Thorne at the Stereo Society
Thorne at the Stereo Society
Logistics: Before The Music Gets Physical
Music creation and recording gets pumped up to such a mythical level that it begins to rival the virgin birth. Perhaps the fantasy is fun, but it can be very confusing and misleading. The mass media and their subjects have a vested interest in exaggeration and exclusivity; the basic exercise is really much more mundane and, at least on the surface, perfectly comprehensible. Making a record is as much an exercise in military logistics as poetic passion. More philosophically, some will suggest that an artistic statement (a phrase often thrown around but whose definition, curiously, is never offered) is just someone’s particular organization of the swirling chaos that surrounds us into one focussed, comprehensible idea. The composer Michael Tippett once observed modestly that the music is out there to start with, and all you have to do is catch and assemble it. Some people, of course, have bigger butterfly nets than others.
In describing music, and even when we’re making it, we use all sorts of vague words. Music can be the most intangible of communication. It can provoke the widest ranging imagination in the listener precisely because of its lack of physical substance; I like it that way. It can masquerade as a variety of forms: a written composition such as a symphony, a four minute pop record, the environment of a dance club, an opera performance or an interactive computer program. In contrast with the creative spontaneity which the greatest music suggests, the foundation is always a carefully planned assembly of resources. A record is mostly conceived and developed far from the glamour of the recording studio, sometimes chaotically, sometimes with military precision. ‘Let’s do the show right here’ only happens in Hollywood. Manufacturing and organizing processes only become obvious when the music is done and we’re making the final, physical record – only at this point does the record-making process coincide with material mass-production in a way that you can see and touch.
What is less appreciated is the difficulty of assembling the necessary people and equipment in the right place at the right time, and the flexible response necessary as music takes shape and gradually establishes its own rules. Music is not specified in engineering diagrams; its existence is hinted at in scores, chord sheets, lyrics, the waving of arms around in the air over warm beer. However, as it emerges, it imposes its own demands on the way it is made, and no matter how personal and intuitive we may feel its effect, its creation can only be achieved using means just as practical as those used in digging the garden. Unlike turnips, however, growing music means dealing with a moving target.
We impose some sort of order on our crazy surroundings and the way we see them, and this becomes an ‘artwork’. The ‘artist’ is often placed, often unwillingly, on a rarefied pedestal, somehow apart from other earthbound concerns. ‘Clapton is God’ was a common graffito in Britain in the sixties and seventies. It’s often overlooked that creation is an intensely practical exercise, and also serves a necessary social function just as much as collecting the garbage. Dirty fingernails are still an occupational hazard.
The organizational demands of film-making are far more onerous; double the project size and you more than double the logistics. It becomes overwhelmingly and tediously obvious with a big-budget film where it can seem as if there are more drivers, caterers, wranglers etc than anything else. Three Manhattan blocks may be saturated with trucks, dollies, cables, catering tables and irritable residents, all for a shot lasting perhaps 15 seconds of a two-hour film. The front-line crew of actors, director, photographers disappear in this teeming sea. Screen credits can take five minutes to roll by, contrasting with a half page of album credits even when the artists feel obliged to thank God and grandma.
To make the presentation easier, I’ll use as an example the making of a single record, albeit a relatively complicated one, so we can stay relatively close to the central functions. Making the tea or ordering pizza is not a specialist, unionized job separate from studio assistant; the music production business is mostly non-union. But, even with this example, a record where I was the central director and organizer (and therefore didn’t have to send memos or play too much politics), there were still twists and turns depending on the outcome of a particular musical development stage. You can spot a new, promising, practical musical direction and suddenly find your careful plans quite bent out of shape. Unless you put your music in a straitjacket, it will always try to escape, obeying a logic which seems so obvious at the end of a successful project but which can seem quite impenetrable while it’s being put together.
Many listeners never question where a group’s sound and style come from. It’s a given, treated as if it arrived fully-formed in the mail, but that’s never true, never the case, particularly since an artist’s own public sound is now presumed synonymous with their sound on record. It has always been a curious exercise for a sympathetic commercial record producer to try to divine the essence of an artist’s sound – when it had not even been heard yet. The resultant political tension provokes much weaving, feinting, and fighting in the studio. Often, an artist will not have a clear idea, not being fully aware of the studio possibilities, but will naturally feel obliged to make firm statements; that is the artist’s responsibility. In my production past, fortunately for me, it was generally possible to work with musicians with an opinion and something to say. Although this did not guarantee immediate delivery of the record, at least there would be a solid center, a reference point.
Some producers defined the style of their artists. Phil Spector is a prime example, with his ‘wall of sound’ productions, notably for Ike and Tina Turner, the Crystals and the Ronettes. Additionally, localized labels such as Stax and Sun (Memphis), Island (London and Kingston) and Motown (Detroit) were able to develop a recognizable style coexisting with distinctive artists, often no more than some perceived honesty, credibility or shared values. Spector’s style was so powerful that he has since been locked to it, both in the mind of the public and, apparently, in his. His magnificent and massively successful production contribution to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, released in 1970, shows perhaps unusually the benefit of matching a singular artist/writer with an established sound vehicle. For such a combination to work, each strong factor should balance the other, unlike when a style is adopted purely because it is fashionable. The continuing torrent of limp, indifferent recordings hanging on the coattails of rap and grunge (USA) or synthi-pop and techno (England) show the moderate success that can be contrived by the short-term assimilation of someone else’s language. The style becomes the substance, and it fades quickly. For me, the most exhilarating production experiences have been when style changed in conjunction with the message itself, such as danceably with Soft Cell’s Tainted Love (1981) and Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy (1985). Each of these drew on emerging dance styles but developed and subsequently transformed the mainstream.
Regrettably, as music business structures become ever more rigidly defined, it takes the massive confidence of experience or naïveté to deliver something truly new. My last commercial production before retiring alive from that particular coliseum, the first version of Marc Almond’s The Last Star (1994), might have been such a turning point, as it felt at the time like the strongest work each of had done, but the final remixed/re-recorded version fell back into stylistic cliché. The record company and management didn’t have the courage to back this radical departure by a major artist; the artist was content with the path of least resistance. It probably cost more than the original New York album to recast it in familiar style.
Just as we should be suspicious when a style is applied repeatedly and beaten to death, we have to avoid falling into repetitive work habits, a harder course. Music, by its very freedom from tight definition, by its fundamental tension between what is expected and what is surprising, should keep you alert. When looking at how the best records were made, you will generally find a story of twist and change. In setting out, you had better be ready for it.
People had been on my case to make a record ever since I entered high-level record production in 1977. Although training and experience in both science and music seemed the perfect, powerful combination, I was quite happy working with an ongoing roster of artists who did things differently, often crazily. They had more to say than I did. But then came boredom with the same old routines, glamorous and lucrative though they are. Records became increasingly made to a marketing specification based on analysis of what had been successful; taking an intuitive chance with some loopy artist was not dressing for success. It’s tempting for anyone to repeat a successful formula, but each time you do, the impact is a bit less; the best music has novelty embedded in it. At the end of two stimulating years working at a corporate level in the new music technologies, my sabbatical was over and I was ready. First logistics: the record had to be song-based, but I don’t sing. Where would the songs come from? This seemed like a lot more to pull together than when making a record for a ready-made group: hence, the convenient case study here.
As mentioned, sounds and styles never arrive ready-to-wear. They generally develop organically from a smaller thread. Although I’ve used the example of a group’s sound, any record, no matter what style, will have a starting point and an evolution. To people who make them, if they stop to think, it’s not a mysterious process. For my particular record, the starting point was an idea for a different recording approach to the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant. This song, one of whose demos I had recorded in 1976 while in the Artists and Repertoire (A+R) Department at EMI Records, London, belongs to their classic period which is encapsulated in their raging first album, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols,
Everyone has their own opinion about the Sex Pistols and their music; for me, Pretty Vacant is, among several things, a consummate pop song. Hooks grab your attention immediately, hinting at possible underlying meanings and always grounded in the healthiest dose of punk irony. The obligatory chain-saw guitar style of the English punk seventies caused many listeners, even at the time, to overlook the late seventies as a period of frantically inventive pop song writing. The Moon In June it wasn’t, but the ferocious exterior masked some simple, direct, unsentimental truths which were just as accessible, and certainly resonated more with the contemporary local population. It came from a socially convulsive time, one of a few in which music connected inseparably with the world around it.
Perhaps, 21 years later, dumping Pretty Vacant with a new delivery in a new social environment would yield a new message. Truthfully, though, things weren’t as thoughtful as this. It just felt like a good fun idea to trust, without the dead weight of words. It was especially pleasant to see Glen Matlock’s (the co-writer’s and original Sex Pistols bass player’s) expression when I told him my idea of the singer to assume Johnny Rotten’s artistic inheritance. Once you have done something, you can er explain everything. At the time you can often only wave your arms around and look stupid.
Before the early sixties, at which point singer/writers such as the Beatles overthrew the hegemony of Tin Pan Alley and a sewn-up music business structure (which might be increasingly familiar today), it was the norm to sing other people’s songs. Different singers would interpret a song in their way, in a style which they had evolved themselves. The routine of pushing a new song to artists was highly developed, but does not survive much outside Nashville now.
The Communards performed Don’t Leave Me This Way in 1986. When first issued, it had been recorded by Harold Melvin and Thelma Houston, with both singles charting simultaneously in the UK in early 1977 (Houston’s version was #1 in the US in January and February of 1977). Clearly, the song and its musical and social surroundings were not locked.
When you cover a song, there is no point in making a stylistic copy of the original recording. Many do, often established artists who fancy trying on a style for size, and it often yields adequate, workaday economic results. But the song itself says the same as before, and such a presentation can really only cater to those who missed it the first time round: it’s rare that you sense any rise in excitement over the original, and anyone familiar with the first will just yawn or complain about the youth of today. However, by putting a song into a brand new context, you change its meaning. You take advantage of a proven shape, but you change the message. The mood of a beach is different between high noon and sunset, but the geography is the same. Tainted Love is my classic experience of the change, in this case from the quasi-rock+roll stomp of the Gloria Jones reference recording to cool synthesizer dance music.
Pretty Vacant suggested further possibilities, as any great song will. I wasn’t limited to a single set of performers or sounds. So perhaps the instrumental parts could be take-no-prisoners techno. Since I knew The Uptown Horns (possibly the best working section in the USA) as friends and frequent collaborators, it was possible to add in the sound of a tough horn section, many of whose strengths I knew intimately – after musicians work together for a while, they know each other’s tics and twitches and develop a shorthand which rules out the need for much explanation and enables getting much further together. This was beginning to sound different. Developing both the techno and the written horn parts on the computer promised a real integration of electronics and acoustics, by giving the chance to preview the parts, simulating the horns on similar synthesizer sounds. On top of this racket must go the sweetest, most innocent female voice. And another layer of irony on top of the original.
Kit Hain was a very prominent artist in Europe at the end of the seventies, and I produced two solo albums for her in the early eighties. I called her at the end of 1996 with the idea to sing the song from 1976 which could barely have been farther from her style at the time. A beautiful and bright woman, she has one of the richest, warmest voices I have ever worked with, and it was this sound that pushed her first single, Dancing In The City to chart heights everywhere except the USA, reaching #3 in the UK; incongruously, she overlapped as label mates with the Sex Pistols at EMI during their brief stay before the conservative top company management threw them out for handicapping their knighthood prospects. She co-wrote the song with Julian Marshall, her partner at the time, and later developed to concentrate successfully on songwriting. As she points out, it’s less in her temperament to be the focus of attention, and she was uncomfortable with the socially-prominent star role that she had to play in the early eighties. By 1998, when we finally delivered a recording after over a year of martinis on the strength of what we might do, her voice had developed even further, through assiduous training, and her musicianship was even more solid. Unusually adept at finding a helpful harmony and voice tone, she was clearly an instrument for creating a huge vocal arrangement. On the phone, she liked the idea immediately. Off we went.
Having had early critical and commercial successes in musically uncompromising areas, cushioned by innocence of how the real world conducted its business politics, it had been possible for one single test to determine whether I would work with someone: it had to be ‘music that I like by people I like’. For most people I knew, and certainly for many of my commercially successful friends, the role of creative artist had stiffened into a constant round of routine record business functions, and music was increasingly made not so much to an artist’s novel, crazy vision as to a marketing specification. The streaming and refining of the target audience for mass-market records that were made excluded a wide range of talent from the marketplace. Ironically, by focussing on tight demographics as exemplified by the Spice Girls’ audience, they had excluded the greater part of the population, including me.
It was time to play in the sand pit with ‘a few talented friends of mine’. Having known them all for many years after first working together, I knew their strengths in a way impossible on a first encounter. Much preparation requires extended social time; with a group this is typically between rehearsals, and requires developing a type of business friendship (which can develop into but must never be mistaken for the full version). This working closeness has been lost in the business tendency to change the record production team routinely, generally following the style of the moment; there is now no time to settle in and develop together. When I started in 1976, a producer would work with an artist for a period, during which a number of recordings might be made. Now, a producer is assigned to a record, maybe even to just one track on an album. This makes it very difficult for any artist to develop and maintain a characteristic sound: even Michael Jackson has less sonic character to his records than 15 years ago.
Since I wasn’t going to learn to sing attractively in six months, I should assemble a vocal repertory company for the rest of an album. But how many? And, still nagging, what should they sing? Even more importantly, how can you arrange the music so that the album doesn’t just sound like a collection of other people’s tracks? And how can you get the most out of these strong vocal personalities while keeping them within a consistent overall sound? Clearly, the sound of a new ‘act’ had to be defined. This had to become a producer initiative, in the manner of Phil Spector, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia, or Berry Gordy with Motown Records. Although the vocal sound eventually emerged through trial and error of the imagination, such a producer’s initiative had plenty of historical precedents.
With old doo-wop, early Motown and early Phil Spector records, the vocal arrangements are so thick and complex that you don’t listen so much, as we with most contemporary pop records, to a vocal ‘personality’ at the center of the record stage. With those styles, as with gospel singing or a barber’s shop ensemble, you simply listen to the singing without the specific personal dramatic presence of the singers themselves. The energy is in the vocal sound itself. Parallel with the rise of related visual media, the last 30 years have placed increasing importance on peripheral characteristics, from political stance to haircut. In the good old days, it wasn’t so much the singer as the song that spoke to you. Singers with Kit’s sound and technique could build a big, dramatic sound, substituting sonic drama for the visuals. As the voices built in numbers and power, the effect could move away from that of a soloist more towards that of a choir with attitude.
I expected some songs to coalesce from my notes of 20 years. Some would be from other writers. Finding songs is an erratic process, taking considerable thought to separate a candidate from a record or style that you love and anticipating beneficial changes, more than change just for its own sake (the reggae version of White Christmas has been done already). A new direction was suggested when I met Lene Lovich socially in New York for the first time in many years. Lene’s rare achievement in the late seventies was to create an utterly distinctive, recognizable style wrapped around her own songs and score hits with them; her visual and theatrical styles were as exceptional and as compelling as her music. Over ten years previously, with her partner Les Chappell, we had tried to assemble five tracks on a shoestring (theirs) in New York. Typically, we ran out of resources and the record company that distributed her records in the US (Epic) refused to add any demo investment to their own cash. Failing to deliver had rankled with me.
One song, Natural Beauty, had stayed in my mind, an optimistic song of such lyrical ingenuousness as to be unique (like most of their efforts) and which had finally been released on her March album in 1990. With an imagined sound of big synthesizers, horns and massive vocals, I had my second song to be transformed by the gathering human resources. There were dangers in the big singalong approach: ‘Natural beauty still survives/I can see it in your eyes’ could be an inspiring anthem, but could also turn out a little like a Hitler youth marching song gone wrong. I mentioned the idea to Lene over the meal table, and cracked the Nazi caution joke. She laughed and said would I like backing vocals? I said yes please.
Lene, whose own singing style could be used as a definition of vocal personality, had made recordings peppered with odd vocal sounds. Perhaps she would be interested in using her similarly unique vocalizing against an instrumental backing? Rock And Roll Part Two, is a staple stadium-rousing Gary Glitter single which started as a routine track and became a distinctive hit thanks to an inspired mix for the B side which dropped the main vocals and emphasized simple, cheerful licks and vocal cheers. This spirit suggested a dance idea lurking somewhere, pure innocent fun. Discussing it, we realized that such a co-composition would need some common vocabulary, not to mention a dictionary: hers.
The following June, we had an extremely private session at her and Les’ studio in Norfolk, England, where she simply made extreme vocal noises to a steady drum machine pattern: not the sort of noises with which to go public, but a hair-raising guide to possibilities. A second session the following week completed the first volume of the encyclopedia. Any one of many extraordinary noises she made could have been the basis for a fun, enjoyable party piece, but a better trick, as with any instrumental or vocal gesture, is to create a context within which the sound would make musical sense instead of being just a isolated muscle exercise inspiring passing curiosity. The audience must sing along with this stuff. Over to me for an instrumental foundation, to be horns and synthesizers. Time to think. I promised faithfully never to play those tapes for anyone outside the project, not that it would really bother her.
Now that there were two songs, it was time to find out who might sing the rest of the album. Kit’s Pretty Vacant, which was to be one of the last songs recorded, had been the perfect thought experiment, and talking to her had helped me define many parts of the sound and ‘act’. I wanted the feel to be that of a band, a repertory company, not a Mike Thorne ego-trip or solo artist. I would lead from behind and be the glue; there was no need for me to be in anyone’s face. The joy of the playing-in-the-sandpit image was essential for vigor and freshness. This must not be some producer’s indulgence or postmodern jam session; such routines are fun at the time for performers but usually tedious for the listener. I wanted to make a record that people would get. So the next singer, potentially of Natural Beauty, had to have a different sound and personality from Kit, but have the same capability for building up large vocal arrangements. She had to be female, to help the album’s overall sound to hang together. And she had to be a friend with whom I had worked, so that we could get straight down to artistic business; the discovery period had to be over. As with Kit, we had to trust each other in the record-making process which, historically, is littered with fraud, exploitation and rip-off.
Sarah Jane Morris is one of the loudest people I know, in both voice and personality. Meeting on the tumultuous and socially charged Communards sessions in 1986, we had remained firm friends as she developed her own solo career (even trying some demos together in New York before being separated temporarily by a sleazy manager). Her voice is big and tough and has an unusually low reach, which was to prove a secret weapon in filling out the bottom of the big vocal arrangements. She goes lower than many men. Things were looking good for her; she could routinely draw 3000 fans to her Italian concerts who would sing along with her songs in English, and she had a solo record to make later in the year. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She became the second singer to join the repertory company. We arranged to meet in June when I was in London visiting and she was there rehearsing her band. I continued collecting songs to record, also intending to settle down and complete my many accumulated music notes.
Meanwhile, I had contacted the Uptown Horns. We had worked together collectively and singly on many records, including many by The The, Bronski Beat, the Communards, Carmel. I had produced two tracks for their own record, released in 1987. While we had generally dealt in traditional solos and punchy rock+roll/R+B arrangements, I knew that they were open minded and would try anything with energy, commitment and a powerful technique: a real chance to experiment. Sonically, they were to be where a rhythm guitar might have completed the instrumental section, over my basic drums, bass and synthesizers.
The vocals presented an unusual arrangement challenge, since horns and vocals compete for the same sound space, using frequencies in similar ranges. Further, female voices have always been more difficult than male to place in raucous, or rock+roll instrumentals; arguably, the male voice and the rock+roll sound evolved together and the connection with the higher-pitched voice came later. The pitch and voicing of the arrangements would have to be chosen very carefully, or the top of the record would just sound like a battleground, with any eventual victory being purely Pyrrhic. In the studio, you are constantly balancing resources and time against some imagined ideal of sound or gesture. Even in those rare cases where the budget is not an issue, you find that energy, enthusiasm and concentration are. What you achieve is not necessarily what is ultimately possible. One liberating technical innovation from the last ten years has helped make horn arrangements easy enough at the basic level for us to attempt something further: the computer and its sequencer software applications. When a creative process is hard, you’re often thankful to get anything satisfying. When able to print horn parts quickly, from the computer on which the arrangements were assembled, it becomes feasible for them to hit every track with a horn arrangement which has been test-driven. This cut preparation to a quarter of what it might have been before, eliminating hours with pencil and music paper.
Using the computer to play horn-like synthesizers gave a useful preview of the eventual sound, permitting changes to be made in real time and sound-checked immediately. The Horns could hear the sketch before playing a note. The computer even printed the performance parts for transposing instruments. (For contorted historical reasons, most wind instruments sound a different note from that shown in the score with, for example, a played C on a trumpet coming out as a B flat. Each player therefore has a different key signature to read, and transposing by hand had been another rich source of time-consuming errors to be corrected on the session.)
Song collecting was getting busier that summer. Once you start excavating methodically, you can find so many forgotten, unrecorded and lost songs, often having been retired in the audience’s mind because of the original recording’s antiquated style. It is always essential to select songs with a certain sensibility, in this case mine even if they were written by others. It’s hard to define, and not easy to achieve. You might expect album coherence should be automatic for a singer-songwriter, but even a solo artist doesn’t automatically write songs relating to the same sensibility. I was overwhelmed by the abundant, unexploited quality. The singalong chestnuts, though, could stay out of the fire.
The ‘cover song’ album has been concocted by artists as diverse as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Brian Ferry, Duran Duran, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, David Bowie and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Invariably, the songs chosen are well-known by some sector of the population. Frequently, they sound shoehorned into the artist’s style, an uncomfortable fit, and they can often be grating for many listeners who know the originals. Since the marketing department wasn’t breathing down my neck, I had far wider choice, and could use songs that weren’t saddled with old stylistic baggage. You can try your own thought experiment – think of any song you like, then an artist you like singing it. It’s likely that you will imagine them lapsing into a pastiche of the original’s style. When free from the commercial imperative of recycling the hits, a process similar to the recycling of style mentioned earlier, the only obligation is to remake any well-known song in an unexpected way, as with Pretty Vacant or You Got Me Anyway (an Ian Sutherland composition for Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, released in the early seventies). Otherwise, just get to work with the resources you have assembled – and no more if possible. Many tight songs have been confused by the superfluous string section or exotic solo where the instruments already present on the album could have done the musical job.
Some songs stay with you, and I had several from old productions. Two unrecorded Marianne Faithfull songs, Sexual Terrorist and Self-Imposed Exile, had stayed in my head for ten years, after the aborting in 1986 of what would have been her last rock+roll album, one which easily rivaled Broken English in the intensity of its songwriting. I was concerned that she would dislike someone else making the first recording of her songs, but she was more than delighted that they were being recorded after being apparently buried, and contributed further lyrics. Ian Sutherland was similarly enthusiastic. Dealing directly with the writers led to fine tuning that helped the end result: lyrical changes from Ian and Marianne, and even a brand new verse and chant from Lene. Big time brand recognition was not required. Another previously unrecorded song, Ships That Pass In The Night, came from Carol Lipnik, a singer/writer little known outside lower Manhattan who I met by chance through a mutual friend who lived upstairs from the studio. Eventually, I had 16 songs divided into A and B lists; my own unfinished compositions were being edged out by such quality and quantity.
It was time to circulate the songs to the singers, to check personal preferences, but there was still one voice short. With two singers on the record, it might still feel like a schizophrenic collection of other people’s recordings, particularly with such contrasting sounds as Kit’s and Sarah Jane’s. You often overlook the most obvious things. The three-woman group BETTY had been close friends of mine since we made Hello BETTY together. Unsurprisingly, three strong, uncompromising women and an unusual record hadn’t been able to get arrested by the mainstream record business, so they had worked the record on ‘The Man From B.E.T.T.Y.’ label and ultimately sold 25 000. Twelve years of working and singing together had made them one of the tightest singing groups I had ever worked with. In conversation one will pick up an idea seamlessly after the other so that sometimes you might be talking with one variable person, which can be quite disconcerting. They practically breathed together, and for several years even lived together: no social punches pulled. With their technique and flat-out raucous pop sensibility, they provided the perfect completion of the vocal department. Five cassettes of 16 songs went out.
All this music was to be made at my private studio, the Stereo Society, coincidentally established in 1986 during the recording with Marianne. Although the room had been constantly improved over the interceding twelve years, to embrace extensive video and graphics equipment, it was worth further upgrading for this event, to take advantage of enormous price drops in mass computer storage and increasingly capable sound manipulation software that runs on desktop computers. The venerable Studer 24-track tape recorder had been sold; it’s now in the Philippines. To complement the 16 recordable tracks in the big integrated Synclavier music computer system, the studio acquired further composition (sequencing) software and a further 24 tracks of disk recording. The story of meshing together self-oriented soft- and hardware into a real music recording environment which is not just a nerd’s paradise, is as long as that of the artist logistics, but is as dull as it was frustrating. The music world is especially afflicted with software writers who think that their way of doing things is central to the world, and acknowledge the functioning of other software with difficulty. This can often be compounded by a clear lack of practical, professional studio experience. But, after all the interfacing agonies and loss of several weeks to equipment setup, it is quite satisfying to start recording and not see anything mechanical move.
It’s clear why many professionals still stick with the tangible tape recorder, giving up the convenience of playing back any part of a recording at any time – it’s simple, you can handle it, and you watch it go round. If something goes wrong, it makes funny noises. Much of the music recording and composition software available, even more than business software, suffers badly from the ‘because-you-can’ syndrome, which often causes basic functions to be obscured by a cloud of options that you never wanted anyway and probably will never use. However, I had lived with the Synclavier and its idiosyncrasies since 1979, watching it grow into what is still the only completely integrated recording environment, and couldn’t imagine letting go of such convenience. It’s my ‘axe’, as much as any lead guitarist’s Fender Stratocaster, and your music can only be delivered through the machine you use. Seductively, the computer takes this one step further by combining both composition and performance functions. They converge, and preparation for a recording increasingly means preparing your own personalized digital workspace, in contrast with ten years ago when you would work in a studio distinguished more by the personnel and their attitude than by the space and the equipment in it.
When asked, ‘how can your record of other people’s songs sound like a group,’ it was easy to answer that my sensibility provided a narrow filter. You wouldn’t ask the question of Ella Fitzgerald, or of the Rolling Stones when they were playing other people’s blues from America. But the fear that the album would sound like a disconnected, incoherent set of exercises in virtuoso record production persisted until well into the vocal recording: a guiding paranoia nevertheless. In the end, the songs were all other people’s. Thanks to elapsed time in some cases, and brutally different reworking in all of them, they say very different things from the originals. Inevitably, the singers had little initial idea of my plans for the instrumental support, apart from some vague verbals and waving of the arms. They still had to sing it, and that’s very personal. They had to listen through the recordings I gave them to the abstract essence of the song as it connected with their sensibility. More than anyone, they had to dissociate the song from the style of the original or the demo.
You know when a singer is lying, even if you care to go along with the fiction. Do you believe anyone who would sing about The Moon In June? You might use it to escape to an ideal fantasy world, but you know it’s not the true story. Closer to my world is the extrovert, worldly directness of the punks of the mid seventies, rather than the wet, manipulative fantasy of Mariah Carey. I had invited into the repertory company a tough bunch of personalities who, while they were all wide open to new ideas, would never dream of singing something they didn’t mean. Because of that shared quality alone, I knew that the singing on the finished record would have force and conviction, but to get the best out of people meant being very aware of their taste and inclinations.
Curiously and conveniently, every singer came back with different preferences, although there was competition from all three for a few of them. This was lucky, especially since some people were indifferent to a few of the songs, although it was gratifying to see this change as we built up the finished vocal arrangement. There were a few universal choices, often on the angriest songs. Janis Ian’s mellow delivery of From Me To You, from her Between The Lines album of the early seventies when sensitive singer-songwriters were in vogue, disguises a fierce lyric; all the ladies wanted to sing Sexual Terrorist. The good Captain Sensible’s Toys Take Over was left fairly alone except for Kit’s very strong interest. The finished track was to leave him with more fans. Sarah Jane thought Black Lace Shoulder, an intense song by Metro, an English group briefly registering in the late 70s, was her first choice; no-one else even put it on their short-list. This exercise would have been much more extended with one singer, one point of view. You can easily see how unresolveable arguments over song material flare within the encounter group otherwise known as a band.
The horns and the additional, non-electronic drums (by Allan Schwartzberg, for years one of New York’s top session drummers), along with Lene’s vocalise on most of the tracks, would provoke their own twists of the recording later, as the new sounds brought their own personalities and strengths. But this first crucial linking of singer and song gave reference point and backbone. A horn arrangement for Kit would be different from that for Sarah Jane, to complement their different sounds. Since the singers were to be recorded first, horn arrangements should be clear in advance so that all would work together to build a track’s contours, its drama. A solo from trumpet, muted trumpet, trombone or saxophone should work in the context which was being developed, not just glued on. Solo instruments should be decided in advance, and distributed evenly among the four Uptown Horns members. However, there was a further logistic issue that would influence the choice: the running order. Although it sounds very simple, it can radically change the impact of the music.
Effective sequencing and pacing of tracks on an album can often baffle a self-contained group (and their record producer if they have one). Currently released CDs have perhaps 12 tracks, about as much as anyone wants to listen to at one time. Thanks to the way music marketing and promotion depend on a small number of key tracks (still quaintly referred to as ‘singles’), many albums come out with second-rate filler material; budget constraints can subtly reduce the urge of an artist to try a potentially new direction that suggests itself as a track grows in the studio. In LP days, five tracks per side was the norm, and it was routine to put the first single as the first track on the first side. Radio programmers’ attention spans were assumed finite.
The emphasis on the single track and the dominance of the CD had two curiously conflicting effects. Since you can quickly check out any track, the single did not have to lead the presentation. There was also more chance to appreciate the CD as a coherent whole; you could start and finish playing without turning it over, and you could pause at any point if the phone rang. There was a chance to shift moods in many more ways: more confusion.
With ten or more tracks from a group, ranging between fast and slow, light and intense, the sequencing can be left until the recording’s end. In my case, the running order had to be defined, or at least addressed, before any recording. I had previously felt the need to do this on very few productions. Wire’s first album in 1977, Pink Flag, had 21 tracks put in order in my living room; it took over two hours for the five of us to sort out. Without presenting itself as that most awful seventies artifact, the concept album, it achieved an unusual coherence growing from the way the tracks flowed and, in some cases, overlapped.
My album example gets much more complicated than the norm, a potentially terminal tangle. Consider the assembly: twelve songs in three groups of four; two tracks just using multi-layered saxophones as rhythm; seven tracks with full four-piece horn section as rhythm; four tracks with assorted solos; three different types of vocal character. Well ahead of the final song choice, I had defined the structure of the album as these three groups, with an instrumental intro and outro using the horn section, wordless vocals and soloists, separated by two short pieces for solo piano as relief from the densely arranged songs. Now, make the restrictions: no adjacent tracks from the same singer; no adjacent tracks with similar rhythm sections. It’s already a Rubik’s cube or Chinese puzzle before you even try manipulating mood changes. There was a real possibility that it would be mathematically impossible to find a running order satisfying these rules.
The last planning issue faced was perhaps the most dismal. It’s routine for sweet, innocent artistic idealists to complain about the dead hand of commerce and the restrictions it places on creativity. This is pure pose. Even uncompromising artists don’t live on thin air, and self-sufficient musicians from Beethoven downwards have existed within some economic framework which paid a living wage. However, the structure of the commercial music business has become so Byzantine that it needs agents and facilitators to find a way through to a particular solution. The density of the undergrowth is directly proportional to the potential for chicanery and fraud. Here, we’ll just look at an extreme version of the problem of acquiring clearance to make a recording of someone else’s song. Specifically, we wanted clearance to issue a recording of a translation of a song performed by Céline Dion on her 1995 French-language album D’Eux.
It was an early midwinter evening in 1996. I had traveled to Paris on Warner Music new media business, arriving at the Gare Du Nord by train from London. It was raining in the City of Lights as I settled into the taxi. The view through the lazy windshield wipers would have been over the top in a stylized local film. A moody song came on the driver’s stereo, in a setting corny beyond belief, sung passionately and elegantly in French, and it worked as powerfully as any choreographed opera scene. We got to my hotel, I asked who it was, he said some new young singer, he couldn’t remember who. He opened the trunk and pulled out the album for me to see.
Le Ballet is a truly beautiful song, pop verging on French chanson, originally recorded in a cool jazz, finger snap mood. After checking my sanity later with a London record purchase, I thought of making a bilingual version, with the complicated, formal verses in English and the refrain left in French. Most people can figure out what ‘le ballet commences’ means, and if not there are printed lyrics. BETTY were very keen to sing the song; Amy Ziff translated, a difficult task to move a poetic original to the English language which, in many cases, did not have a corresponding image. As with all the songs by other people, we had to obtain clearance, to get permission to publish our new recorded version. A translation needed the nod from the original writer. We contacted the US and Canadian publishers, since although there was only one writing credit, the economic interests were split.
A November call to Sony Publishing in Toronto yielded a very helpful reply, but we had to contact New York for the other half. Three weeks later, we were still traipsing around low-level EMI functionaries in our town, who suggested we send a fax and a tape to a faceless department. A caustic fax was set to go to, copy to Sony, when I simply called the head of A+R out of the blue; typically, we had several mutual acquaintances. His was the next helpful step to clearance by writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s company in Paris. Communication by EMI New York to Paris didn’t produce any reaction from Europe, until New York came up with the name of someone in JRG Productions. We spoke on the phone, followed up with the fax of the lyrics and a brief description of the project; three days later all was in place and confirmed. It took three or four helpful people in three cities spending time to overcome the dead weight of the system. In late February 1997, we finally went ahead and recorded the vocals with BETTY. If you think it’s dull hearing who called whom and where, imagine what it’s like dealing with this mechanism when you’re ready to go with an exercise of the imagination.
This record had some extreme planning problems in it, but every time you make music there has to be some logistical effort. All this calculation and setup might happen before a single sound is made. As in most things, a little planning goes a long way. Even while forming the repertory company and setting up for recording, unexpected twists would drive an immediate formulation of Plan B. It can’t be laid out too strictly, though – there always has to be a delicate balance of terror between the anticipated and the unexpected. Plan too carefully and you put this rather wild musical stuff in too constricting a vessel. The balance is not easy to achieve. But you had better have your plan together before the real action happens. The real sounds, and that big special musical moment where everybody breathes together, can slip out of your grasp like a bar of soap in the bath.