever was singing tenor?

After bagging my own copy of The Many Sides, I found Neil’s other two complete studio albums (his is a slim canon) on one CD and snapped it up. Bleecker and MacDougal was Neil’s first solo effort, on which he was backed up by Felix Pappalardi on guittarón, John Sebastian on harmonica and Pete Childs on guitar. Like Fred Neil and Sessions, it contains no harmony vocals at all. Tear Down the Walls, on the other hand, is a vocal-harmony record, the sole album made by Neil and his one-time singing partner Vince Martin.

The pair began singing together in 1961, and even then were not newbies. Martin had sung lead on the Tarriers’ 1956 hit Cindy, Oh Cindy; Neil had been working out of the Brill Building for a few years, writing smallish hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and cutting half a dozen singles under his own name, to little notice. They had been refining their duo act for a few years before Elektra producer Paul Rothchild saw them at the Gaslight and asked them to make a record.

Tear Down the Walls is a treat for anyone who wants to pick apart two-part harmonies. Neil’s voice is mixed hard right with Martin hard left, so you can listen to the record on one headphone only and just follow one voice or the other. If you want to hear result rather than process, keep both headphones on and hear how they took two voices with such different timbres and made them work together. Neil’s baritone was low, rich and warm, but kept its form when he found himself in more of a tenor range. Martin’s tenor was itself a pleasingly rich instrument, with a slight light-opera feel to its precise, correct enunciation, but he could be hoarse when pushing hard, as he does on I Know You Rider; sometimes you could almost imagine him a rock ‘n’ roller.

Whenever one of the singers takes a solo verse, which happens pretty regularly, you’ll be reminded once again how crazily different their two voices were, but when they sang together, through some kind of alchemy, it just works.

“It’s hard to sing with someone who won’t sing with you,” sang the Jayhawks’ Mark Olsen on the timeless Blue (and there’s another band whose two singers had pretty dissimilar voices) – perhaps that’s the only secret to great harmony singing. It’s less about whether the voices have a similar timbre and more about whether their owners are working towards the same emotional goal.

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Vince Martin & Fred Neil at The Flick (Neil nearest to camera)

*(The Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Jacksons and the Everly Brothers in the rock era, the Andrews sisters, the Staples and the Carter Family from the pre-rock, to take a few examples from different points of the musical spectrum)

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Merry Go Round – Fred Neil

‘Nik [Venet, record prodcer],’ says Fred, ‘this is very short. And there’s no reason to stretch it, ’cause it says it, and you know…’

By the standards of Sessions (1967), the nearly 6-minute-long Merry Go Round is a short track. Fred Neil’s music had travelled a long way from the straightforward, very white, trad folk of Tear Down the Walls, the record he’d made in the early sixties with singing partner Vince Martin (in case that sounds dismissive, let me say quickly that it’s a record I greatly enjoy for the most part, and that Martin and Neil sounded wonderful together). Neil’s progress continued through Bleecker & McDougal, which felt its way towards folk-rock (with the presence of an electric lead guitarist), as well as back to jug-band music and the blues (John Sebastian’s harmonica playing, which is all over the album), and even down south of the border (Felix Pappalardi’s guitarrón). It was one of the three great Fred Neil records.

Better yet – maybe best of all, and certainly the one I’d recommend to anyone looking to hear him for the first time – was 1966’s Fred Neil, an album of full-on, deep-as-an-ocean folk-rock, from one of its finest writers (Everbody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins) and singers (his interpretations of Shake Sugaree, retitled I’ve Got a Secret, and Fare Thee Well, which is credited to Neil, but frankly, that’s bobbins). It’s a world away from what was brewing in a certain North London studio in 1966, but it’s one of that year’s finest records.

Its clipped discipline was succeeded by the extraordinarily loose Sessions. Which is an apt name. As an album, it doesn’t cohere: it’s just a bunch of songs, recorded at a bunch of sessions. But what songs, and what sessions! The extended, improvisatory nature of Sessions owed a greater debt to jazz than New York folk; Neil hung out with jazz musicians, and their influence on him was evident in his demeanour and his syncopated strumming style (Neil is one of the truly great rhythm guitarists). But exploring these musical territories suited Neil vocally, too. His baritone had always been at home with the blues and his willingness to explore a vocal melody seemed constrained by the confines of the strophic story song and continuous two-part harmony. Rejecting a linear, narrative approach to lyrics, instead beginning with a dark joke about not being able to find the back of a merry-go-round and then repurposing the lyrics to In the Pines (also known as Where Did you Sleep Last Night?, made famous to younger generations by Nirvana’s version during their MTV Unplugged performance), Neil is working at something dreamier, deeper, more allusive, than anything he had cut previously.

The album’s influence has percolated down through the years, as the great works have a tendency to: Sessions was a key record for Tim Buckley, as he made his journey away from the laughable earnestness of his early work to the far cooler jazz-folk of Happy/Sad and through to the experimental Lorca and Starsailor, and, being more widely heard than Fred Neil, Tim Buckley’s music passed the loose, risk-taking spirit and elongated song structures down to contemporary songwriters innumerable.

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