Tag Archives: The Beatles

George Martin – in memoriam

There’s really only one thing to talk about today. George Martin died yesterday, aged 90.

It’s hard to overstate how important Martin was in the story of The Beatles, and by extension the story of popular music as a whole.

In any label-funded scenario, the producer is ultimately responsible to the record label, not the artist or band. The producer’s job is to get from the artist a product that the label can sell; that’s why they’re called producers. Nevertheless, good producers nurture the artists they work with, teaching them what they know about writing, performing and arranging, or at least facilitating and supporting the artist as they pursue their own growth and development.

No producer ever did a better job than George Martin did with The Beatles. No one did it with more class or grace. He encouraged the band, supported them, gave their songs the benefit of his arranging skills, and assembled a team of incredible audio engineers for them, then allowed them to break every rule in EMI’s book in the quest for great sounds.

The man was a giant of his field, rightly held in awe within the industry, but recognised and respected for his work by the public who, however much they knew about Martin’s role in making those records, recognise that they couldn’t have done it without him.

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Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

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*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

Trance Manual – John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice is a recording engineer, producer, singer-songwriter and studio owner. He occupies a space people like me would love to be in: able to follow his own artistic muse (he’s released 10 albums under his own name), while helping others to follow theirs in his capacity as a producer and recordist.

His own albums display all the best qualities of his work as a writer and his work as a producer and engineer. His “sloppy hi-fi” approach to recording (that is, using the best, most hi-fi equipment he can find and afford, then using it to record parts in just a few passes, rather than worrying it to death with endless retakes) is, he theorises, that of the old school: the approach that the Beatles, Kinks and Stones as well as legions of jazz players before and since were able to take in their very different eras.

It’s not necessarily evident, though, from Pixel Revolt‘s Trance Manual that this is how he works, given how layered the recording is, with its twinkling, delay-echoed synths and overdubbed Mellotron. Halfway through the track, out of nowhere, pizzicato strings make an entrance, as if sundry members of the Penguin Café Orchestra just happened to have wandered into the session and sat in on a whim. It’s a gorgeous arrangement, which the song’s extraordinary text fully deserved.

The scenario is a simple one: prostitute visits embedded war reporter in the Middle East. But the level of detail that Vanderslice includes, the sheer unlikelihood of using words and phrases like “Mujahidin”, “aqua mirabilis”, “bullhorns and sleepy 47s” in a chamber-pop song, is astonishing. That’s before you get to phrases like “Dressed like that, you are a flag of a dangerous nation”. Vanderslice’s lyrics on  this song and others, he has disclosed, were edited and added to by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (and what an unusual, il migglior fabbro arrangement that is in this day and age), but that takes nothing away from Vanderslice’s achievement here; even if he only wrote 10% of the lyric, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment given the track’s musical richness.

There were great moments on his records before Trance Manual’s parent album Pixel Revolt, among them the deathless Me & My 424, from The Life and Death of an American Four Tracker and Cellar Door‘s spine-tingling Promising Actress. But Pixel Revolt is the album where Vanderslice’s writing and vocal delivery asecnded to the same level as his recording and arrangement chops. For a few years afterwards, he hardly put a foot wrong.

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Blackwater Side – Bert Jansch

The British folk scene of the1960s flowered at the same time as British rock ‘n’ roll was going through its own period of accelerated artistic growth. Revolver by The Beatles and Jack Orion by Bert Jansch were released a month apart, and sessions for the latter were almost certainly happening at the same time as the slightly more protracted sessions for the former.

While both albums shared a focus on the past – musical and social – The Beatles’ optimistic updating of Edwardian and Victorian music hall and fairground music (a trope that they had perhaps picked up from The Kinks and which they did more than even that band to amplify within popular culture generally) was wildly at odds with the mood of Jansch’s music: bleak, apocalyptic, almost otherworldly. The Beatles were beginning the process of reconciling the old with the new, which they would perfect on Sergeant Pepper (Revolver is, I think, ultimately the better album, but it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a great collection of songs). Jansch, in contrast, burrowed deep into these strange and ancient songs, inhabiting them completely. Only the harshly bowed strings of Eleanor Rigby seems to come from the same world as Jansch’s Jack Orion work.

Jansch’s first two albums (Bert Jansch and It Don’t Bother Me) were largely made up of self-composed originals – among which were two signature tunes, Strollin’ Down the Highway and the immortal Needle of Death – and had established him as a virtuoso guitarist and substantial songwriter. Jack Orion saw him going somewhere else: into the past, into the previous centuries’ folk ballads. Even in 1966, he played Nottamun Town, Jack Orion and Blackwater Side with an extraordinary combination of power and precision. By the time I saw him play Blackwater Side at the Southbank in 2006, his playing of it could be extraordinarily violent, his fingers hacking at the strings as he turned the song inside out, abstracted it and pulled it into strange new shapes.

The seeds of all this later exploratory work are within his 1966 recording of the track, and it thrives on the tension Jansch creates by his seeming impatience, but it benefits equally from the tenderness that was sometimes absent from his later readings. These could seem either dutiful (better play that song all the Zeppelin fans came to hear!), or provacatory (you want Blackwater Side? Here it is, hope you can recognise it!).

The Jack Orion recording of it was perfect: full of anger, desire, fear and regret. Possibly it’s the highest point (also the deepest and darkest point) to which anyone took the folk baroque form of guitar playing. Fifty years old next year, this recording of a song conceivably hundreds of years older, is still a mighty and intimidating presence in our musical history.

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Bert Jansch: kind to dogs, hard on guitar strings

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

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Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing drums for the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

Give some to the bass player, part 5 – Everybody’s Been Burned by The Byrds

When the Desert Rose Band’s Love Reunited reached number 6 on the US Country singles chart in 1987, to be followed shortly thereafter by number-two hit One Step Forward, it seems likely that few among his new audience recognised the group’s lead singer, Chris Hillman. Then 43 years old, he was an overnight success who’d already been a success for 20-odd years, having been a founding member of the Hillmen, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Desert Rose Band apart, Hillman has had a happy knack all through his career of putting himself where interesting things were happening.

Although the Byrds’ music was dominated by vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar, Chris Hillman’s fluid, jazzy bass guitar was a hugely important element of the band’s sound.

Hillman was not originally a bassist. His first instrument was the mandolin, on which he learned to play bluegrass as a teenager. None of the Byrds were rock ‘n’ roll players, really: perhaps that’s why the band’s take on rock ‘n’ roll was so singular. Hillman took up the bass guitar when asked by Jim Dickson whether he’d be interested in joining the fledgling rock group Dickson had started managing. The group already had guitar players in McGuinn and David Crosby (as well as Gene Clark, who played tambourine on stage but was a perfectly competent guitarist, too), but Dickson must have been impressed by Hillman’s musicality and figured that he’d be able to make the switch. Possibly this explains an approach that was far more concerned with melody than it was with locking in with the kick drum (although, pity the bassist trying to lock in with poor, tragic Michael Clarke, whose kick was never quite in the same place twice).

The Byrds are still, even today, a common reference point for other bands. Yet when music is described as resembling that of the Byrds, usually it’s the group’s early work that is being talked about: the 12-string-driven folk-rock of the band’s first two records. This constitutes a pretty small fraction of the Byrds’ output, and a tiny chronological span of around 12 months, from the recording of Mr Tambourine Man in January 1965 to when Turn! Turn! Turn! was released in December 1965. By the time their fourth album, Younger than Yesterday, came out in early 1967, the Byrds were all over the map.

McGuinn-sung Dylan covers (a reading of My Back Pages that is completely definitive – far better, if far less famous, than their Tambourine Man) were still part of the mix, but so was the satirical So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, with its Hugh Masekela trumpet solo, Crosby’s raga-like Mind Gardens and no fewer than four Chris Hillman songs, pointing forward to the group’s pioneering country-rock work, and back to the Beatles obsession that had drawn Clark, McGuinn and Crosby together in the first place.

It may be true, as my old college friend and all-round musical confrère James McKean once put it imperiously, that it’s no one’s ambition to one day be as good a songwriter as Chris Hillman, yet those songs of his on Younger than Yesterday are all strong efforts, and I imagine McGuinn was somewhat stunned to find his bass player writing or co-writing five songs on an album with only 10 originals on it. So Hillman was the album’s MVP even before one takes into account his sterling work on Crosby’s Everybody’s Been Burned.

Everybody’s Been Burned 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 chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and had been demoed several times already for previous Byrds records. The one I link to, which you can find on Preflyte Plus, is stunning in its own right, but the take that made its way on to Younger than Yesterday is among the very best things the band ever did, with one of Crosby’s finest vocals, and instrumental performances by McGuinn and Hillman of intuitive genius.

It’s not exactly jazz, but the sensibility is close – Hillman seems less concerned with what Crosby’s chords are than he is with burrowing down deep into the song’s emotional core. His basslines are similarly wide ranging on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Renaissance Fair and Draft Morning from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but in terms of empathy and understanding with a singer and songwriter, this is Hillman’s most shining moment as a bass player, and he remains a curiously unsung figure.

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Chris Hillman, in his ironing-my-hair-straight days

Pod by the Breeders

Hi there. It’s the day after the UK general election today, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel a great deal like writing anything other than a long, angry rant. But that would just have made me feel worse without actually changing anything. Instead I decided it’d be a good idea to write about something I genuinely don’t have a bad word for: Pod, by the Breeders, a subject I’ve been holding in reserve for a month or so. On another day, my write-up might have been more exuberant, but this is what I’ve got in me today.

A couple of years ago a bit of a, um, splash was made about the 20th anniversary of the Breeders’ second album, Last Splash. That’s the one with Cannonball, Divine Hammer and Saints on it. I remain unconvinced by Last Splash. I’ll go into bat for Divine Hammer and Cannonball, even if I personally have no wish to hear it again. The cover of Drivin’ on 9 is a career highlight for Kim Deal as a singer. No Aloha and New Year I’ll keep. That’s five out of 15. The rest I’d struggle to say anything about, good, bad or indifferent.

Pod, though. Pod sounds stranger and more wonderful every year. I never stop going back to it. And if I ever needed an excuse to write about it, it’s 25 years old this year.

OK, Mr So Deep, you say. Pod. The one with Tanya Donelly on it, recorded by Steve Albini? Pretty obvious why you like that one more, isn’t it?

Well, I can’t deny my fondness for those two artists. But Pod is Deal’s album. Literally so, as the plan that Donelly and Deal cooked up for the Breeders originally is that they’d make an album of Deal songs before then making a record of Donelly songs (they demoed some of the material that Donelly ended up using for the first Belly record, Star). Deal sang lead and wrote or co-wrote every song on Pod except the cover of the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun.

There’s nothing else like it; the closest I’ve heard is the Breeders’ own Title TK, but that’s a weak brew indeed compared to Pod. There’s a hint of the Pixies (still Deal’s main band at the time, and would remain so for another year or so after Pod’s release) in the way the songs put classic AB form in the service of some unlikely, surreal, subjects. The way that Deal’s and Donelly’s guitars play around each other sometimes recalls the interplay of Kristin Hersh and Donelly on Throwing Muses records (like Deal, Donelly had one more record with her main band left in her at this point).

But even with those precedents, it’s a singular album. The arrangements are sparse – there’s much less of that steady-state distorted guitar that you get on Pixies records – and the record is very “live” sounding: there’s background chatter audible at the end of songs, and all the way through the quiet, spoken intro verses of Metal Man; a spontaneous-sounding outro jam extends When I Was a Painter by over a minute (a long time when the record only lasts half an hour); Deal’s voice breaks into a squeal on Oh! and is left uncorrected. Overdubs sound few, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were none at all.

It’s far from passionless, but it is somewhat detached-sounding. Indeed the album’s most compelling music comes from the tension between Deal’s frequently blank delivery and the themes and ideas that the lyrics hint at but never fully reveal. While dark, the effect is always just short of menacing, since Deal and Donelly are not sparing with hooks. I’ve remarked before on how Donelly’s work with Belly played in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish. Deal’s songs on Pod work similarly. Perhaps this influence ran from Donelly to Deal because it seems to have departed from the Breeders when she left; it’s entirely absent from Last Splash and is only occasionally tangible on later records.

It goes without saying that Pod sounds great, too. Spacious and powerful. With the mixes left relatively sparse and the guitars frequently hard-panned, Pod is as good as it gets for fans of the Albini drum sound. Britt Walford, on loan from Slint and playing under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton, sounds enormous. And what drummer doesn’t want to sound enormous?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pod and have any fondness for the indie rock music of that era, you are missing out on one of the finest records of its type.

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The Breeders in 1992, circa Safari: l-r Kelley Deal, Tanya Donelly, Josephine Wiggs, Britt Walford, Kim Deal (the Deal sister are identical twins, so if I’ve got them the wrong way round, do forgive me!)