Getting into (the) Spirit and other classic rock bands

First off, my apologies for that terrible pun.

Lately I’ve been reading Kent Hartman’s Goodnight, L. A.: Untold Tales from Inside Classic Rock’s Legendary Recording Studios, and it’s quite an interesting read.  The 70s was definitely an interesting and extremely varied decade for music, that’s for sure.  But what struck me was that this is yet another music biog where I’m quite familiar with the titles of the albums mentioned from this era and the surrounding years: The Family That Plays Together, TapestryEverybody Knows This is NowhereRumoursTea for the Tillerman, and so on.

But how many of them have I actually sat down and listened to?  Sure, I know Rumours and Hotel California and Fly Like an Eagle from my preteen years listening to the radio and getting records from the library.  But I know only two Spirit songs: “I Got a Line On You” and “Nature’s Way”, and I only know the latter because This Mortal Coil covered it in 1991.  I know tons of Carole King songs (and I just recently read her autobiography, Natural Woman) but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any of her albums, including her most famous one.

I’m thinking I should change that.  I mean, sure, do I really have enough time in the day to listen to streaming radio stations, new releases, and older favorites on top of listening to classic albums for the first time?  Well, maybe.  I have Amazon Prime so I can give a lot of these a listen essentially for free.  And this is back when full albums lasted maybe thirty minutes, forty tops.  I can fit in a few a day, I think.  I’m always up for expanding my musical knowledge.

It’ll be a long-term project, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun to finally give these a listen and figure out what all the buzz was about.

Favorite recent find: Bob Moses

Every now and again I’ll hear a new song that will just floor me.  Recently I’ve been grooving to this new single by the band Bob Moses called “Heaven Only Knows”.

It’s got that mid-tempo, low-range electronic groove that I love for many reasons: it’s great chill-out music, it’s got a gorgeous melody, it sounds awesome in headphones, and it’s perfect for my writing sessions.

Sometimes when I like a song that much, I’ll zip online and check out the rest of their discography. As it happens, their entire output is currently available on eMusic, so I was able to download it quite cheaply and add it to my collection.

Come to find out, I already knew one of their songs already! I recognized their 2015 single “Tearing Me Up” from hearing it on the various indie rock stations, but always forgot who it was until now.

I gave their EPs and album a good listen today and I can definitely say these guys are going to get some serious play in the next few weeks. It’s really great mood music for the writing projects I’m currently working on, and it’s also great to listen to during my Day Job hours. And they’ve got a new album coming out in two weeks! Woot!

[Battle Lines will come out on Sept 14th.]

Inside Abbey Road

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A selfie of me internally squeeing with joy as I stand in Studio Two, where a majority of the Beatles’ songs were recorded.

You all know of course that I am a huge Beatles fan and music history nerd.  I’m not a fan that wishes I’d been in the deafening audiences of their live shows, no…I’m a fan that geeks out about how their sound was created.  So when our London vacation just happened to coincide with a special open house/historical presentation at Abbey Road Studios, I simply could NOT pass it up. [The presentation was by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of Recording the Beatles, a book about how each song was recorded in the facility.]

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The famous Abbey Road crosswalk from the other direction.  Photographer Iain Macmillan would have been standing on a stepladder right about where that car is on the right side to take the picture.

We arrived there about twenty minutes before doors-open to an already longish line, where there were a few hundred of us waiting to get in.  Once past security (which was understandably tight), we were led into the front doors and into the main entryway.  As I walked through I was immediately reminded of this particular set of Beatles interviews done on 20 December 1966 (they were heading in to work on “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and the interviews were staged specifically to combat recent ‘are they breaking up’ rumors).

Before we were let in to Studio Two, however, they let us take a doorway peek into the amazingly HUGE and cavernous Studio One, usually used for orchestras but occasionally used for Beatle work (“All You Need Is Love” and “I Am the Walrus”, and the various songs from The Beatles laid down while other members were in Two or Three working on something else).

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Trivia: A possible 70s renovation would have split this room into two smaller upstairs studios and the ground floor into a parking garage.  Thankfully it was nixed.

We were then led into Studio Two across the hall, another cavernous room but not quite as large.  Upon entering, you can’t help but think just how unique this studio is, considering that most modern studios are infinitely smaller.  These were created in the 30s mainly for pop and orchestral pieces (trivia: they were extensions of the smaller main mansion, built over the back gardens of two different plots).

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The main stairway up to the control room.  There are stories that John and Paul used to slide down the railing after popping up there to listen to a playback with George Martin.  Also of note: that small room to the right with the red wall was once the original control room and is now a practice room.

They let us walk around a bit, checking out the various instruments and equipment they had set up.  Most of these instruments were used by the Beatles and are still used by others to this day, by the way!  Including many pianos:

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A Steinway Vertegrand, recognizable by its bright tone.  Played on “Penny Lane”.  More on this one in a moment…

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The Challen piano, known for its warmer tones.  Played on “The Fool on the Hill”.

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The Steinway grand (which gives a lovely full sound).  Played on numerous tracks.

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And of course the Hammond BT3 organ, also used on numerous tracks.

We also got to go upstairs to the main control room.  It’s a much smaller room of course, and the mixing desks have definitely changed over the years from the pots and shifters to a sea of knobs, buttons and everything else.

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A view from the top of the stairs.  Of note, the opposite far corner is where the Beatles used to hang out most to record, Ringo usually in the corner facing out, Paul and George to the left and John to the right — just like their live setup.

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The main mixing desk.  I can’t even begin to figure out how this thing would work.  They’ve indeed come a long, LONG way from four tracks in the sixties.  No picture taken, but across the room from this desk is a super-tiny room: in the 60s this was the sound effects cupboard, which was temporarily cleaned out on 13 August 1968 so the Beatles could record “Yer Blues.”

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Completely innocuous and unimportant, but I was tickled to have found their Secret Tea Stash hiding under one of the speakers in the control room.  It gave the otherwise highly technical room a bit of warmth and humanity.

The presentation itself lasted about ninety minutes and was a fantastic historical overview of the studio itself; Kehew and Ryan had not only done research on the Beatles recordings but on its origins.  They touched on all sorts of things such as its inaugural first recording of Elgar recording his Pomp and Circumstance marches (and its true first recording, a test run of a song by Paul Robeson!), its numerous renovations to improve the sound of each studio, and more.  Eventually they’d hit upon the Beatles’ tenure there, talking their relentless work ethic, continuous experimentation with sounds, and more.

At one point one of them got up from the stage and wandered over to the pianos and explained what they were, their differences in sound, and what they were used on.  This was really neat, as he proceeded to play certain songs on them, like the jabbing chords of “Penny Lane” and the soft taps of “The Fool on the Hill.”

Then he said, “We’d like to do something fun now.  I’d like to ask four piano players to–”

I shot my hand up.  I knew EXACTLY what he was up to.  I’d never forgive myself if I passed this by.

Let’s take a look at that Steinway Vertegrand again:

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See those green dots?  Yep.  They’re E chords.  One person stood next to me and hit the low octave, and I hit the two chords and held down the sustain pedal.

Three, two, one, THOOOOOMMMMMmmmmmmm.

The famous final chord of “A Day in the Life”.

The first attempt was a bit off, but OH MAN did it sound magical.  Sent shivers down my spine.  And since the face was open and the strings were right in my face, I got the full blast of sound.  I was so lost in it I forgot to lift the sustain and everyone started laughing.

The second attempt sounded even better, as we let it ring for a good twenty seconds.

I can die a happy man now.

Back down on Earth, the presentation continued, talking about the post-Beatles recordings, from Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon to the movie scores such as the Harry Potter films.  Interestingly, the other bit that gave me shivers was a brief explanation and playback on the use of sound effects, specifically on the opening to Pink Floyd’s “Time”.  They must have used remastered source tapes for that bit, as the simulated heartbeat and the delicate sound of the Shiedmayer celeste (below) almost brought me to tears, it sounded so gorgeous.

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They wrapped up the presentation with a brief overview of what they’re working on nowadays — numerous rock bands still record there (including Paul McCartney, who recorded his upcoming release there), and they’re one of the main go-to facility for movie scores.

I’ve always said the studio’s sound is definitely unique, in that there’s a specific warmth, fullness and resonance to it that you can always pick out.  I would totally record there if I was a professional musician, that’s for sure.  Not just because my favorite band recorded there, but because it truly is a fantastic place for sound.

One added and quite unexpected bonus:  Now that I’ve seen Studio Two with my own eyes, I realized I could now visualize where the Beatles recorded in this room, down to the space between them, and how it would sound in that room.  On the flight home I found myself listening to The Beatles and started visualizing the four of them recording the main takes of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which, serendipitously, they’d started exactly fifty years to the day I listened to it!) in that big place.  Suffice it to say, I heard it in a whole new way.  And now I’m planning on relistening to the rest of their recordings for the same reason.

All in all, one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Oh, and we got VIP badges out of it!

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Vacation Tunage

We’re heading out to London in a week and a half, and my mind is on two things:

1) I need to prep my In My Blue World and Bridgetown Trilogy freebie cards for when we head to Worldcon immediately upon return, and

2) What should I put on my mp3 players?

Yes, while most other sane people in this world prepare for a vacation with more mundane concerns such as what to pack, what they’d like to see and do once at their destination, and so on, my addled brain almost always goes to ‘I need to bring stuff to listen to.’  [Mind you, I do think of what to pack, just that I usually take care of that in the space of an hour a day or so before we go — I always remember the things I must bring like my passport and any show tickets, and anything I end up forgetting probably wasn’t needed to begin with.]

For these long flights, I usually fill up both mp3 players.  The Zen player is for recent releases and compilations, so that’s easy to update.  The SanDisk one, on the other hand, can be tricky.  That one is my writing mp3 player.  I’ve also gotten into a habit of putting (almost) complete discographies on that one, as I can get through three or four albums in the process.  I already have The Beatles on there (both the mono and stereo box sets from 2009, plus a few compilations), and ELO as well (primarily due to work on In My Blue World), but I still have lots of space left.

So…what band’s discography should I put on there?  Should I go old school and put on Cocteau Twins or The Smiths?  Should I do something new and put on Pinkshinyultrablast or GoGoPenguin?  I’ll have to think about this some.

Any suggestions, of course, are quite welcome!

All That Jazz

The first jazz song I remember hearing, even before Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, was Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”. My mom owned the Time Out album and I remember being fascinated yet a little weirded out by the cover, as well as Joe Morello’s sparse yet intense drum solo on the big hit.

I never quite followed up on my brief 1985-6 fascination with jazz, other than listening to it on my Walkman late at night, but lately I’ve been making a slow return back to it. It’s mostly been the new piano-based bands such as the amazing GoGo Penguin…

…or one of my favorites from the last couple decades, Brad Mehldau…

…but I’m yet to fully embrace it as I once did. I’m thinking this is something I should look further into. I mean, I’m relatively familiar with most of the classic musicians like Miles and Monk and Oscar and Basie and so on. I’m thinking maybe I should do a bit of homework and find a couple of good radio and internet stations and get myself back in the groove.

Who are your favorite jazz musicians, old and/or new? I’d love to try them out!

Second Chances

I think it’s safe to say that everyone has experienced that band or musician that just didn’t do it for you, despite everyone else screaming at just how absolutely phenomenal they are. Sometimes it’s because their style just doesn’t suit your tastes. Sometimes it’s that you’re only familiar with their three songs on permanent rotation at the local radio station, despite a lengthy discography.  Sometimes you’re just not in the mood.

And sometimes, ages later, it finally clicks and you finally understand what the hullabaloo was all about.

Bob Dylan is a good example of me not *getting* him the first time around. As a kid I’d only heard a barking troubadour with songs that went on far too long. It wasn’t until recently when I bought that big box set a few years back (The Complete Album Collection) and started listening through the years that I finally understood what he was doing.  Now I get why so many people find him so amazing.

LCD Soundsystem is another one. I was initially turned off by their retro-disco shtick they had going (especially with their then-hit “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”).  Pretty sure they were also part of the wave of bands that Pitchfork found absolutely amazing but about three people had ever heard of them.  Then I listened to last year’s American Dream album and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re a damn catchy band with some fine tunes going on!

Another recent changeover is Parquet Courts. I kinda-sorta liked some of their songs but couldn’t make myself go any further than streaming the songs. Then their latest song “Wide Awake” comes out and man, that is one hell of a fun earworm.  It’s one of my favorite songs of this year.

Or Courtney Barnett, which at first I thought, ‘okay, kind of has a dopey-hippie thing going on’, but then I started listen to her lyrics, which are often off-kilter but deceptively brilliant. “Avant Gardener,” for instance, is actually quite a mundane yet harrowing story of having a debilitating asthma attack. And her record with the equally weird Kurt Vile is actually an amazing blues album.

I guess what I’m saying here is that it’s okay not to jump on the bandwagon and sing the praises (har har) of the bands and musicians with everyone else.  Sometimes it’s better to take it all in at your own pace and see where it goes.

Listening In

dave grohl drumming

One of my new year’s resolutions was to change up my listening habits a bit.  It’s not really about any annoyance with stagnant playlist rotation, although that’s a bit part of it.

No, this time out it’s about wanting to check out new things.  I’d like to listen to more podcasts and audiobooks.  I’d also like to discover new stations that play unexpected things.  It’s the wayward listener in me, I guess?  Every couple of years I like to shake up my long-held habits and try new things, and that includes what I listen to.  Quite often, these new avenues inspire me creatively, in new and unexpected ways.

And hey, it’ll give me more to write about here at the blog, right?

I’m not sure where any of this will take me, and I know it’ll probably be a few weeks before radio sheds its post-holiday ennui and brings in new sounds, so for now I’ll keep my options open.  I also have a few free audio book points waiting for me over at Audible, so perhaps it’s high time I cash them in.

I’m curious to see where this goes…!