Monday, June 15, 2009

Rock-'n'-Roll, Live Performance and the "Recording Artists", Part 1

Part I: Recording

Songs published during the earlier part of the era of recording, almost always had a traditional beginning, middle and end. This was true right up to the 1950s, but in the following decade, certain “artists” began to exploit recording for its own potential, indifferent to how it would be performed live. In particular, the rise of independent music producers such as the eccentric Phil Spector, saw the creation of songs that were meant to be heard as studio recordings, not recorded versions of songs intended for live performance.[i]

Spector was the originator of the famed “wall of sound” technique, in which “layers” or tracks of voices and instrumentation (including string and bass ensembles, but also, several different guitar, piano and drum parts) were used to create a thundering, “heavy” effect for songs such as Be My Baby or Do Run Run (both credited to the Crystals), music that was really lightweight pop. Spector wrote or co-wrote most of the songs recorded by the Crystals, the Blue Jeans, the Checkmates, the Ronnettes, and so on, and really all of these groups were not viable acts as such, until Spector assembled for them the purpose of recording songs, and the “wall of sound” itself could only be achieved in a studio.

Indicative of this is the use, on many of Spector ‘60s hit singles, of the “fade-out”, in which the chorus is usually repeated as the volume of the recording is gradually lowered to nil. Obviously, such a “conclusion” for a song could not be carried out on stage. Many Spector songs also departed from the traditional in Western music by including, say, only two verses instead of three, and ignoring the conventions of line composition. Certainly, the Spector acts actually did tour — not individually, but together, as part of old-style (paradoxically) revues reminiscent of the early recording age, in which each act would perform for a quarter-hour by turn, in front of a large orchestra with brass and woodwinds. It was the only way, outside the studio, that the “wall of sound” could be reproduced at all. But none of the Spector acts from the ‘60s were known for their prowess on stage, and indeed, the acts themselves and their individual members were scarcely known then, and not remembered at all in the present day. He took an established artform, the 45-rpm “single”, songs for which had previously consisted of recordings of live, in-studio performances, and created music that used the medium of recording itself as the starting point.

Spector is the only person, aside from George Martin, to have produced an original album by the Beatles, Let It Be (1970). This record, which was released following the unofficial break up of the band in 1969, was recorded in January of that year. Originally, with Martin at the helm, it was an attempt to do away with the recording-studio “trickery” that had characterized Beatles’ albums of previous years, to “get back” (the original title of the record) to where the group would record their songs live to tape. This decision proved disastrous, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney no longer very chummy (both had suddenly shown up with girlfriends at recording sessions, breaking an informal code). The results were, for the most part, desultory, and eventually the raw tapes were given to Spector to create a saleable product, which ironically called for the application of the studio “tricks” and “wall of sound” that the group had forsaken in recording the songs in the first place.[ii]

Nevertheless, the Beatles’ successful evolution from the pub band of Hamburg and Liverpool in the early ‘60s to key musical innovators during the period 1964-69, was due to their use of the recording medium as an artform, music created and manipulated before and beyond actual live performance. Unlike the acts produced in the U.S. by Spector, the Beatles were a genuine, though perhaps unremarkable, musical act, with years of gigging behind them, when they were signed by the EMI conglomerate in 1963. By 1966, however, their music had become so dependent upon, or founded in, the recording medium, that the group gave up live touring altogether.

Unlike Spector with his artists, the Beatles’ producer George Martin had no domineering role over the personalities of the group’s members. He was, though some years older than the band, just in early middle-age, and not in fact a fan of rock’n’roll. Martin was not much of a producer of recorded music at all before the Beatles, previously concentrating on spoken-word and comedy records, such as those for the Goons (which included the actor Peter Sellers). His own musical talent was minimal, but he certainly grasped the technical side of the recording medium as it existed at the time. Martin’s open and gentlemanly demeanour evidently won the trust of Lennon, McCartney and the others, and so he and the four were able, over many singles and full-length albums, to synthesize performance and recording in a very successful and exciting manner. For this reason, Martin must be considered the true “fifth Beatle.”

One example from the Beatles’ repertoire demonstrates how essential was the recording medium to their later music. The song Strawberry Fields Forever was released as a single (a “double A-side” with Penny Lane) in early 1967, just after the group’s last tour. The finished record consists of two separate sessions of the same song, the one a guitar-bass-drum-vocal track, the other a simple vocal in front a string ensemble. In production, Lennon, the lead vocalist, reportedly liked both versions, and wanted to combine them. Martin objected that they were in different keys, and thus could not be merged successfully, without the one or the other being off-key. To overcome this problem, Martin actually slowed down the tape-speed of the traditional band track, so that it could go together with the string arrangement. The result, which makes Lennon’s lead vocals seem dream-like, even narcotized (appropriately, given the year of the song’s release), is very memorable and effective. Yet, there was no way that it could be performed on stage (at least in that era) in the manner that it was heard on record, as the music is not actually heard in “real time.” (Strawberry Fields, perhaps for the first time ever, even has a “false” fade-out, in which the song “ends” with a seemingly conventional fade, but then returns for a brief instrumental / sound collage reprise, only to fade out again).

The most popular of recorded music, from the 1960s onward, has employed the medium itself in a highly “technical” way, to produce sound that could not be reproduced in live performance.

John Densmore, drummer for the Doors, described in a memoir the group’s early experience with the studio. He writes that while their first album took only six days to record, the “first few days were frustrating because recording wasn't the same as playing live. [Producer Paul] Rothchild held our hands as we learned the process. I didn't know you couldn't have the same `sound’ as onstage. `Too live and echoey,’ Rothchild said. Paul wanted to damp my drum skins, and it hindered my technique but after a while I fell in love with the big snare drum sound it made. A fatter, dead drum sound recorded better than a live hollow one.”[iii] “Too live”, is the key phrase. Recording is what transcends live, making music uniquely artificial. Densmore goes on to show how the hit song, Break On Through, was recorded:

`You should try another vocal, Jim,’ Paul prodded. `We'll put the new one on another track and you can choose between the two.‘

Jim [Morrison] nodded and headed back out to the vocal booth.

`Just point your thumb up or down if you want more track in your 'phones.’

After stumbling on a second take, Jim did a third, erasing the second because we were out of free tracks. (We were recording on four-track equipment, nothing like today's twenty-four track recording.)

`I like the first half of the original vocal and the second half of my second performance.’

`No problem. Bruce [Botnik, the engineer] and I will glue them together in the mix.’

I found the recording process fascinating — getting a basic rhythm track (drums, bass, and other rhythm instruments), then overdubbing voices and instruments as needed. The danger of so much control was the possibility of losing the feeling, the soul of a song; the advantage was that each of us had the chance to be satisfied with his performance.[iv]

Ray Manzarek, the group’s organist, speaks about far the Doors came when it came time to record their second album, 1968: "Strange Days is when we began to experiment with the studio itself, as an instrument to be played. It was now eight-track, and we thought, `My goodness, how amazing! We can do overdubs, we can do this, we can do that — we’ve got eight tracks to play with!’ It seems like nothing today, in these times of thirty-two- and even forty-eighth-track recording, but those eight tracks to us were really liberating. So, at that point, we really began to play ... it became five people: keyboard, guitar, drums, vocalist, and the studio."

The advent of multi-track studio recording introduced the experience of “virtual reality”, at a time when computers were still room-sized data-crunchers. The recording process, from the Beatles on, has generally ran as follows: a song, whether wholly or partially composed, is rehearsed over again until it is judged satisfactory by the performer and / or producer. Then, the musicians (whether a band or a group assembled especially for the purposes of recording) will “run through” the tentative composition while playing as an ensemble, but with each part recorded separately from the other (in booths or behind sound-barriers). Then, using the best recording of the bass-and-drum part, the “treble” parts (vocals, guitar, keyboards, strings, etc.), will be dubbed and re-dubbed (each separately) until they, too, are judged polished and professional enough for publication. The drum or bass parts might thus be recorded over again, using the playback of the treble parts already recorded.

Virtually all recordings consist of grafts of various other recordings, pastiches of space and time in which performers interact only with technology. This division and subdivision of aural reality has led, in some cases, to breakdown and even insanity. Brian Wilson, the composing genius behind most of the Beach Boys’ surfer hits, spent more than nine months and $100,000 recording the group’s classic, Good Vibrations. Some time later, in 1967, Wilson suffered a breakdown while trying to put together the legendary Smile LP, which never saw release as a Beach Boys record. The minute division and subdivision of sound by modern recording-technology is itself absurd, and dissonant, which can provoke nervous collapse in those already disposed (as with Brian Wilson) to mental illness.

Meanwhile, the Abbey Road record, released in the autumn of 1969, was a fitting coda to the career of the Beatles. The album itself seems a sort of last hurrah — the final credited song is even called The End (there is the short verse, Her Majesty, which comes a minute or so after the “official” end of the record). The last original Beatles release, in 1970, was Let It Be, which was recorded before AR. The band, on Abbey Road, could keep it together enough to complete one side of music, albeit in the non-collaborative manner as heard also on the self-titled album and Get Back/Let It Be. Side two, however, contains but three whole songs, followed by seven or eight half-songs that are “completed”, made to seem part of a suite of music, through the “trickery” of recording media, the specialty of the fifth Beatle, George Martin.

Abbey Road is the crowning glory of the band’s career, because Martin was made a full partner with the musicians in the enterprise known as “The Beatles”. In fact Lennon, McCartney, Martin, Harrison and Starkey, carried off this artifice rather handily, creating a very listenable, exciting album (the tricked up “suite”, starting with You Never Give Me Your Money, and ending with The End, is amongst the most attractive music the band ever recorded). There was no better title for it than Abbey Road, the (then) informal name of the EMI recording studio located on that street in the borough of Westminster (it is, literally, the road to Westminster Abbey). For, it was music that, in the form it was presented, could exist nowhere but in the recording studio — the exact studio in which the Beatles recorded all of their releases. Even the sleeve image seems fitting: no title, just a colour photo of the band walking single file on a zebra crossing on Abbey road. None of them, of course, are face to face. The assembly-line placement of the band in the photo, and the vanishing-point view of the street behind the group, seem figurative of the Beatles’ final incorporation of music with technology.

Other acts followed in the Beatles’ wake. Notably, Led Zeppelin had Robert Plant as its lead singer, but the real frontman was the guitarist and producer, Jimmy Page. Page never sang on a Zeppelin song, but his mastery of the recorded medium was evident all over the group’s repertoire. He was, essentially, the musical director of the band, and the “medieval” and mystical themes that permeated the music and visual motifs of Zeppelin (such as the design of the band’s logo) were largely of Page’s influence. The band’s fourth album, from 1971, is untitled (or its “title” consists of several occult symbols, with Page’s consisting of the famed “zoso” graphic), and contains the signature track, Stairway to Heaven. Timed at more than seven minutes, this song was for years played at the conclusion high-school dances, when teen couples got close, and the unlucky slunk away, in the dark (as satirized in the Barenaked Ladies’ track, Grade Nine). Stairway is a stunning testament to the power of records to create a truly unique form of music, “ensemble” playing that in fact is a skilful synthesis of individual performances, each rehearsed and recorded to a level of perfection and complexity not reproducible on stage. It merges what are, in effect, three different songs, and attracts because it touches on divergent aspects of the rock listening experience: soft, mid-tempo and hard. Indeed, most of Led Zeppelin’s music is a skilful, in-studio fusion of acoustic and electric, “the Incredible String Band meets Iron Butterfly”, as Page himself put it.

The seamy side of Zeppelin lies in the fact that, while Page was a recording and guitar “wizard” (for years, he’d been employed as a studio musician, playing on the Who’s first single, I Can’t Explain, from 1965, then joining the seminal rock act the Yardbirds — Zeppelin came out of the corpse of that group, at first known as the “New Yardbirds”)[v], and Plant was a fine singer, neither were songwriters of the calibre of Lennon and McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Pete Townshend of the Who. Accordingly, most of their early music was stolen outright from American blues, and British and U.S. folk, musicians. The song, Bring It On Home, which the rock world knows as being penned by Page and Plant, and released on the second Led Zeppelin LP, from 1970, is a direct rip-off of a song of the same name by Sonny Boy Williamson, who died in 1964. Numerous other Zeppelin songs, especially from the first albums, are wholly or in part stolen from earlier sources, without acknowledgement or royalties paid.

And, as Zeppelin’s best music was in fact a product of recording media, they were as a band not especially great as a live act (although their concerts always sold out), especially when called upon to play their own repertoire, over-complex as it was for a four-piece band without over-dubbing. This is witnessed on the only “live” album the band put out while still active (the group broke up in 1980 with the death of the drummer, John Bonham, from alcohol poisoning), called The Song Remains the Same, taken from a 1973 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York city (the performance was also released as a film). The double-album contains most of the Zep favourites, including Stairway to Heaven, all of them inferior to the same songs as “performed” in studio. Accordingly, the band had to employ various gimmicks (such as Page’s use of a violin pluck for his guitar on Dazed and Confused, or Plant’s ham act on Stairway —“Does anyone remember laughter?”) to keep the audience’s attention and its “faith.” Without the recording medium, and its mastery by Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin would have remained just a very loud pub band.

Generally, a rock band’s prowess in live performance derogates from the overall strength and quality of their recorded output. The Beatles (or Lennon and McCartney) understood that they had to cease touring if they were to make great records. Led Zeppelin toured, very successfully, while publishing million-selling discs, because their audience were not discriminating or knowledgeable enough (being adolescent, for the most part) to understand that the group was, in reality, a counterfeit.

Superior to Led Zeppelin, in terms of stage prowess, were the Rolling Stones and the Who, both of which were London bands. The Who’s Pete Townshend was a very good, and often inspired, songwriter, both with the band and later as a solo artist. But he and his mates (Roger Daltrey on vocals, and the now-deceased rhythm section, John Entwhistle on bass, Keith Moon on drums) were also a very solid live band, even in spite of Moon’s “sloppy” technique, and were quite capable of bringing alive a football stadium of 70,000 or 80,000 people. Consequently, the Who only released two truly excellent albums, Who’s Next, from 1971, and Quadrophenia, two years later. The latter was a “rock opera”, depicting in songs the “four-part” personality (hence “quadrophenia” instead of “schizophrenia”) of a young London “mod” from the early ‘60s, over four sides of a long-play album. Its many songs stand up today because Townshend and his production staff had a couple of years (since the end of the last tour) to create music that was not dependent on live performance (such as The Punk Meets the Godfather, which concludes side one).

Consequently, not very many of these tracks were subsequently included in the Who’s live sets (the band only performed the whole opera a couple of times). The songs on Who’s Next, which was also recorded at leisure, after the end of the previous tour, were but fragments of another of Townshend’s “rock operas”, this one called Lifehouse, which was reportedly about the rediscovery of music in a post-apocalyptic future (as indicated in the first song, Baba O’Reilly, often mistakenly referred to as Teenage Wasteland.) Baba O’Reilly concluded with a violin solo by a session musician, itself not readily reproducible on stage (Daltrey did the part live on harmonica). The Who remained popular so long as they remained vital in live performance. When Moon died (of prescription drug overdose) in 1978, he was replaced by the technically-superior Kenny Jones, but the original esprit de band was somehow lost with the passing of the manic-depressive drummer. The group, less Moon, Jones or Entwhistle, who died (of cocaine-induced heart attack in 2003), continues to tour, cheaply trading on past glory for present enrichment as a retro act.

The Who’s early singles remain “classic”, while their first albums are deservedly obscure. Records like A Quick One, from 1966, and The Who Sell Out, from 1967, are full of ditty-like tunes or oddities composed by Entwhistle or other group members. The Who’s first solid LP was also Townshend’s initial “rock opera”, Tommy (1969), about the “deaf, dumb and blind” pinball wizard who goes on, for some reason, to lead a religious cult. A double LP, Tommy is a product of recording media. But Townshend and the producers had not yet mastered the technical side of the studio, and the “opera” is consequently an aural disappointment (Moon complained that the drum parts on most the songs sounded like he was hitting biscuit tins).

Nevertheless, the album, and its lead single, Pinball Wizard (which was, in fact, an effective use of the recording medium), were smash hits in the U.S. and Britain. By the time Who’s Next was released in ‘71, Townshend and his staff were masters of the studio and of recording. Who’s Next (voted by Time magazine in 1979 as one of the ten best of rock in the decade) effectively employed the novel electronic synthesizer, while keyboards, brass and lush string arrangements backed many of the songs on Quadrophenia. But again, as the Who became as famous for its live performances as for its records, the latter inevitably declined in quality — even before Moon’s death.

Townshend, the songwriter, became increasingly disenchanted with being a “travelling juke box” (contributing to his drug and alcohol problems), and attempted to go solo before staging a “farewell tour” with the band in 1982. His excellent Faces Dances (1981) seem to establish him independently of the Who. But Townshend’s solo career petered out during the ‘80s, forcing him, Daltrey and Entwhistle, by 1989, to embark on an ignominious “comeback” tour, followed by yet more nostalgia tours during the ‘90s. The utter collapse of the recording career of the Who, as well as the esteem accorded them generally (they were once treasured by critics as “thinking man’s rock”) is one of the most remarkable, and yet unremarked upon, stories in rock history.

The Rolling Stones remain, more than forty years after their formation, popular, not because of the strength of the band’s recent recorded output, but rather, because they can still expertly perform music in front of tens of thousands of people. Lead singer and songwriter Mick Jagger, in spite of being more than 60 years old, is a master frontman and a celebrity in his own right. The band, in its recording heyday in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, released many great singles (I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Get Off of My Cloud, Paint it Black, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, etc.) and a trio of excellent albums, Beggar’s Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1970) and Sticky Fingers (1971). However, the Stones have not had a smash hit single (in North America or Britain) since Start Me Up, from 1981. The group came out of the London pub blues scene that arose in the early ‘60s (as did the Who, the Yardbirds — which included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck — Fleetwood Mac, Procol Harum, Spencer Davis Group, John Mayall, Long John Baldry, and a host of lesser acts).[vi]

Jagger and Richards were heavily influenced and even borrowed from the bluesmen of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, but never so blatantly as did Page and Plant some years later. They crafted these influences together with requisite originality, but Jagger and Richards are not quite of the songwriting genius of Lennon and McCartney, not even of Townshend. The Stones’ claim to rock “greatness” lies in the fact they’ve always had it together enough musically to play their songs, and “covers” of blues classics, with undeniable verve and potency, whether live or on record. Consequently, the early Stones are as well known for their singles, as their albums — as is the case also with the early Who. Records such as Stones’ Between the Buttons (1965) or Aftermath (1966) are far from awful, or even mediocre, but they don’t compare with the Beatle albums released during those two years, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Most of the early Rolling Stones records contain cover songs, and “filler” — well-performed, mind, but nevertheless not original. Their premiere foray into recorded music didn’t occur until 1967, with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request, a less-than-successful “psychedelic” album, in the mould of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tellingly, the Stones’ tour-de-force records from 1968-72, eschewed the blatant studio trickery of Satanic Majesties, for the more stripped-down ensemble playing of blues and soul, supplemented by capable studio musicians on keyboards and brass.

But from 1972 on (when the group embarked on its first world tour), the Rolling Stones maintained their renown mostly through grand concert tours every four or five years, and thus the importance of their recorded output declined with each successive release. Jagger and Richards (the other original members have mostly retired) have defied not only maturity in years, but an adulthood of debauchery, fame and stress, to front a credible live act, even in the present day. But the utter professionalism, the theatricality, of the Stones as a live act, is translated into creative and career exhaustion when heard on record.

Certain groups, like the Who and the Stones, were able to balance, at least for a time, the contrary demands of music as it performed on stage, and as it is assembled in the studio to be heard on record. Success in the one form derogates from achievement in the other, on all but a temporary basis. The saying, “They (or he or she) are a great live act”, implies that the act’s recordings are not especially good, or are otherwise “hard to get into.” But acts that are dependent upon the recording medium for their music, are often said to “disappoint” when performing before a live audience. It isn’t as if the acts oriented toward live performance are more “authentic” or “genuine” than recording-focussed performers. Live performance has long been as dependent as recorded music upon electronic media. The difference between the two forms lies in that the one is public, literally “on-stage”, and aims for merger of feeling and consciousness between audience and performer, while the other is (mostly) domesticated, literally “off-stage”, and tries to affect the mind and body at a more idiosyncratic, individual level. The 45 rpm exists as both a private and public form, played over the radio and at dances, but also at home. A single is a not success unless it is heard in over radio and the hi-fi, although its “chart” placement will not depend on how well it is performed live.

Whole albums are almost never played except in the domestic setting (or in a domesticated place such as a quiet bar/restaurant or coffee house), however. When in concert, “album” rock groups don’t generally play the entire of the new release they are touring in support of, but mix these together with old favourites. The “classic” albums of the rock era, from 1967 to 1982, were, like all advanced artforms, meant to be absorbed intimately, as paintings or prints are placed on walls, and novels read when “curled up” in bed or on the couch. The looseness and flubs typical of the live performance of even the tightest acts, are accepted or unattended to by a paying audience, when the performer can inspire communal feeling among all assembled. The greatest records must exclude such errors, as they are more easily detected through multiple auditions in the domestic surround.

Parts 2 and 3 are in the same blog entry.

[i]. “Phil Spector.” The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 3rd. edition. R. Bonds, ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1982), pp. 215-216. Spector was convicted in April, 2009 of the second-degree murder of a former shlock-film actress, and received a nineteen-year sentence. Aged 69, it may well be a life sentence for the producer.
[ii]. The song Respect, a hit single also from 1967, was written by the soul singer Otis Redding (1941-67), but made into a smash by Aretha Franklin. Franklin’s work from that period was produced on Atlantic records, by Jerry Wexler, who is less well-known than either Spector or Martin, but who similarly used the recording medium as an artform. Besides Franklin, Wexler produced singles by Redding and numerous others. He explained that, like Strawberry Fields, the Franklin version of Respect is actually two different versions of the song, put together by studio “trickery.” The two versions were not, like with Strawberry Fields, overlaid on top of each other by slowing down the faster take. Rather, the “other” version is heard during the brass-and-sax bridge, in which the song abruptly changes key but, Wexler claimed, “this was only a problem during live performances.” However, listening closely, there is a perceivable discontinuity between the vocal and the bridge. M. Azzerad, A. DeCurtis, D. Fricke, et al., “The Top 100 Singles of the Past 25 Years.” Rolling Stone (issue no. 534, Sept. 8, 1988): 61-149. Franklin’s version of Respect is ranked at no. 6 (67).
[iii]. John Densmore, Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors (New York: Dell Publishing/Delta paperbacks, 1991), p. 86.
[iv]. John Densmore, Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and the Doors (New York: Dell Publishing/Delta paperbacks, 1991), p. 87. The Manzarek quote following, is found on page 128 of this title.
[v]. “Led Zeppelin.” The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 3rd. edition. R. Bonds, ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1982), pp. 137-138.
[vi]. “British R&B.” The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 3rd. edition. R. Bonds, ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1982), p. 42.

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