Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Make It Sound Like Sawdust..."

(Good god, SEPTEMBER is when last I wrote. Far, far, FAR too much time on Facebook. In fact, I almost posted this there but I decided I am going to try to put my more lengthier "posts" here again, rather than on FB. I MUST write again. On the other hand... if you didn't know we DID start a family blog "Kelley's Magazine"... go check it out. Please. Anyhow... onward...)

 Earlier today, the very talented musician I follow on Facebook (one Mr. Pilgrim of The Soulfolk Experience*) posted a video of The Beatles' "Fixing A Hole" off the Sgt. Pepper Album. I re-posted the song noting that it was my theme song. And it really is. If you ever cared to wonder how my mind works, it very much wanders where it will go. In my old apartment on the Rock (that I do miss occasionally) I had painted my bedroom in the colors of a caribbean sea and while doing so was  happily singing that song to myself. If there's anything wrong with the apartment I live in now--aside from the fact that it's just small--it is that we hadn't ever decided whether we were staying temporarily long-term or just temporarily. Consequently I never got to paint this place pretty colors. We've decided we're probably moving come spring (we'd like to stay in Harlem of course) and best believe... the next place will be painted "in a colourful way/And when my mind is wandering/There I will go..." I hope my BigMan will agree to red.

So Mr. Pilgrim posted the Beatles song earlier today. The thing about that album, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is that for me it is one of those audio cues that will instantly send me into reverie. As a six- or seven-year-old I spent hours with that album cover in my hands, reading the lyrics, going over the faces on the cover annoyed I only knew but a few of them, the words that John and Paul, George and Ringo sang painting pictures in my head of a man standing on a boat in a river watching newspaper taxis appear while yellow and green cellophane dripped into tangerine trees... what would a girl with kaleidoscope eyes look like and was she the same girl whose mommy came downstairs and found the note that said her baby was gone, gone to meet a man from the motor trade... the girl darting into a cobblestone alley with a big wooden door, behind which was a burly man with a moustache who swept her off her feet... of Rita the metermaid in her parlor papered with torn, floral wallpaper, her suitor uncomfortably seated between family members on a well-worn couch, the two seen later white-haired and still kissing, their grandchildren, Vera, Chuck and Dave at their knee...

Each song on that album gives me a mini-movie to watch in my head, a memory, a smell... I have listened to that album over and over and over throughout my life, and at every listen it gives me new memories, a new time marker in my own life to refer to, or something new to hear or think about.

The poster that inspired John Lennon
When I was in my twenties, I'd inherited some money from my father's half-sister, my Aunt Sinah and since I figured I should do something useful with it other than treat my friends to dancing to hiphop at the Roxy and drinking every Friday night I enrolled in one of those six-month trade schools that were supposed to teach you audio-engineering. I did learn engineering actually, but it was the early Eighties and hiphop studios weren't yet mainstream, so most of the audio engineering jobs (and prerequesite internships) were held by--and only by--long haired white boys. In other words, audio engineering did not become a career but the experience wasn't a complete waste of time... I learned about the soundmaking experiments The Beatles carried out while recording the Sgt. Pepper album. One of the greatest pieces of musical art ever recorded, in my opinion, is the song "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!"

As a kid in Jamaica my father once took me to a real circus, in a real tent. I remember it being dusty and smelly, and it was only one ring. "Mr Kite" brings me back to that day every time.

The story goes that John Lennon bought a vintage circus poster and was inspired to take the verbiage off the poster and string it together, pretty much word for word, into a song. And then...
John wanted to hear the sawdust in the ring. That was the brief he gave me, and it gave me a nice problem. 'What you really want,' I told him, 'is a calliope!' He said, 'A what?' I told him, 'A steam organ, you know, one of those tooty things,' and I thought that it might be possible to get hold of a steam organ and actually use that. But, that was a bit of a wild idea and too cumbersome and it would have taken much too long for it to be done. So, with not being able to get a steam organ in the studio, I got as many different recordings of steam organs I could find and we transferred them to tape and I told the engineer, Geoff Emerick, to chop them all up into one-foot lengths and throw them all up in the air and pick them up and put them all back together again. But, it wasn't quite as effective as I thought, because some of the bits came together too well! They had joined up in the way that they had started. So, I told Geoff, 'That's no good, and turn that one back to front.' Eventually, we made a background tape that was just chaos. It was just nothing at all, but, undeniably, it was the sound of a steam organ. It was just a whirly-gig sound. When Henry the Horse takes over, I got John to play the tune on one organ, while I played swirling runs on another Hammond organ, played at half speed. The Beatles' road managers Mal Evans and Neil Aspinal played mouth organs and I played a variety of electronic effects.
- George Martin, 1998

For those of you who may happen to read this and have only come into music in the digital age, Mr. Martin meant to literally cut up the one-inch wide reel-to-reel tape, throw the pieces in the air, and then tape them back together again, sometimes turning the tape upside down and backwards. It was called "splicing" and it's another useless talent of mine... I got very good at it. I held on to my splicing block for years.

...Paul would sit down and ask what I planned to do with his songs, every note virtually ... Lots of arrangements to his songs were very much his ideas which I would have to implement. But John would always be much more vague. He would talk in metaphors and I'd have to go inside his brain and find out what he wanted. For this song, he asked for 'authentic fairground sound, so I can smell the sawdust.' 
-George Martin

Stereo was just coming into existence and The Beatles made great use of it on that album, "panning" audio from one side to the other or "placing" instruments to the left or right, so that if you listen to the album in headphones their voices appear at different "places." For instance, in the song "Good Morning" you can hear the hounds and the horses gallop from left to right over your head. I still get excited about that. Every time.

On the last song off the album, "A Day In The Life" there is an explanation about the last 24 bars that's pretty funny, and can be found here. (Also poke around that site for other stories about the album's production.) What's not mentioned, oddly, is something I learned in engineering school about the last note of the song. It goes on so long because as the note faded, they kept turning up the mic on that track. Therefore you can hear the note for much longer than you would be able to with "naked" ears.

I hate that I'm becoming one of those old fogies who bemoans "music today." The thing is, I DO like a lot of current music... I think Pharrell is a genius, and as much as people argued over who "owned" the sound and the construction of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" it's an interesting technical reconstruction. My Sun makes me listen to people like Ace Hood or A$AP Ferg/Ant/Rocky, and I like them well enough and for all his crazy, I love Kanye. I also like Bruno Mars. But there has gotten to be such a separation between good, experimental music and what's played in mass media  that you NEVER hear the experimental stuff without digging for it. In 1968 The Beatles were "new" and sometimes mocked by the old folk, but you actually got to hear them on radio or TV. These days, you have to be "in the know" in order to find something good and consequently, most people only hear the mass-produced pop stuff. And that all sounds the same to me. I miss collaborations, sound explorations, odd pairings like George Harrison seeking out Jewish Klezmer fiddlers to play along with Indian Sitars on "Within You and Without You." How cool was that??

One would think, with all the musical technology that exists these days people would play around more, but technique does not seem to be something I hear a lot of. We have stereo and yet every one's voices sit right at the top of your head in headphones. You don't often hear bass on side and drums in the middle, guitars on the other side like you would if you were in a real room...
 
Anyway. Put some headphones on and listen to this:




*Oh, and P.S. If you're in the New York area, go catch The SoulFolk Experience in Brooklyn at BAM on February 15th, 9PM. Get there early or you'll have to stand, though it's totally worth it.

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