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.

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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Dialing it back — just a little bit

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Quite possibly my favorite scene from a Prince movie…

One of my many resolutions for this year was to dial back the music purchasing.  And let’s be brutally honest here — I purchase a LOT of music.  Other guys with midlife crises buy sports cars or hang in their mancaves, I obsess over discographies and release dates.  Go figure.

Anyway, I’ve realized that while I do like to surround myself with a lot of tunage, I really have to dial it back.  Not the listening part of it, no — just the buying.  I came to this realization when I started going through my purchases over the last five or six years just to give them a listen, and noticed that a sizeable amount of these albums didn’t stick with me.  They were good albums and I liked them at the time…but five years on, I don’t remember this or that album at all.  Which is fine if I was still a cd purchaser, but you can’t sell mp3s back to Amoeba, can you?  I’m stuck with these puppies.

So…maybe I should figure out a way to dial that back.

As I’m an Amazon Prime member and thus an Amazon Music user, I have my own perfect streaming service.  (Many of you know that I’m not an avid user of services like Spotify…I have weird and quite varying tastes and I break algorithms easily.)  I can use it to listen to albums multiple times to see if it sticks with me before I buy it.  Which is what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.  I’ll give the albums at least three or four listens before I decide to buy it now.  I’ve successfully weeded out a few titles like that already, so this will save considerable money (and hard drive space) for me.

I’m quite curious to see how this will affect my overall purchasing over the year!

Time Keeps on Slippin’ Into the Future

I know, this time of year I always start writing one of my patented nostalgic ‘this time of year I…’ posts.  This one’s probably no different.  Maybe a little bit meta this time around.

Given that thirty years ago, we were going from 1987 into 1988 — two classic years of college rock containing some of my all-time favorite albums — I got to thinking not so much about the music of the time or what I was going through at the time (for once!) but the passage of time itself.

About this time thirty years ago, I was working my meager internship/job at WCAT, then an AM-only radio station, slogging through my junior year.  The station had a listen-at-work playlist, with Red Sox and local color on the weekends.  Kinda sorta current music, maybe a few years behind with a few recent lighter tracks dropped in.  Which meant that I still had a bit of a connection to the pop charts.  The fourth-quarter wave of new releases had quieted down to a trickle, as expected.  I spent most of December listening to the music I’d purchased so far, listened to the students on WAMH play their last shows for the semester, checked out some of the year-end countdowns.  I was still making the radio tapes but hadn’t yet started making the mixtapes in earnest yet (that wouldn’t happen for another few months).

I was listening primarily to my favorite releases from the last few months: Music for the Masses, Strangeways Here We Come, Happy?, Floodland, The Lion and the Cobra, Bête Noire, Savage, Earth Sun Moon.  I’d read Rolling Stone and Spin and watch 120 Minutes for release news, but for the most part I had no idea what else was coming out.

As far as I knew, I wasn’t going to expect anything too exciting.  I didn’t have too much access to more intensive music journals at the time.  I’d heard that Morrissey was working on a solo album, that The Cure were going on tour, but that was pretty much it.  So I went into 1988 in my usual teenage way, being the moody bastard and plugging away at my writing and all that.

I had no idea, probably not until maybe halfway through the year, that 1988 would end up being one of my favorite-ever years of college rock.  I knew then and I know now that part of this was due to the music being there at the same time as a cherished time with close friends.  But part of it was also me letting myself get totally immersed in the sound, even more so than ever before.

Years later, the same thing happens.  I never quite know if the upcoming year is going to be stellar, merely okay, or just plain dull until we’ve gotten almost halfway into it.  And whatever I happen to be doing in my life does play a part in it as well.  [I think of 2012 as a more recent example, which had a bevy of excellent releases, plus I was headlong into the Big Honkin’ Trilogy Revision Project for most of that year.  And 2006 is on the other end of the spectrum, as I had a lot going on in my life and I hardly remember any of its album drops.]

I’m looking forward to 2018, to be honest.  Despite what’s going on in the big wide world, I’m in a much more positive place emotionally and mentally, and I’ve got some exciting creative plans that I’m looking forward to.  I’m not about to put high expectations on whatever music comes my way next year, but if it ends up being stellar, I’m not going to complain!

 

Music On the Go

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been there, done that

Ages ago when I had a long-ass commute halfway across the state of Massachusetts on a daily basis, I’d always have tunage with me.  Mind you, my old Cavalier (and later my Firebird) only had a tape player, so a lot of my traveling music was my older tapes or, more often, my mixtapes.  That kept me sane, made the time pass, and gave me a soundtrack for when I was pondering what I’d do next in my writing.

Nowadays my travel tunage is on two mp3 players.  Much easier to carry, thankfully.  I bring them on vacation for in-flight entertainment or background while I’m working on revision.  I bring them to the gym for something to listen to while I’m on the treadmill.

I’ll switch out what’s on those players every now and again, depending on my mood.  One of them is filled with releases from this year, while the other usually contains an ongoing soundtrack to whatever writing I’m working on.  Since I’m not going anywhere on that treadmill and the view is mostly of the ongoing construction across the street, I’ll let my mind wander so I can think through issues I’ve been having, or play out a scene I’ve been planning to write.  This works out quite nicely, actually.

Lately we’d been looking into buying a new car.  Ours is a 2004 Civic that, while it’s still running strong and has less than 60k on it (thank you SF transit!), I can definitely feel that it’s aging.  It’s getting worn out.  While A has been looking into the specs and whatnot — she’s more knowledgeable about cars than I am, I will admit — my only major request is that it has a decent stereo, and perhaps a USB outlet so I can plug said mp3 players in so we can listen to our own tunage.  Secondary requests, of course, are that I can fit into the car without needing to get into a yoga position, has minimal blocked vision, and that it can climb the hills of this city without significant rollback.  Everything else I can adjust to.

So on Friday, we went shopping, and came home (after some delay and some unexpected shenanigans) with a 2018 Honda Fit.  It definitely hits all my requests and more, and I’m looking forward to getting used to tooling around town in it.  At present we’re just waiting for the dealer to finalize all the DMV paperwork (they’ll take care of the plates/sticker/etc for us), and on Monday we’ll call our insurance guy to update the information.  I love it so far.

Now I just need to make an inaugural mixtape for it. 🙂