BETTY at the Stereo Society
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BETTY at the Stereo Society
The making of BETTY’s Carnival
Tony Salvatore – guitars
Keith Carlock – drums & percussion
Mike Thorne – synclavier, synthesizer & piano
Carnival Girls – Georgia McGovern, Francesca Bates,
Production Assistance & Additional Engineering –
Production Coordination – Jeanette Buckley
Recording Engineer – Carl Beatty, TMF Studios, New York
Mixing – Mike Thorne, The Stereo Society, New York
Mastering – Scott Hull, Classic Sound, New York
The millennium is approaching. Don’t just stand there, do something, dammit. BETTY had already started the process by writing Millennium Man, a song not about the new year dawning but about a slightly suspect character who would be around next year. It had started, as many do, as a jam, a couplet (‘Here he come, Millennium Man’) then completed by a colloquial French rap layered on top. Wildly opportunistic, of course, although the city of New York didn’t make it their official holiday song. Whatever, it had been an audience favorite ever since it was introduced into the live set.
The timing was right to propose the first CD single on the Stereo Society, to be the first release after the four coinciding with the launch (one of which, Sprawl, had featured the group prominently). But singles were not bouncy two track affairs on black vinyl any more. Big companies release them at a loss as a promotional aid to the more profitable full-length CD, since you can’t cover your costs. But it was a good idea. We started assembling songs for an EP. (An extended-play record was originally a 7″ vinyl effort running at 33 1/3 rpm. Using the expression about a CD is a real throwback, a little like the Millennium Man himself.)
The wisdom of BETTY decreed that three songs would mean one from each member. Since Millennium Man was credited to and sung principally by Amy, we had what the military might call a vacuum situation. Alyson and Elizabeth had to come up with new songs to fill it.
Jungle Jane was pretty much in place, and had been Alyson’s crowd-pleaser in performance. Elizabeth had a sketch of Wishing Well, based on acoustic guitar which she played. This would need some work in development and rehearsal. We booked rehearsals, with the intention of grinding through the songs so that everyone was sick of playing them in their sleep. That way, a schedule-imposed break of three weeks before the tracking sessions would allow the material time to mature in everyone’s mind. Optimistically, we would record the material and finish within the booked studio time. Even more optimistically, we prepared Heartache, to be recorded if we had spare time.
On the first day of rehearsals, a crane toppled on a construction site on Sixth Avenue. It took a day to clean up the mess. Traffic was snarled. We were all late for the session. But once underway, the first two songs went smoothly, the changes in structure that I proposed working well and being accepted with little resistance. (It’s often very hard for musicians to see a track in a fresh light when they have been playing it a particular way for a while. The producer’s job, as I see it, includes providing a more objective view.)
The three played-in songs were ready. Wishing Well received close attention, but differed from the others in not resting on a live performance. As a result, the song was a grind to play apart from just one tantalizing run-through where we felt the music flow. It would be a studio construction started with the rock+roll rhythm section, and we would have to trust it to respond to the plan. Paradoxically, the most contrived and non-intuitive production process of the recordings would yield the most passionate and nakedly emotional track on the CD.
We recorded the tracks at TMF studios on East 12th Street, taking only a day and a half to record the four rhythm tracks, thanks to the careful preparation and to the competence of Keith Carlock (drums), who would turn up on Steely Dan’s newest album, and Tony Salvatore (guitar), whose sound and style in BETTY’s performance had grown significantly to provide very effective sonic glue for the whole five-piece ensemble. Because it was not, in its initial state, so much fun to play as the others, and particularly because many of the ideas in it were recent and unsettled, Wishing Wellprovoked some weariness and friction. Thankfully, it eventually delivered on its plans when later studio elements were added, like the pulsing synthesizer under the choruses and the clattering ‘jungle’ in the breakdown. Amy, with characteristic tact, propose calling it The Nightmare Song instead. Elizabeth almost went for it, but not quite.
Meanwhile, the project had grown in ambition, thanks to Alyson’s dramatic scheme. Carnival was a song that we had originally tried to record for Hello BETTY! but had discarded when the patient didn’t respond quickly enough to treatment. Alyson’s proposal was to break up the song and it as a framework for the CD, which could become a carnival event of its own. Each of the three recorded their own solo piece, to provide a freakshow after the four group efforts were done. The CD eventually came in not far shy of full length, at 28 minutes or so.
Unusually, one of the most difficult production routines was the mastering. This is the stage at which you tweak the equalization (tone) and dynamics of the complete CD presentation. The ambitious range of music was very difficult to optimize for domestic playback because of its sonic variety. Not many CDs take you from a solo spoken word piece to a rock+roll group at full bore. Scott Hull’s patience through three references (take-home versions of the CD) put the sound in a place to be proud. Thankfully, he was a fan of the group before he saw the sonic trouble coming down the road.
We had originally been scrambling to make the CD available for the new year, but decided to put it back to February 29, certainly a more pleasantly perverse date than January 1, so that we could plan a concert/release party at the Bowery Ballroom in New York the following day. With some effort, BETTY had already sold out the Bowery Ballroom the previous December 3, for the ‘release’ of the ‘single’ Millennium Man.
The most dramatic public moment was the group’s appearance on National Public Radio on Scott Simon’s Saturday morning show. Over 3000 people visited the site the same day, blowing away our previous record. They (you, thank you) must have liked what they found, since for that glorious day Carnival sat comfortably in Amazon’s top 10. The carnival does have its surprises.
The CD hasn’t run its course yet, and we are presently making club remixes of Jungle Jane and then Millennium Man. These will be made available for free download. Perhaps they’ll wind up on a CD. Then we’ll think of something else. Meanwhile, we just continue to enjoy the carnival and explore the ways that the internet can facilitate new music and new forms. We’re not done for a while yet.
Here he come: Millennium Man
Here he come: Gitane in his hand
– MT, March 26 2000