Til Tuesday: Voices Carry
Boston has always sustained a prominent rock+roll scene which is both creative and intelligent. The club circuit there, even now, is noticeably ahead of the national average when it comes to enjoying a plain, unpretentious, down-home good time. Posers need not apply. Jeans and T shirts were standard issue for a high proportion of the bands; good looking people with fashion sense were never as thick on the ground as in Southern California. Til Tuesday came as a big surprise to many when they emerged as passionate, entertaining, intelligent and stylish. The lead singer, Aimee Mann, had shown clear songwriting insight even when leading her rather more arty previous band, Baby Snakes. The others were accomplished musicians, each with their own distinctive sound.
With hindsight, their major-label signing was inevitable. Such a combination of qualities is common to attempt, but rare to bring off. Fortuitously, their look and timing were perfectly in sync with the second wave of glamour in the early eighties that carried on from the New Romantics and was reflected in the ambitious extended club records up to the mid-eighties. Til Tuesday was perfectly in step without being unduly calculating, and their sound was very much their own. I heard that sound in front of 30 disinterested punters late at night in a freezing cold Providence, Rhode Island club, not as well projected as that powered out 18 months later at the Meadowlands (in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan) when they entertained 10,000 people as support for Tom Petty. They should have had it all, and given many much pleasure. The eventually-lost opportunity-of-a-lifetime was a huge crash for the band.
The recording sessions were pleasant and relatively uneventful. The four-piece band proved very competent and flexible, able to adjust fluidly if a new, more interesting musical direction was spotted. Aimee was a very articulate, tough-minded extrovert; the other three were slower to confrontation, but just as sharp. We had fun recording the album thanks to their confidence in themselves and the professionally relaxed style of the proceedings at RPM Studios in downtown Manhattan. There were a few minor business visits from Epic, but overall the company was pretty indifferent, the only cheerleader being A+R man Dick Wingate, whose shrewd signing had followed from his early acquaintance with the developing band, well ahead of his competition. Naturally, this corporate oversight would change once the record was moving up the charts.
Love In A Vacuum was many people’s first choice for a single. The arrangement had changed from a fairly laid back piece launched by Joey’s synthesizer bass line to an aggressive, catchy song when, following my suggestion and much practice of the resulting difficult part by her, Aimee’s bass had appropriated his figure for the recording. That and Looking Over My Shoulder were the most popular choices in and around the band. Dick Wingate’s ultimately shrewd choice was the reworded Voices Carry, which seemed to define precisely the band and its style.
The title track was originally written and sung by Aimee as if to a woman. We had rehearsed that format in Boston the previous summer, and for me it was one of the two most compelling songs on the demo tape (the other was Watch Me Bleed). The record company was predictably unhappy with such lyrics, since this was a very powerful, commercial song and they would prefer as many of its components as possible to swim in the acceptable mainstream. I wasn’t certain what to think about the pressure to change the gender of the love interest, but eventually thought that it didn’t matter any to the impact of the song itself.
Would a quasi-lesbian song have had any effect on the liberation of such homosexuals, then as now several difficult steps behind the gays on the path towards broad social acceptance? I don’t think so, but it was hard to judge at the time. As it happened, I produced this album for Til Tuesday immediately after delivering the uncompromisingly gay activist but universally accessible Age Of Consent album for Bronski Beat. Decisions with them were easier, for their politics were specific and out loud.
If there is nothing social to be gained, there’s little point in risking that people might lose the main plot and be confused by something that might be peripheral to them. Maybe better to pull them in, subversively, as the best pop music does. How many more people are now sympathetic to gay people’s issues because they responded to gay artists who didn’t obviously fly the flag but expressed universal human sentiments that appealed to all? We respond to a song’s humanity first, and that is what matters.
Things started to get a little wobbly even on the release of the single of Voices. When you mix a track, you do it anticipating as best you can the circumstances under which it might be played out there in the unpredictable public world. An album would then be mixed for optimum performance on a mid-level stereo system, with an ear to FM radio play compatibility. Should a 7″ single be released, it might be remixed to sound best when playing on the radio or a car stereo, and the album version would generally be left alone. My production contract stated that I had right of first remix, a clause pretty much unavailable today. This insistence had been provoked by past suffering (along with the artists concerned) from inept reworkings of straightforward records.
As the record was being released, I was told that it had been remixed by Bob Clearmountain for the 7″ single. Not what the rules were, I remarked, but it sounded pretty good, as well it might coming from one of the finest American engineer/producers. Suits me. Bob had earned well-deserved professional respect, but was now being courted for remixes because his name on one would guarantee media attention, in the way that a remix by a prominent DJ would be more likely to be noticed in the late nineties. In the business mind, the judgment of remix hangs on quality by association, any musical improvement or heightening of impact being generally incidental.
Voices Carry reached number eight in the Billboard singles chart, and the album went gold on the strength of just that first single. One major help from Epic was a beautifully produced video, made on location in an old Boston theater. The fact that a snowstorm had deterred potential extras for its dramatic last scene didn’t hurt it, although it meant that the last scene, where Aimee stands up in the middle of the audience, couldn’t pull back as far as planned or you would see empty seats. It hit MTV just as they were emerging as the major contemporary force in record promotion.
Then it was winter in London, working again with Bronski Beat, I heard the second single, Looking Over My Shoulder, that had again been remixed by Bob. This time, it needed a call from my lawyer to point out our agreement, because Bob had (I thought, given that music is always a matter of opinion) missed the point of the arrangement and delivered a 7″ which I felt fell short of the potential impact of the album track. Release plans, and the complicated schedule of promotional activities that hangs on a major single, were already in motion. I gave my opinion and left it there, knowing that it would not be heeded, feeling that to disrupt carefully-laid plans would probably cause greater damage than an inferior mix. Some stories relayed from the company meetings suggested that the A+R Department had insisted on Shoulder over the objections of Promotion, who preferred Love In A Vacuum; not a good political move, since it was Promotion’s energy that had got the first record going. Whatever went on, the speeches at that round table are now memory’s prehistory. The second single staggered to number 44 in the charts and gave up there.
The record company was very attentive to legalities before remixing the third single, which actually was Love In A Vacuum. For this occasion, Harvey Goldberg and I (the original mix team) made 7″ and extended club 12″ versions that we felt were among our personal best work. The 7″ was powerful, and the 12″ had an extraordinary combination of dance power and rock+roll sheen. Using early samplers, I added short sections from the previous two singles over the top of the new rhythm track, forming a novel piece verging on being a latter-day Til Tuesday medley. Maybe not cutting-edge club fashion, but certainly fun and new. I mastered both versions and delivered them to Epic. That was the last we heard, until the record came out. It felt from our disconnected, disillusioned workplace as if further time, personal effort and money had turned out to have been casually, clumsily and cynically wasted.
The 7″ was remixed by an engineer whose name I don’t know, but was only described in terms of credits. The record was, to my ears, an unmitigated disaster. Aimee’s heroic opening bass lick was edited to the point of butchery, and the sound was badly defined and muddy. Epic had adhered to the letter of the law of my contract, intent on improving the ‘product’ in the process, but may well have destroyed a record through their pursuit of short-term fame-by-association. Of course, we will never know what might have happened. This third single, rated by many as the one most likely to fly, didn’t even crack the top 100. The album had sold perhaps 600,000 copies in reflecting the public’s affection for the first single; the period of release of the next two singles was unlikely to have contributed more than an additional 50,000. On the face of it, and from my distant view, it appeared as if one of the brightest and most spectacular new group starts of the year had been shattered by incompetence and arrogance.
Later albums from the group felt like more reserved affairs, appealing to their established audience without much extending it. Accomplished they were, but for me the sunshine of the first was missing. The band, inevitably, suffered much the worst, especially when their heightened expectations contrasted with the eventual dismal reality. Personally, they seemed to suffer with variations of resignation and extreme bitterness. I have rarely experienced such an apparently avoidable and unnecessary mess, although my later experience of the group’s decline was at such a distance to remove informed insight. It’s painful to see hard work and passion be less effective than you thought it might be. Even though there must have been extenuating pressures and panic, we all prefer that such wasteful things didn’t happen.
There was one curious business postscript that emerged when a friend commented with embarrassment how bad the sound was on the album. This was surprising, since I had been enjoying production pressings, which had passed through manufacturing unusually well. I borrowed the bad sounds in question.
The contrast with my own (production) copy was extreme. My friend’s disk was screechy, low in level, completely lacking the power of the original. Becoming a very squeaky wheel, although not expecting to get much grease, I called the record company yet again. An ‘investigation’ ‘revealed’ that the album had been ‘recut at the pressing plant’ by ‘the night shift’ in response to the ‘unexpectedly high demand’. Perhaps the demand was such that a recut couldn’t wait until the following morning for Sterling Sound (in New York) to furnish replacement parts. For both sides? The plant manager wrote me a profuse apology, with a cordial invitation to visit. But those awful disks continued to appear. I wonder how and where they were actually made, and by which entity. And how much they cost. And from whom.
– Mike Thorne, March 1999