American Culture

TunesDay: everybody sounds better on the record….

The way that the vast majority of people experience pop music (unfortunately – and btw, you should get your lazy asses out to see live music 3-4 times a month at the minimum – that way you can find good local artists and support them and quit complaining about the crappy stuff the major music industry outlets shove at you – which reminds me, still digging that American Idol compilation CD you impulse bought?) is via recordings.

What I never hear people talk about when we talk about our favorite recordings – I guess, because even music aficionados don’t know or think about it – is how much records are “fixed” – how many mistakes are cleaned up, how many “happy accidents” occur and are allowed to stand – in truth, how inauthentic records might be considered (to borrow a term that still has great resonance for music writers and critics) are as documents of musicians’ work. Let me offer a couple of examples from classic rock – the stuff we’ve all listened to many, many times.

I was making a long drive Saturday evening (coming back home from an academic conference) listening, as always, to satellite radio.  I’d lost interest in XMU (the college rock channel – too much emo for me-mo) and The Loft (sorry Mike, sometimes the singer/songwriter channel, actually my fave, turns into the apotheosis of the Zappa description of James Taylor: “What we have here is a guy with a guitar, blue jeans, and a great deal of personal hurt”). So I turned to Top Tracks.

Top Tracks is just what you’d expect – the classic rock format that we heard ad nauseum for some 20+ years (it’s why you know Bob Seger’s and Heart’s work way better than you feel you should). I hit them in one of those stretches where they could do no wrong – first came The Who, then The Stones, then Yes, then Cream, then Hendrix, then – then they played Alice Cooper (see above).

I know Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier) has had a long and interesting career since the days of Alice Cooper the band. But I prefer those early albums when he was part of one of rock’s most underrated arena rock bands  – Pretties for You, Love It to Death, Killer, Billion Dollar Babies…. That band gave us some absolutely great rock songs – “Eighteen,” “Under My Wheels,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” just slay me, even now. But the ultimate Alice Cooper band song, most would agree, is “School’s Out.”

“School’s Out” has always bugged me – not that killer opening riff – that’s as good as rock gets. Rather, that opening stanza:

Well, we got no choice/All the girls and boys/Making all the noise/Cause they found new toys….

What bothers me is that the band seems to be playing off time.

Let’s talk a bit about making records, shall we? One of the tricks that almost all record producers/engineers use to get rock bands to play in time is the old clicker (think of it as an electronic metronome that comes in through the head phones). If you listen to that opening stanza of “School’s Out,” the band seems to have “lost the clicker” as they say in the recording business. The engineer jerks the band back on time with a punch (he uses the counter on the recording to time a moment when he edits in [what? an alternate take of  that’s played in time? Reasonable possibility….]) at “Can’t salute ya/Can’t fly your flag….”In other words, the record is “fixed.”

The late Glen Buxton’s guitar lick is so mother——g big I don’t think anyone pays attention. But it’s there. The band is off time – and then they’re back on time. Without stopping. That doesn’t happen in the real world….

I’m not picking on Alice Cooper here. There are plenty of fixes throughout rock. I heard one shortly after on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” with one of Stephen Stills’s guitar parts (the solo that comes in at the end of the brief jam after “Do you think she loves you/Do you think at all?”). It’s again a matter of timing – either Stills missed a cue, or he’s on time and the band’s off. Anyway, there’s a punch as Stills comes in that sets things right.

(Such fixes and “inauthentic” devices are the norm, not the exception. When you listen to music, even to “live transcriptions,” likely they’ve been doctored in some way – ambient noise increased/decreased, vocals enhanced, etc.)

I’ve used classic rock examples above but there are plenty from modern rock. The low fi movement has even made a virtue of ragged sounding recordings that, while proselytizing authenticity, don’t always sound enjoyable. Just saying….

Recommendation? Enjoy your recordings. Just be aware that they’re not exactly the “real” band. But then we probably don’t want them to be….

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13 replies »

  1. There’s a song by Rick Springfield (yes, THAT Rick Springfield) off of 2004’s “Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance” that plays with this. Its the first track, “Perfect”. At first I wasn’t sure what was going on because he was singing off time, “It’s not enough, it’s not enough…” and then he does it several more times throughout the song. I’m positive he’s doing it on purpose and it fits what he’s doing with the lyrics. At first, it was kind annoying. But the more I listen to it, the more I like it. It’s just clever, I guess.

  2. I was thinking the other day about the relationship of live to recorded music. In the beginning, there was nothing BUT live music, of course. And when recording came along, it was used to capture the live experience. But then things evolved and the studio somehow became the venue of record – at that point, instead of getting the recording to hear a copy of the original, we started going to the live show to hear a performance of the original. I feel my inner Baudrillard beginning to stir…

    Today there are bands – not many, but a few – that are better live. The studio can’t capture the authenticity of the performance. Jason & the Scorchers were like that, and Graham Parker is damned sure like that.

    It’s rarer and rarer, though. We’re using tech to perfect the reality out of the music, and that can’t help but have some effect over time, huh?

  3. For some groups, it’s like two different acts. Space Team Electra live vs. recorded, for instance. And some just sound better in studio. Like, I’m guessing, Peter Gabriel’s later stuff (although, admittedly, I’ve never seen him live).

  4. Yeah, STE had the sense to realize that they’d be in trouble if they tried to recreate the live thing in the studio. So they accepted the differences in the two.

    PG is pretty close in both, though – he has massive amounts of tech to make sure of it.

  5. Lyle Lovett sounds even better live… and I’ll be seeing him for the ninth or tenth time next month. Yep. I love him.

  6. Great timing. My band just finished an album last month. As we’re gearing up to play some live dates, I was sitting in my studio last night, listening to tracks off the new disc. The madness that goes into recording an album is such that I often forget what exactly I was doing on those recordings, performance-wise.

    It’s interesting how recordings have gone from being a side-effect of playing live to being the purpose of playing live … at least economically.

    No one likes being tricked into seeing a film that isn’t as interesting as its trailer. Likewise, no music fan enjoys an album that doesn’t somewhat reflect the concert experience they had last night.

    It’s a delicate balance. You have to explore the medium of the live show while remaining somewhat true to the recording. The cart is firmly before the horse. Maybe that’s why the industry is dead.

  7. Hi Ubertramp!

    Yes, Slammy was indeed involved on this one again. I haven’t seen us live in ages, either. Our show next weekend (in Tampa) will be our first in almost five years. I need to move back to Denver as well. Perhaps we should have a (very slow) race?

  8. Fikshun,

    I hear you, brother. We come from a time in the misty past when you played LOTS of live shows before you ever recorded. Now we’re having to record so we’ll have “product” to sell at our live shows and stuff to post on #$#@# MySpace so people will know the tunes and come to the shows to hear them.

    It’s a brave new world for relics like us…

    But we don’t have to play so many $#@# covers, so there’s that…. 😉

  9. Fikshun, I think I have a meeting in Keystone next year. Will that beat you? 🙂 I might just spend an extra week there and force Slammy to take me to a few concerts. Haha.

    JB, do people really buy CDs much at the live shows? It’s been a while since I’ve been to a live show (9+ years, actually), but from what I remember, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of activity whenever the artists mentioned the stuff they were selling.

  10. Mike,

    I don’t think we’ll sell many cd’s. But we’ll add t-shrts and bumper stickers, and they’ll move a little better.

    It seems to be about bling at this point. Since they can find your music for free, you get them to buy stuff that’ll advertise your brand for you. You may have noticed that Ralph Lauren has perfected this model….

  11. Okay. Maybe not so great timing. 😉 After watching this thread, I can’t help but think I would have been better served by going total digital distribution. If we hadn’t pressed discs, that could have left a lot of money for merchandise.

    And to answer your question, Mike, yes, merchandising is where it’s at. Didn’t you see Spaceballs? It’s particularly effective for “established” bands (read: bands whose primary demographic is in the 30-40-something set). I last saw The Church in 2006. I took an extra $80 with me, knowing very well I would be parted with all of that money by the end of the evening. If the band can establish that these items are “tour only” and not something you could get online, you’ll buy it. If they play again within 100 miles of me this year, I’ll do it all again. I’ve only been through this routine with them eight or nine times. 😉

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