"You mean was I copying them?"
In this interview excerpt from Behind the Glass, Howard Massey, a journalist and record producer, is getting Brian Wilson to open up about Pet Sounds, Wilson's hero/mentor Phil Spector, and his competitive streak with the Beatles. Wilson is a gentle genius, a great interview subject and clearly very comfortable with Massey's questions. But Wilson is sensitive about his place in the rock 'n' roll pantheon, proud of his legacy of layered harmonies and cherished, personal lyrics--hence his quick reaction to Massey's indirect question about '60s influences. There's always some fluff, some ego massaging in a book like this. Otherwise why would anyone, especially Grammy-winning, chart-busting, Los Angeles studio wizards, consent to share anything?
In Behind the Glass, Massey gets chummy and techy with George Martin, Alan Parsons, Phil Ramone and several dozen other record producers, spanning music history from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin to Alanis Morissette, Guns 'N' Roses to Michael Jackson. While you can skim the mic-talk, the lives of engineers and producers take on real dimensions, with humor, failure, rivalries and the magical intimacy required of musicians to make a hit record.
Lessons-in-life abound, some good news, some bummers. Tony Visconti, producer of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and the Moody Blues, pops a bubble at the start of his interview, "In 30 years' time, I've witnessed only one occasion where a tape came in the mail and the person eventually became a star. That person was Joe Cocker. I remember ripping open the envelope, we put it on, and there was Joe Cocker singing on tape. We said, 'Get that guy on the phone immediately.'"
Half a dozen board jockeys describe working with the Beatles. The evolution of recording technology provides an interesting subtext as witnessed by Lennon and McCartney's vinyl output. It was George Harrison who once said, "We recorded the first Beatles album in one day; the second one took even longer."
Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four-track machines. George Martin notes, "You had to get things right at the time; you couldn't just say, 'OK, let's leave that because we can fix it in the mix.'" Geoff Emerick was a teenager when he was hired at Abbey Road studios. Here's how he describes working with Paul's bass on Pepper: "We were working on a four-track, sometimes doing one or two reductions onto another machine. We opened up one track purely for bass. We could turn up the bass EQ if we wanted more bass, treble EQ if we wanted more drums. I was bringing Paul's bass out of the baffles because it was being done as an overdub. We used an Altech compressor and a Vox bass amp, with a tube C12 mic. We compressed all the drums."
Emerick was tapped to produce the recent Beatles' Anthology release. He describes an almost religious experience of taking the original 30-year-old EMI tapes from their boxes. One of his more poignant comments is about John Lennon showing up to record "Tomorrow Never Knows" and asking the engineers to make him sound like the Dalai Lama. They mixed his voice through a Leslie speaker as he swung (from the ceiling) around the microphone.
My favorite, and the loosest, interview in Behind the Glass, is with Eddie Kramer. Here we have a guy who records Carly Simon and Santana and metal heroes, Anthrax and Twisted Sister, and who cut his teeth working the boards for Jimi Hendrix. Kramer describes the Are You Experienced sessions and shrugs off all the re-re-mixing of the miles of tape in the Hendrix vaults: "Can you imagine Are You Experienced without Hendrix being there to say, 'This is the way I want it?' Forget it. It's just messing with stuff that shouldn't be messed with. I think they're destroying the artist's original concept."
Kramer goes into specific detail about how to "work" a sound in cheap, home-studio ambiance. He's obviously been there. His list of remedies for various treatments includes packing blankets, gaffer tape, 4-by-8 sheets of rigid fiberglass and plywood tunnels wrapped in fabric. Much of the acoustic alchemy shared in Behind the Glass relates to microphone choice, placement and screening. Different producers swear by different, very specific strategies. Eddie Kramer is asked to talk about his approach to recording vocals. "Kill all singers. No, just kidding," he adds and laughs.
The relationship triangle of a recording session is not unlike the process of building a house. Tracy Kidder captured the creative dance (and wobble) of housing construction in his book, House. The three forces, the architect, the builder and the owner, have to work together, with different vocabularies and expectations (and budgets). The fate of the final product is often tenuous up until the last day.
Similarly, in the production of a hit record, the producer, the band, and the record company each need to understand the creative and financial landscape of the project. Somehow, sometimes, from that rock 'n' roll stew, a million-seller is produced. Howard Massey goes very far in showing the reader how it's done. Like an editor, like a chef, like a parent, like a teacher, a producer is one of many minds (and ears) that contribute to any success. Massey's real-life, real-time interviews are honest, grounded, accessible and inspiring enough to keep the so-you-want-to-be-a-rock-n-roll-star dream alive and well for at least one more chorus of "My Generation."
For all the hoopla surrounding this fall's launch of the $60 coffee-table gift book of collected Beatle lore, another slim volume has captured most of my attention. Verso has quietly published the complete 1970 Rolling Stone interviews with John Lennon by Jann Wenner. Lennon Remembers ($20, 151 pages) is naked Lennon--angry, witty, desperately honest and aware. These are the transcripts from all the interviews, the full cloth. Published 20 years after John's death, his words sound so alive, so haunting, so arrogant, so dependent.
Much of the newly released text was edited out 30 years ago. Wenner was 24, Lennon was just 30 when the tapes rolled. Want to hear the voice of urgency, the creative genius of the band? Forget about all the scrapbooks and silly, cutesy photographs; this is why I loved the Beatles.
Did Adam Sandler just knock you out last year with the first line of his "Chanukah Song": "Put on your yarmulke, here comes Chanukah?" Sandler's lyrics and Ben Stiller's introduction lead off the season's most unique book, Jews Who Rock, ($12.95, St. Martin's, 108 pages) by Guy Oseary. What a cast! Beck, Bob and Jacob Dylan, Courtney Love, Richard Hell, Donald Fagen, Mark Knopfler, Carly (and Paul, no relation) Simon, Manfred Mann, Joey Ramone, Lenny Kravitz, and dozens of other mini-bios are scattered throughout. Oseary is a funny guy; he thanks Chris Rock for allowing him to use his name in the book's title.
Most jazz critics agree, the one jazz album that's a must-have is the 1959 recording Kind of Blue. Ashley Kahn's Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece ($23, Da Capo, 224 pages) is a dense delight, recreating with take-by-take recaps, the entire production. Candid black-and-white photos, all kinds of juicy scraps of studio diaries, and wonderful, cool conversation transcripts highlight Kahn's delicious homage to Davis.
Now, look, if you really like transcripts, take a peek at This is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion, by Karl French. ($19.95, Bloomsbury, 309 pages) Deep, obsessive, stupid, brilliant, never boring, The Companion takes a microscope to every detail in that glorious rock 'n' roll film; including the lyrics, glossy color photos, a lengthy chronology and all the inside jokes. "The numbers all go to 11. Look, all across the board. Well, it's one louder isn't it? It's not 10. Eleven. Exactly. One louder."