Tag Archives: Van Morrison

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.

Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.

O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.

Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).

What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.

Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.

Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.

While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.

Miss-America

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Double Live Gonzos, part 3: The Last Waltz – The Band

A *triple* live gonzo, no less, and a movie. And if I refer to my 2002 four-CD box set, then its twice the length of the triple-album original. I’ve been thinking hard about what version to work from, and I’ve decided not to do a song-by-song rundown since I’m much more familiar with the expanded edition, and that’s just too long. Instead, I’ll shoot from the hip. Bang it out.

Robbie Robertson had long been comfortable with the idea that he and The Band were a big deal. When he decided that The Band should call it a day (and the jury’s out on whether he had decided they should split or simply stop touring; it does seem as though his assertions that it was the latter were just a fig leaf to cover the former), the idea of a farewell concert seemed obvious. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of booking Winterland, why not invite your all celebrity musician buddies and influences along? And why not get the world’s premier film-maker to come as well, and shoot it on 35mm for posterity? And why not let Bill Graham add a Thanksgiving dinner to the evening, and charge fans over $110 in today’s money to be there?

Don’t get me wrong. I love The Band, and Robertson’s songs, and I’m glad Scorsese was there to capture it all. But yeesh, plenty of bands of comparable stature have settled for smaller gestures when deciding not to go on tour again.

But for all the whiff of self-regard it gave off, The Last Waltz is still a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Not because of how well The Band played, but because they were able to put together a mini Woodstock in their own honour for one night only: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr John and, um, Neil Diamond. The Band were always a group beloved by musicians; plenty were happy to come along and pay their respects.

The Last Waltz, as well as being a concert and a live album documenting that concert, is also a film by Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s, which makes it worth seeing by definition. It is beautifully shot, and edited (by Yeu-Bun Lee and Jan Roblee) with a real eye for the interaction between musicians. Bil Graham felt that the movie failed because it didn’t include the audience. Graham was no film critic. It’s precisely because it’s laser- focused on the musicians that it works so well. If you’re not a musician, watching it will show you a lot about how players on stage function as part of an ensemble. If you are a musician, you’ll see people who do what you do routinely, but raised to an art form.

Now for the inevitable “but”, though. At The Last Waltz, the music wasn’t always that good. “These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job,” said Roger Ebert perceptively, reviewing the movie The Last Waltz in 2002, and he was bang on. By 1976, every member of the band looked older than his years (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robertson were only 33 at the time of the concert; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson was 39), and there was a weariness about some of the performances, even on their final day of labouring.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, so here they are in a big glut to get them out the way:

  • Up On Cripple Creek, which opens the album, had to be sped up to a workable tempo for the film. The version on the album, not sped up, is sluggish and a chore
  • Danko’s voice on It Makes No Difference is thin and wispy, while Manuel’s falsetto on I Shall Be Released is excruciating
  • The guys take a full minute or more to hit the groove when playing Caldonia with Muddy Waters; before that moment, it’s a joke
  • Garth Hudson’s synth sounds are regrettable throughout
  • No one in the audience cared about Bobby Charles, or that he wrote See Ya Later Alligator
  • No one on the stage told Clapton that All Our Past Times is a godawful dirge he couldn’t sing in tune
  • Joni Mitchell’s Furry Sings the Blues is not a rollicking good tune for a celebratory concert
  • Tura Lura Lural?
  • Neil Diamond??

So it’s very far from flawless. But much of it is incandescently good. So let’s talk about those bits.

The movie, in the canniest move the Scorsese made when assembling the film, begins with an abridged version of the encore, The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Don’t You Do It, sung by Levon and Rick. It’s smoking.

Richard Manuel’s voice was a sadly diminished instrument by the time of The Last Waltz (that’s Robertson singing the top harmony on Cripple Creek, not Manuel; in the movie, there’s a shot of Robertson and Danko singing the chorus; Manuel is in the background, playing piano with his mouth firmly shut), but in his lower range he still possessed an exciting, powerful growl. And he seldom sounded more believably desperate singing The Shape I’m In than he did here. The studio cut on Stage Fright sounds mighty tame in comparison.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is almost unbearably poignant, particularly in the movie. Watching Levon Helm once more assuming the identity of Virgil Caine, with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s gorgeous horn arrangement, is the most moving moment of the whole concert.

WS Walcott Medicine Show and, even more so, Ophelia both absolutely cook. Levon was definitely the group’s MVP that night – unlike Danko and Manuel, his voice was strong and rich as ever, and his mixture of grace and power behind the kit on these tunes a marvel.

Halfway through Caldonia (presumably the moment the group realises it’s embarassing itself), the players raise their game and the second half of the song and all of Mannish Boy are dispatched with everyone they have. No one would listen to The Band and mistake them for a great true blues band, but they do a far better job with Mannish Boy than any all-white, 80% Canadian group has any right to.

Coyote and Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell are both excellent, and highlight the band’s adaptability (Helm’s and Robertson’s particularly). Coyote is an incredibly demanding song compared to, say, Who Do You Love (played with old boss Ronnie Hawkins) but the ensemble play it pretty much flawlessly. Ditto Shadows and Light, which on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is arranged for multi-tracked voices and Moog synth. The Band’s ensemble arrangement, which Barney Hoskyns has said was conceived by/with John Simon, was true to their own spirit and that of Joni’s Hejira-era songs.

Van Morrison blasts his way through Caravan, and it’s glorious.

Dylan’s set, though,while obviously the most keenly anticipated moment of the night, is something of a headscratcher.

Dylan let Scorsese film only two songs, worrying that his presence in the movie would take attention away from Renaldo and Clara, his hybrid concert movie/drama filmed during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (hmm, good call, Bob). Watching the songs in question does improve on merely listening to the man and his one-time backing group stumble though them, but still, no one’s finest moment.

My friend Yo Zushi said of The Last Waltz generally, and Dylan’s performance particularly, that “this wasn’t any kind of last waltz, not in some end-of-an-era sense. […] The stark reality is that this was actually just Robbie Robertson’s leaving do. […] Dylan’s (and Young’s) attitudes made it clear that this was an occasion to mark with a good-luck card and some drunken acts people regret the next day.”

Yo’s a little more down on the gig than I am, but I do think he’s hit on what explains Dylan’s sloppy, seemingly drunken, set – much the least together run of songs in the whole concert. Compared to everyone else, even Young (who chose a pair of sombre, Canada-themed songs to perform), Dylan sounds relaxed, goofy, out for a good time. Nothing, Dylan seemed to recognise, could match what these men did in 1965-66 (Planet Waves and Tour ’74 had proven that), so why not just have a little fun?

So that about covers the concert. But there’s the not inconsiderable matter of the Last Waltz Suite – of which two moments rank up with the very finest things The Band ever did. Scorsese filmed two performances by the group on a soundstage, inserting them into the movie in appropriate places: a lovely performance of a new song called Evangeline with Emmylou Harris and a version of The Weight with the Staples.

Assembled because Robertson felt that country and gospel were both under-represented on the set list at the Winterland and the group wanted to pay proper respect to its influences, the two songs are, as I say, masterpieces. Evangeline shows that even at this late stage in The Band’s career, Robertson could still write songs that seemed somehow timeless. At his best, he had a way of connecting with the very essence of America’s folk music forms and placing them in the context of his extraordinarily adaptable rock band (note that pianist Richard Manuel drums, bassist Rick Danko plays fiddle, drummer Levon plays mandolin and organist Garth Hudson plays accordian). Evangeline is his final success with The Band, and all the more poignant because of it.

The Weight is, if anything, even better. It replaces the down-home bar-room piano and acoustic guitar for a smoother, uptown arrangement with organ, grand piano and electric guitar (two in fact), and brings in the Staples, with Mavis taking verse two and Pops verse three. With the Staples on board, The Weight became emblematic of all that was best about The Band, and not just in musical terms. As Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns have noted, this performance emphasises the “community” and “plurality” of The Band’s music: “when the group took the stage with the Staple Singers, they brought together men and women, black and white, young and old, north and south”.

Whether these thoughts occured consciously to those taking part, who can say (though Robertson has always appeared to be aware of his music’s place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I daresay the thought has crossed his mind). But the point is, while the moment may have been premeditated, the power of the effect makes that entirely irrelevant. Hearing – and even more impressively, seeing – Mavis Staples completely lose herself in the song towards its end, ad libbing, clapping and whispering “beautiful” as the echoes of last harmonised “aah” fade away, who could disagree with her?

Ultimately, The Last Waltz is better watched as a movie than listened to as an album. As a document of what became of those Woodstock-era stars, it’s invaluable, and as a way to understand the dynamics and interplay of live performance, there’s nothing that touches it. It looks and sounds great, too. But there’s no denying that The Band were on the downslope by this time, that Richard Manuel’s voice was getting haggard and that his drinking was doing visible damage to his body**, and that, simply, the world of music had moved on and The Band were yesterday’s men.

lastwaltz1

All-star singalong finale: l-r Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (organ), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hudson, Ringo Starr (drums)

*Of course, I do know why Diamond was there: Robbie Robertson produced his Beautiful Noise album, and presumably Robertson, Bill Graham or both felt Diamond would be good box office. But he’s so out of place. It kills me that George Harrison (who championed The Band in the press endlessly) or the Grateful Dead (who played with them at Watkins Glen, Woodstock and the Festival Express tour, and who were back in SF having finished a tour the previous month) weren’t there, while Neil Diamond was.

**Robertson’s rationalisation for ending The Band as a touring unit was that “the road” was so demanding as a way of life that it can kill you. He talks in the film about the “great ones taken by the road” (I may be paraphrasing and that might not be an exact quote, but it’s very much the gist).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t accord with his stance a few years earlier when he had to magic the Moondog Matinee project out of thin air to stop his bandmates killing themselves through drink and drugs in their downtime. What did he think Manuel and Danko would do if no longer part of an active, touring rock group? He must have known that they’d form little pickup bands and go straight back out. Which is what they did. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Robertson, a), just didn’t want to be in The Band any more and, b), if something bad did happen with Richard or Rick, he didn’t want it to happen on his watch.

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 5: Mercy, Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson, the man widely and repeatedly cited as the greatest bass player in the history of popular music (or at least the greatest bass guitarist), was a genius, peerless.

But unfortunately, Jamerson had a weakness for alcohol, a weakness that would eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and his death. Motown found that they needed a reserve in Detroit who could be relied on to turn up on time and deliver the goods when Jamerson couldn’t.

Babbitt was that man. He had come into contact with some moonlighting Funk Brothers, including Jamerson himself, while playing sessions at a studio called Golden World, owned by R&B producer Ed Wingate. Through this association, Babbitt found himself playing in Stevie Wonder’s live band, and then Berry Gordy acquired Golden World for Motown. Guys like Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin who had played with Babbitt at Golden World for Wingate’s sessions knew Babbitt could play – and read written charts – to a high standard, so when the decision was made to try to find a bassist who could bring something of Jamerson’s style to the sessions Jamerson couldn’t make, Babbitt got the call. His first session was Wonder’s version of We Can Work It Out.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On brought out the best in every musician involved in cutting it, and Babbitt was no different. Jamerson plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, but Babbitt got the sessions for Inner City Blues, Wholly Holy and Mercy Mercy Me.

Mercy Mercy Me has always been my favourite of them. Babbitt’s bass is a big, but not destablising, presence in the mix, and the pattern he plays is glorious. He locks in with the dominant kick-drum strokes at the front of each bar on the root note, before playing a funky melodic pattern with the octave note and fifth, stressing the downbeat by playing the first of those prominent octave notes in time with the snare. I love grooves that work like this, that add high-register melodic elements to a great low-end pocket. John Klinberg’s bass line on Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic is another favourite of mine for exactly the same reason.

He plays that pattern on the E, C# minor and F# minor chords, but changes things up on the B by playing a funky vamp mainly on the root, but incorporating a little chromatic run back up to the E.

It’s details like that run, so like what we think of when we think of James Jamerson’s playing, that have led many to assume he was the player on Mercy Mercy Me. Nowhere but Motown would Babbitt be in anyone’s shadow. He may have gotten his start at Motown because he could reproduce the Jamerson style when called upon, but the man was his own player, and is one of the finest there has ever been.

Inner City Blues; Mercy Mercy Me; Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours; Midnight Train to Georgia; Ball of Confusion; Agent Double-O-Soul; Band of Gold. All Babbitt, all classics.

 

Small Town Talk – Barney Hoskyns

This Christmas I’ve been reading Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, the latest book by Barney Hoskyns.

Hoskyns wrote about The Band (and Dylan) at length in Across the Great Divide: The Band & America in 1993, so Small Town Talk does retread some familiar ground. But while Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko and Hudson are major figures in Small Town Talk (after all, they stayed in Woodstock long after Dylan headed back to New York, and all but Robertson found their way back later for a second stint in the town), the book is more than anything about Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band and Joplin (not to mention Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Peter, Paul and Mary). And Grossman is a fascinating, if frequently appalling, figure.

Swimming in money from his early successes, Grossman built himself an empire – an Albertopolis, if you will (though for more than one of Hoskyns’s interviewees it was more like Charle Foster Kane’s Xanadu) – in Bearsville, just to the west of Woodstock: a recording studio, a record label, a restaurant, a bar and eventually a theatre. It was through Grossman that Dylan ended up in Woodstock, and most of the artists Grossman managed followed him there. But even those who benefited directly from his patronage loved and hated Albert Grossman in just about equal measure.* He was a bully, he was ruthless, and frequently cold and distant. Even artists he seemed to on some level care about as people were in the end merely a means for Grossman to make money; knowing full well her addiction problems, Grossman took out a life-insurance policy on Janis Joplin. When she died, he received $200,000.

For Hoskyns, the rise and fall of Grossman’s empire mirrors the rise and fall of Woodstock as a major centre of popular music. To compare Woodstock with its West Coast equivalent, Laurel Canyon (which Hoskyns wrote about in Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons), encapsulates the problem. The roll call of major artists in Laurel Canyon took both megastars and lesser known but huge talents like Tim Buckley, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs. It had a stronger bench than Woodstock. The names of Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison are on the front cover of Small Town Talk, but they appear in it fairly briefly, and their stays in Woodstock were over quickly; to really enjoy the book , you need to be interested in learning more about people like Happy Traum, John Holbrook and Cyndi Cashdollar, as Hendrix and Morrison are out of the story by the time it’s halfway told.

Like most of the books Barney Hoskyns has written, Small Town Talk is full of tales of wasted potential and drug- and alcohol-fuelled self-destruction. But even compared to, say, Hotel California (which relates tales as tragic as Judee Sill’s and as hair-curling as David Crosby’s), Small Town Talk is a heavy read, as it paints a Woodstock as a cultural centre in terminal, irreversible decline. Woodstock, it seems, will never matter again in musical terms: its last truly great artist, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012 and there are no musicians left in town to compare at all with those on the front cover of the book (for all that Hoskyns looks favourably on Simone Felice and Jonathan Donahue, I’m sure he’d agree).

If Grossman had wanted to build something lasting and self-sustaining in Woodstock, he failed. But you have to wonder whether that was his intention at all.

Robbie Robertson, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham, and John Simon in an Elevator.
Albert Grossman

*Todd Rundgren, whose many uncommercial experiments were bankrolled by Grossman, said of him when he died: “He got what he deserved. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” About the warmest tribute Grossman received came from Mary Travers: “He wasn’t a very nice man, but I loved him dearly.”

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.