The way that the vast majority of people experience pop music (unfortunately -and btw, you should get your lazy asses out to see live music 3-4 times a month at the minimum – that way you can find good local artists and support them and quit complaining about the crappy stuff the major music industry outlets shove at you – which reminds me, still digging that American Idol compilation CD you impulse bought?) is via recordings.
What I never hear people talk about when we talk about our favorite recordings – I guess, because even music aficionados don’t know or think about it – is how much records are “fixed” – how many mistakes are cleaned up, how many “happy accidents” occur and are allowed to stand – in truth, how inauthentic records might be considered (to borrow a term that still has great resonance for music writers and critics) are as documents of musicians’ work. Let me offer a couple of examples from classic rock – the stuff we’ve all listened to many, many times.
I was making a long drive Saturday evening (coming back home from an academic conference) listening, as always, to satellite radio. I’d lost interest in XMU (the college rock channel – too much emo for me-mo) and The Loft (sorry Mike, sometimes the singer/songwriter channel, actually my fave, turns into the apotheosis of the Zappa description of James Taylor: “What we have here is a guy with a guitar, blue jeans, and a great deal of personal hurt”). So I turned to Top Tracks.
Top Tracks is just what you’d expect – the classic rock format that we heard ad nauseum for some 20+ years (it’s why you know Bob Seger’s and Heart’s work way better than you feel you should). I hit them in one of those stretches where they could do no wrong – first came The Who, then The Stones, then Yes, then Cream, then Hendrix, then – then they played Alice Cooper (see above).
I know Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier) has had a long and interesting career since the days of Alice Cooper the band. But I prefer those early albums when he was part of one of rock’s most underrated arena rock bands – Pretties for You, Love It to Death, Killer, Billion Dollar Babies…. That band gave us some absolutely great rock songs – “Eighteen,” “Under My Wheels,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” just slay me, even now. But the ultimate Alice Cooper band song, most would agree, is “School’s Out.”
“School’s Out” has always bugged me – not that killer opening riff – that’s as good as rock gets. Rather, that opening stanza:
Well, we got no choice/All the girls and boys/Making all the noise/Cause they found new toys….
What bothers me is that the band seems to be playing off time.
Let’s talk a bit about making records, shall we? One of the tricks that almost all record producers/engineers use to get rock bands to play in time is the old clicker (think of it as an electronic metronome that comes in through the head phones). If you listen to that opening stanza of “School’s Out,” the band seems to have “lost the clicker” as they say in the recording business. The engineer jerks the band back on time with a punch (he uses the counter on the recording to time a moment when he edits in [what? an alternate take of that's played in time? Reasonable possibility....]) at “Can’t salute ya/Can’t fly your flag….”In other words, the record is “fixed.”
The late Glen Buxton’s guitar lick is so mother——g big I don’t think anyone pays attention. But it’s there. The band is off time – and then they’re back on time. Without stopping. That doesn’t happen in the real world….
I’m not picking on Alice Cooper here. There are plenty of fixes throughout rock. I heard one shortly after on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” with one of Stephen Stills’s guitar parts (the solo that comes in at the end of the brief jam after “Do you think she loves you/Do you think at all?”). It’s again a matter of timing – either Stills missed a cue, or he’s on time and the band’s off. Anyway, there’s a punch as Stills comes in that sets things right.
(Such fixes and “inauthentic” devices are the norm, not the exception. When you listen to music, even to “live transcriptions,” likely they’ve been doctored in some way – ambient noise increased/decreased, vocals enhanced, etc.)
I’ve used classic rock examples above but there are plenty from modern rock. The low fi movement has even made a virtue of ragged sounding recordings that, while proselytizing authenticity, don’t always sound enjoyable. Just saying….
Recommendation? Enjoy your recordings. Just be aware that they’re not exactly the “real” band. But then we probably don’t want them to be….
Filed under: Popular Music