The Making of Street Life and the Manipulation of Sound

The Making of Street Life

If you are a Roxy Music fan, as I am, the above article is an interesting read over at Uncut about the making of the song Street Life.  In reality that is narrowing the article down a bit, as it also deals with reflections of the band from that whole period, when Brian Eno left and the band had to make the album Stranded.  For those of you that don’t know, Roxy Music not only gave birth to the career of Bryan Ferry, but yes, also world famous musician and producer Brian Eno.  Eno was only on the first two records, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure.  Also, the band was more than a two man show, as everyone that was a member of Roxy Music was extremely talented.

Some of you that have been reading along might wonder how I could jump from the earthy roots rock reggae to the seemingly more alien Roxy Music.  However, all great music creates cinematic worlds.  One doesn’t want to watch one kind of movie all of the time do they?  Also, in the way that Roxy Music and Lee “Scratch” Perry manipulated sounds, there is a commonality between the two.

One thing that I find really interesting, and perhaps you will as well if you make records or are interested in how they’re made, is the manipulation of existing sounds.  Manipulating sounds has been made easier now by modern technology than it was in the 70’s, but I find it no less enchanting if done well.  Often when one records something you will notice that a certain section lacks something.  When you play live the sheer enthusiasm with which you play something, the ambience of a room, may cover up the fact that a part of a song lacks some quality to make it stand out compared to the rest of a song.  When one notices something like this in a studio often the first idea is to add some kind of new overdub, whether that is a new instruments, a harmony, or a second part by an existing instrument.  I’ve found a really interesting way to get something unique, while remaining true to the existing recording is to manipulate something sonically.   You can either manipulate something that is there already, or duplicate something that is there and then manipulate it beyond recognition.  I personally really like manipulating guitars.  Because there are so many human elements in the playing of a guitar, the way a string is pressed down, the tuning is rarely absolutely perfect, etc., when you manipulate a guitar in a unique way it usually ends up being a sonic one-off, something that can’t be repeated exactly.  I know there are some people that want to be able to duplicate a recording as perfectly as possible live, but I see live performance and recording as different formats.  If you want the formats to match, that is up to you, but it doesn’t matter.

Yesterday I was listening to this period of Roxy Music on headphones and the guitar solo of Amazona blew my mind.  It is not only greatly played, but the way that section is manipulated and treated adds so much to it.  You are never taken out of the world of the song, but the world of the song expands tremendously through this solo section.

Bass Lines, Bootstraps, and The Myth of the Individual

Last night I cut a baseline in a studio that I felt was really great.  I almost thought about bragging about it, in fact I totally did to a couple close friends!  However, I started thinking about how that bass line was the result of listening to lots of other bass players and that, whether it is good or not, I only had a little hand in its creation.  Also, on top of that, I have had friends, teachers, mentors, and parents, that have in some way shaped how I played, whether directly or in allowing me to learn my craft.  Not only that, but every musician on any record has a similar story of people that helped them to learn what they do.  You get four, five, six, ten people on an album, plus those doing the technical work, and all of sudden you have links to hundreds if not thousands of other people.  How many records did they listen to?  Who taught them?  Who paid for their first lesson?  If they were writing lyrics did they read a lot of different writers, who in turn have their own groups of people?

In America we like to tell ourselves that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But doing something completely by yourself isn’t really possible.  We love the individual, and certainly some people are more unique than others, but the individual never accomplishes anything completely on their own.  The most you can hope to do is to combine things in a way that others have not done, and that is original enough for me, but to do something that has no ties to any other person is something that only exists in myth.

I also was thinking how we devalue music in our current cultural atmosphere.  Some people scoff at paying for songs.  But think about it, really think about it, and you will realize that it takes a staggering amount of hours and people to give birth to even the simplest of songs.  The same can be true of any art form.

I also reflected again on the ending of Mad Men.  (Spoiler alert)  A friend talked to me about the end of Mad Men, where Don Draper’s whole journey led him to create a Coke commercial.  His view was that one way to interpret it was that nothing created comes out of a vacuum.  In another way, and I would be one that can see it this way, this is a sad ending as a man’s life long struggle ended up as nothing more than a piece of advertising.  However, at the same time it is a great way to view anything that has been created.  Nothing comes from out of nowhere.

The O'Jays – Message In Our Music

A really great forgotten soul record is The O’Jays album Message in Our Music.  It sounds like it cost a million dollars to make.  It’s soul music as opera or symphony.  It’s a big sound, in line with other Philly Soul albums, with strings, horns, keyboards, Spanish guitars, exquisite backing vocals, and a rhythm section that won’t quit.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg!  Some of the rhythms are disco, but when played super badass drummers and bass players, it doesn’t matter.  These fuckers can lay down a pocket.  The O’Jays sing as if their lives are on the line, as if they have ever done anything different.   This as far as sound could be pushed, the pinnacle of recording, before technology started moving things in the other direction.  There are love songs and message songs.  The O’Jays on one knee crying, while the backing vocals act as a Greek chorus.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike the dirty funk of James Brown, this music is silky smooth.  However the world is big enough for both.  And when the O’Jays make you believe in every note, when Eddie Levert is shredding his vocal chords in search of love and meaning, there is is enough earthiness to go around.  

P.S. If for some reason you are new to the O’Jays I would probably start with Back Stabbers, but almost their entire 70’s output has something to offer.

Climbing Gear for a Dream

I spent the better part of the afternoon working with Alex Moralez, a brilliant drummer, on grooves for an album I hope to record later this year.  It’s both inspiring and challenging at the same time.  On one hand you are slowly building something out of your dreams.  On the other hand you are spending hours on a small part of a three minute song that maybe very few will hear.  You are setting out to climb a mountain you have always wanted to and at the same time realizing for the first time how fucking high up it goes.  Plus, when you are in the beginning stages of creating something, it is best not to get too married to something.  You might not get a take of a song you like and you will decide to bury it.  You might decide to change the song completely at some point.  We are still several months away probably from even cutting anything.  But I look at cutting demos like making sure you have the gear needed for a trip.  You can’t plan what will happen on the trip, other than having a slight indication of where you will go.  However, if you don’t have that gear, the things you need to travel, the trip can’t even happen in the first place, or if it does it will surely be a disaster.

My Wild One by Thin Lizzy

My Wild One

I will be on the road most of the day today.  Headed to a festival in Florida.  If I can get more posted from the road I will.  In the meanwhile above is Phil Lynott and the timeless Thin Lizzy to start your day right.  Their album run from Fighting through Black Rose is as good as any rock band’s.  And all of their albums have things to recommend them.  If Lynott had lived, who knows, who knows…

Snake Killing at the Symphony

One of my favorite orchestral pieces is Sensemaya by Silvestra Revueltas.  It’s an incredibly visceral piece that was written in Mexico City, and is one of the first widely famous orchestral pieces by a Mexican composer.  It was based on a poem that was about an Afro-Carribean ritual performed while killing a snake.  The piece itself has a snake like sound as the tension is slowly ratcheted up, like a python slowly crushing its prey.  It’s violent, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time.  Stripped of its origins it is the kind of piece that can take the imagination many places.  Is it the sound of a tribe of cannibals, mysterious ancient ruins, a battle about to take place, or something far stranger?

Morrissey, Jackson Browne, Buffy Sainte-Marie

#buffystmarie show. #moz #jacksonbrowne

A photo posted by Jesse Tobias (@8stitches9lives) on

I couldn’t help but post this picture of Morrissey and Jackson Browne together.  To top it all off they were both attending a show by Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Anyone that has read this blog for awhile knows that all three are favorites of mine.  All three are also writers who have a mastery of poetry and politics.  They have the ability to look out at the world and describe what is going on with unique insight.  They are original voices, first-rate melody writers, and absolutely fearless.

Look at the Facts by Buffy Sainte-Marie:

For America by Jackson Browne (Yes, the production is dated, but what a song!):

Last, but not least, Mountjoy by Morrissey (Mountjoy is a notorious prison in Dublin):

The Ramones, Grandpa Munster, and Phil Spector

Ramones_-_End_of_the_Century_cover

Marky Ramone Excerpt

Marky Ramone is set to release an autobiography called Punk Rock Blitzkrieg:  My Life As a Ramone.  The above link is a section of the book that has posted at Rolling Stone Magazine.  I learned how to play and write my own songs by listening to the Ramones when I was a kid, long before I could learn or figure out anyone else’s.  I was probably around 12 or 13 at the time.

The book itself, if this excerpt is anything to go by, seems like it will be an entertaining read, to put it mildly.  Here is a paragraph where the Ramones first meet Phil Spector, who happens to be sitting with Al Lewis, who plays Grandpa on The Munsters:

Grandpa Al was more than a left-winger. He was an eccentric and one with a delusion here and there. He told us he served on the legal defense team of the 1920s anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There was no doubt Grandpa would have if he could have, but he was about eleven years old at the time—or an infant, depending upon which birth date you believed. He also informed us that in the sixties he met Charles Manson, who babysat his sons. “He was a gentleman!” Grandpa said. Hearing this, Dee Dee started talking about his own sons, who didn’t even exist, and about his fictional days fighting the Vietcong. Someone should have grabbed a tape recorder, because this was an album.

Ghost Songs

This afternoon I fell into the deep and dark sleep of the the hungover, only to awaken to a cold grey and white grave like early evening.  It looked as much like a dream outside, and a far more nefarious one, than the dream I had just been having on my couch.  Realizing that my dog had not been walked I put on my headphones and headed out the door.  I put on the last two songs from Bash and Pop’s album Friday Night is Killing Me.  Those songs would be Tiny Pieces and First Steps.

What an album!  It is one of those albums that I discovered in a used CD store some years back that has never completely left the rotation.  And yet it is an album so few people know about.  I wonder how many people even own that album?  It was Tommy Stinson’s first album after the breakup of The Replacements.  It is full of loose disheveled rock n roll.  The playing is simply fantastic, especially the guitar playing.  It has so many cool little guitar parts delivered with a ton of feel.  The production is organic and inviting.  It really is one of those great lost rock n roll gems, like if the Faces had some record out there that had escaped release.  It’s not music that will change the world, but it is a record that always manages to change my mood when I am listening to it.  I imagine it does that for other people that have discovered its charms.

It’s funny how the things that can mean so much to us, like dreams, are things that so many other people will never ever know.  How many great albums are out there that we will never hear?  Even more, how many great songs were written that have been lost to the sands of time?   Unlike many other types of art that must be rendered in physical form in the doing, usually songs that make it to record often leave behind many other ones that never will.  Shadows and spirits of sound that a songwriter may deliver in their living room, that are swept aside as the times change.  Ghost songs.  Not the songs of the dead, but the songs of the deceased emotion.

Maybe that organization of sound was developed into something better.  A lot of times it is just a numbers game.  You only get the financing to make so many records.  At the time you choose what you think are your best songs, although it can be very hard to judge your own work.  You record them, in a process where so many things can be lost in translation.  Then out of all of the recordings that are made only so many of them find an audience, often having nothing to do with the works validity.  Even for the most popular of artists it can sometimes be a losing game.

Friday Night is Killing Me is one of those records that at least got made, but has been largely forgotten.  It makes no difference, other than maybe in the financial bearing of its creators.  They made something great.  They took a chance and dreamed.  Even if they are few and far between, there are still people out there like me whose souls are warmed by it on a grim afternoon, as if we had suddenly stumbled upon the hearth of a friendly fire after a great storm.

One day you’re stumblin’ around
The next you’re thinkin’ of the town
And the friends that you thought would always be
With old friends come those greetings
That your eyes won’t be meeting
Though your insides want to embrace
You hardly recognize the face
With Chicago round the corner
Baby takes her first step today

Bash and Pop First Steps

Recording Ted Hawkins Baby

I’ve been busy playing shows and recording the last few days, so I haven’t been posting a lot.  Today I had simply one of the most amazing musical experiences that I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.  I got to record with Elizabeth Hawkins and Tina Hawkins, the late great Ted Hawkins’s widow and daughter.  I’m not a religious person, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut, a secular humanist, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”  It was that kind of day.

Right now there is a Ted Hawkins tribute record being put together.  The Shinyribs band is the house band for anyone that doesn’t bring their own musicians in.  Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell is one of the producers.

There is something indescribable when family sings together.  Hearing a mother and daughter sing their husband/dad’s song was extraordinary.  These two sang like angels.  It had that kind of purity and heart that you hear on 1960’s girl group records.  I felt, listening back to them, that I temporarily took a trip outside of space and time.  This was timeless music, as it was pure emotion.  Keith, Kev, and I tracked in one room live, with the two women singing live in the other room.  Let me tell you, it was easy to play well while you were hearing those two songbirds in your headphones.  (We recorded the song above.  The video above is a brief live clip of Ted Hawkins.  There is a recorded band version of this song that we based our arrangement on today.  I should also mention that Elizabeth Hawkins sang with Ted Hawkins on his records and also helped to arrange some of the material.)

There is so much more I could say, but the proof will be in the recording when it is finally available.  Often when you record something you have no idea how the final product will turn out.  However, today was one of those days when you just felt lucky to be there.

P.S.  If you haven’t heard Hawkins’s Watch Your Step album, it is a must buy.  I’ve never heard anyone that didn’t like it.  HIs other records are fantastic too, especially Happy Hour, but Watch Your Step is a front to back masterpiece.