Saturday, December 03, 2005

If there's anything that you want, if there's anything I can do

jedmunds over at Pandagon has a post I simply must respond to, in which he/she(?) opines thus:

Well, I can't say that I ever dug the Beatles too much. In context, I can appreciate them, but like I say, you can't "rock out" to context. And all in all, I'm more or less indifferent to listening to their albums, which are fine, but meaningless to me.

All I can say, respectfully, is 'kids today!' Debating this will, to some, permanently place me in the camp of "old dude who doesn't get it." Well, kids, as someone who spends every day either in recording studios, or working with engineers and producers who also spend every day in studios, let me 'esplain' that, in the warm reality of modern music, you don't get it. Here's why.

The Beatles, in terms of rock (pop, whatever) music, changed everything.

Let me establish some bona fides first. I have worked in recording studio and the music business for over 30 years. In the last 3 or 4 years alone, I worked in studios responsible for music from:

Bad Religion
Backyard Babies
Michelle Shocked
Lucinda Williams
Badly Drawn Boy
Dr. Dre
Gwen Stefani
John Frusciante
Killing Heidi
Evan & Jaron (yeah, I know)
and others I can't remember. So please don't think that, even though I'm an "old dude", I'm just into "Classic Rock." Heck, I don't even own a Boston album. And if I ever hear anything by Rush again, I'm gonna scream. I love new music, all music, as long as it's good. Good is, of course, difficult to define, but you know it when you hear it. Sometimes.

Anyway, back to my thesis:

The Beatles, in terms of rock (pop, whatever) music, changed everything.
Here's what I mean.

1. Prior to the Beatles, and during a large part of their music output, artists recorded where record labels dictated. Labels all owned their own studios, including one of the most famous, Capitol Studios, where I worked for 5 years. And EMI, Capitol's parent company since the '50s, also had several studios in England, in the London Area, specifically, including one called Abbey Road. I'm sure the conversation went something like this: "All right then, lads, lets go 'round to Abbey Road, and make an album this afternoon."

By the end of their recording career, the lads had broken that hold, and were recording anywhere they wanted, even at some of the independent studios not affiliated with record labels.

Today, every band enjoys that freedom.

2. Prior to the Beatles, artists recorded when record labels dictated. Sessions were 3 hour blocks, called 'singles'. And for pop music, being recorded on only 3 or 4 tracks at that time, the single was enough time to lay down, at the very least, one 'single' side, or song (one side of a 45 rpm single.) In many cases, with good pre-production and session players, 2 or 3 songs would be finished in a single session.

Sessions ran roughly 10AM-1PM, 2PM-5PM, and 6PM-9PM. The Beatles broke down both of those walls in several ways. First, after their initial success, they started their sessions whenever the hell they wanted, including midnight, if that was their mood. And as the music got more experimental, and complex, and as more drugs were ingested, the sessions became longer, and longer, and longer. And that meant hours of recording, re-recording, and mixing for a single song. Was EMI freaked by this extravagance? Yes, but, as long as the records continued to sell, they agreed. Hell, these were The Beatles, who was gonna tell them no?

Today, most artists enjoy these freedoms.

3. Prior to the Beatles artists recorded with whom record labels dictated. EMI matched The Beatles with George Martin, which would have seemed completely insane, considering that the classically trained Martin's prior work was largely with comedy recorded acts, in other words, someone working a non-emotionally connected day gig. He largely hated pop music, and only agreed to work with the lads because...wait for it...IT WAS HIS JOB! He had no choice! "Right, George, we think these boys might have something unique, see if you can polish it up a bit." "Uh, righto, then, boss."

Engineers at that time were on staff at studio. You worked with whatever engineer the studio assigned, sometimes even different engineers on the same song from day to day.The Beatles were lucky enough to have some continuity, working initially with Norman 'Hurricane' Smith, and later with Geoff Emerick (worked with him, very nice man, still really loves to work, recently produced/mixed Nellie McKay-check her out). And by this time, they had enough clout to take the engineers with them when they worked at outside studios, which previously was not allowed.

Today, only smaller owner-operator studio have staff engineers. Major studios have Assistant Engineers, who work with the independent free-lance engineers that are hired by directly by the artists. And today, while the label still initially has most of the say in who the producer is, successful artists choose whatever producer they want.

Also, keep in mind that many classic pop/rock records had very few of the actual band playing. Virtually all the Beach Boys records used the famous "Wrecking Crew" of famous studio musicians, many of whom played on records considered epiphonal by such other artists like The Byrds, etc. The Beatles used a session drummer or two in the very beginning, and brought in musicians for instruments that were out of their experience, like trumpet, etc, but otherwise, they played damn near all the isntrument, snd sang all the parts.

All artists today enjoy these freedoms.

4. Prior to the Beatles, and during a large part of their music output, artists recorded whatever the hell record labels dictated. They often had no or little choice in material, because not every act wrote all of its own music. Especially in the growing rock world, where most musicians didn't read music, songwriting was yet to really develop other than the really notables, like little Richad, Chuck Berry, etc. Many up-coming rockers were cutting, pasting, and adapting classic riffs from blues and hillbilly artists, who actually had much richer creative traditions. Even the classic Motown stuff, contemporaneous with The Beatles, was as rigid and formulaic, in its own way, as Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. In other words, it was written by a composer, arranged by an arranger, conducted by a conductor, and mixed by a staff mixer. The whole process was a machine, with largely as much freedom as working within any machine.

But John, Paul, and to a lesser extent George, being sponges for all pop music from their '50s youth, as well as sensing the freedom that was slowly and grudgingly being given them by EMI, started writing and recording more of their own music. Keep in mind that Meet the... and Introducing the... were composed mostly of cover songs, with only a few originals each. Luckily the original songs were pretty good, and resonated with a young audience that was really tired of Bobby Vee and The Shirelles. And this early success, combined with John and Paul's rich listening habits and their own innate talent, resulted in an output of songs not often matched by any artists since. The notable exception, of course, being Springsteen, who seems to be able to write several good songs before breakfast every day.

Today, most artists enjoy that freedom.

These were revolutionary changes in the way music was made, and recorded. One can argue that they were changes ready to happen, and while that may be true, no one can argue that The Beatles weren't at the epicenter of these changes. They pushed envelopes, broke out of boxes, both musically as well as functionally, and changed the way record labels and recording studios operate forever.

On top of all that they wrote some damn fine songs. I have yet to hear, from many artists today whom I really love and respect, anything that doesn't owe some debt to The Beatles. I'm still waiting for someone to write a better pop tune than Please Please Me that doesn't also sound like a Beatles outtake.

And regarding musical innovation, which I haven't even touched on here, a few things they started or popularized that are still heard today are:

Strings with rock instruments
Telephone sounding vocals
Synths (Mini-Moog, specifically on Abbey Road)
Each person playing multiple instruments
Vocals through Leslie speakers
Automatic Double Tracking of vocals
Tape machine varispeed (esp. Strawberry Fields Forever)
Indian instruments ( yeah, I know Brian Jones was dabbling with sitar when he died, but, well, he died)
Bouncing tracks across multiple machine for more cumulative tracks
8 track recording

and perhaps the most important:

The Roadie.

Update: Cross posted at Huffington Post here:


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Anonymous said...

I love The Beatles and agree they "changed everything"... however, they rarely recorded in other studios. Outside of a handful of White Album songs recorded at Trident Studios, and the Let It Be sessions at Apple's Saville Road premises... everything else in their 12 album career (plus singles) was recorded entirely at Abbey Road. Also, George Martin may have disapproved of pop music in 1962, and was made to work with the group because it was his job - but the partnership proved fruitful and a creative powerful. George Martin grew with The Beatles and he loves their music to this day.

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