Monday, September 14, 2015

Do Over

While having dinner with friends last night, this bad sounding, badly produced, badly sung, badly played song was coming over the system. We all knew it was Michael Jackson, but certainly not good Michael Jackson. One friend commented on the lousy drum sound and I blamed the 80s. Another friend pointed out that it was much more recent, which is why none of us knew the song. Turns out, it wasn't that much more recent, but an early 90's tune called "Give In To Me" with my choice of most overrated guitarist, Slash, doing the honors of making the song worse than it already was.

But I'm not here to bury Slash. I am thinking more about just how bad it sounded. Two words that come to mind are cheap and shrill.

This brought to mind a few records, including the recent "stripped down" mix of Lennon's "Double Fantasy," "Let It Be...Naked," the "closet mix" of the third Velvet Underground record and the mono versions of both "Surrealistic Pillow" and "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn," not to mention most mono recordings versus stereo issues. (The differences in the mono and stereo versions of the Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow" are night and day, with the stereo and echo doing to it what Capitol did to the Beatles records in the U.S.) But rather than focus on mono versus stereo, I was thinking about all those records from the 80s and 90s that have not aged well, simply because of the recording and production.

I am not suggesting that "Give In To Me" or "Dangerous," the album from which it appears would improve in a "less is more" situation. "Double Fantasy" didn't, and quite honestly "Let It Be" was fine the way it was. It's "Let It Be," for Pete's sake. But if we are talking about fantasy, I'd give a few bucks for sure, to hear Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A." rerecorded. "BITU' is not a favorite, but there are some excellent songs. (Of course, there are.) But the sound of the record, at least for my ears, overshadows the material, so it never gets spun.

It'd be too easy to just choose records from the 80's and 90's, so if it is at all possible, can you think of a record from a different decade (though choices from the 80's and 90's are totally acceptable), where given a rub on Aladdin's lamp, you'd take and produce differently?


Slidewell said...

The first record(s) that jump to my mind, are the first two Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Fantastic band, original sound, clever lyrics, everything buried and flattened. Bad recordings or bad mastering, I don't know, but it would be great to hear those someday with some punch and presence.

William Repsher said...

I thought the revised version of "Starting Over" was fantastic compared to the original, removing the echoey vocal quality and the chirpy background vocals. A lot of times I find that when I hear background vocals removed, songs get better. (Of course, in countless cases, like "For Your Precious Love" by Jerry Butler & the Impressions) the background vocals are incredibly good.) I have a less-produced version of Springsteen's "New York City Serenade" without the strings and backing vocals that sounds much, much better than the finished product as a result.

Let It Be Naked made sense. McCartney went ballistic when he heard the full Spector production on his tracks, and I can't blame him. So he re-write history the way he wanted it. Not a lot of difference in the more "rock" tracks, but you can hear it on the ballads.

One of my favorite albums deeply marred by bad production is Tim by The Replacements. Song for song, could be their best album, but the murky, dull production take the songs down enough. Oddly enough, an 80's album that didn't suffer from bad 80's production techniques ... just bad production. Many a track by an aging rock artist had too much fretless bass, Linn drum programming, synthetic horns and strings, gated drums, etc. It seems like younger/new wave artists really knew how to use those things properly, but older artists didn't.

There's a whole different Springsteen album to be made with the mountain of Born in the USA outtakes floating around, a much more sparse, tough, more rockabilly-spiked album that would be much less pretentious and "80s superstar" than what the album is now. And I'm just the guy to do it! But I don't think Colonel Landau would ever acknowledge he was wrong to push Springsteen in that hammy superstar direction that nearly tanking his career and broke up the band for a few years.

Charlie Carr said...

I am thinking of two Grateful Dead studio albums here. Terrapin Station is the first. First album for a new label (Arista) and a disastrous, nearly unsuitable choice for producer (Keith Olsen) makes this almost listenable. It has a prog-rock, Genesis/Yes feel (no knock on the genre or those groups). Just a bad decision all around. I would like to hear a 'live in the studio' type of mix. Oddly enough, it sounds a lot like Thick as a Brick or Passion Play, albums that I really like. Jethro Tull was just a better fit for that sonic approach. And Anthem of the Sun is the other. After driving David Hassinger nearly to distraction during the recording of The Grateful Dead (I used 'eponymous' last time) they (Warner Brothers?) bring him back for another stab in the dark! The band was trying to make a collage, Warner/Hassinger were thinking more along the lines of a . . . record. Joe Smith, president of Warner Bros. at the time, was noted as calling Anthem of the Sun as "the most unreasonable project with which we have ever involved ourselves." So, they have that going for them. But I would like to hear what might have been if Dan Healy and the band had their way from the start.

Charlie Carr said...

[unlistenable] but it works as posted, oddly enough . . .

Shriner said...

I find it hard to answer this question because anytime somebody says "hey, you should listen to this album from the 80s that you never heard before", if it has that crap 80s drum sound on it -- I stop listening to it.

I don't know when I became a "drum snob", but that 80's/90's drum sound/production really ruined a lot of music for me. It's almost a lost-decade (86-96) in terms of pop music. It takes a *great* song to override that sound for me.

Sal Nunziato said...

"I don't know when I became a "drum snob", but that 80's/90's drum sound/production really ruined a lot of music for me."

I am with you 1000%, Shriner!

Anonymous said...

I find all of Bruce's modern E Street Band albums to be filled with great songs buried under murky productions making it very difficult for me to make it through more then a few tunes at a time.

Capt. Al

Noam Sane said...

Count me as one who found the Double Fantasy remix most pleasurable. All of a sudden you could hear the songs that were hidden under the horrible varnish Douglas slathered on everything.

I also think the string arrangement Spector put on Long and Winding Road is pretty nice - yeah, overblown, but it works for me. You know what string arrangement makes me wanna puke? "Yesterday." Never liked the song or the arrangement. Ugh.

I would love to hear a clean mix of John Barleycorn Must Die. Always has been a record that you can never get turned up loud enough, it's impossible. Mud.

Beyond that, I'd get some real drums on those early JJ Cale and George Strait albums. Some great songs just waiting to be freed from The Machine.

Anonymous said...

it took me until I saw them in person to appreciate X. my recovering-from-MOR ears took a long time to get used to Ray Manzarek's non-production. I still rarely listen to the first two albums for that reason.

I assume we're talking only major label releases, since the 80's albums i'm most fond of were the SST, Dischord, Homestead, Touch and Go, etc productions which suffered from the lack of a budget.

Which makes Eleventh Dream Day's first two albums for Atlantic more bittersweet. I assume they had a budget, but "Beet" (done by Big Dipper's Gary Waleik) buries the vocals and seems to have used the first rough take for every track. "Lived to Tell," with Wall of Voodoo's producer, does a little better on the arrangements, but not much on the vocals. I like to think they would have been more popular if the albums sounded better. It's not like they weren't capable - the differences between the "New Moodio" demos and the released "El Moodio" album are big; the produced album is one of my favorites.

William Repsher said...

Sidenote: since the Van Morrison digital reissues came out, I've been on a huge Van kick. One thing that always struck me was the difference between "Madame George" from the Bang Sessions (which came out after the fact, not on Blowin' Your Mind) and Astral Weeks - radically different versions. Van claims to have hated everything about those Bang Sessions, particularly the poppy/mid-60's production. I've always thought those songs sounded incredible! But for Van, they had "a choke thing goin' on." Admittedly, the Astral Weeks version is mindblowing, the album one of its kind and still ahead of its time. Looking forward to that and Band & Street Choir coming out in October.

Anonymous said...

Every Husker Du album.

Anonymous said...

It took for me to see them in concert to appreciate X. Ray Manzarek's non-production of the first two albums still prevents me from playing them very much, although Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World were improvements.

Is there an explanation for why Robert Plant's voice sounds higher pitched on House of the Holy? I can definitely see Peter Grant saying speed up the tape.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with everyone who generally disses the 80s drum thang, tho the prevalent production style did work (contra WR above), in my opinion, on old-timer Don Henley's "Boys Of Summer", which I rank with "Billie Jean" as one of the two finest singles of the 80s (no small feat from a guy whose total MJ & DH music in his collection amounts to exactly 6 songs!). But it wasn't just the sound, it was the retrogression to simplified beats/time-keeping, rather than, y'know, playing the drums; the 'ksh ksh ksh' sound just made it worse. Like Shriner, I have a real hard time hearing stuff with that sound/style nowadays. Even at the time, I'd look over album covers to see if real instruments were played, and passed on unknown ones where they weren't, and/or the folks in the band looked like they spent more time working on image than songcraft. And, amen to Anonymous re Husker Du and WR re "Tim"; so many bands playing real instruments and writing real songs in that era still came out with really thin sounding productions. Often, when I go back to my 'college rock' records/CDs, I realize how tinny they sound.
I know you asked folks to look beyond the obvious 80s-90s crappy production phenomena, but those just scream for commentary. Paradoxically, I thought the 80s was the last era of great pop singles, and it's when I started buying 45s (being, normally, an album kind of guy). So, I generally was buying numerous top-40 songs and, at the other end of the spectrum, guitar-based indy music that decade, with Slash artists (Gun Club, X, Blasters, Los Lobos, Violent Femmes) and SST artists (Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Leaving Trains, Husker Du) being faves. Go figure.
C in California

Anonymous said...

I so agree with Charlie Carr re: Terrapin Station. Unlistenable album, but the title song or suite or whatever itself is terrific. Check out various live versions!

For me a non-80s example of this phenomenon is John Wesley Harding. Some of Dylan's greatest songs, but I have always found the performances lackluster. Maybe not a production issue per se, just wish they had run through a few more takes and gotten a better groove going.

Bruce H

jmsafree said...

Definitely, Cahoots by The Band. No warmth in the record. It doesn't even sound like them. joe

Anonymous said...

Also, it was never going to be a major song, but I've heard earlier, less soggy versions of "Free as a Bird" that are much much better than the released version. Naughty Jeff Lynne!

Bruce H

buzzbabyjesus said...

Liking the drum sound is a major component to enjoying anything and that "80's" sound is just about entirely missing from my library.
"Raw Power" comes immediately to mind. When Iggy remixed it, all he did was add compression and make it louder.
I can't listen to "Give'm Enough Rope" I hate the production so much. I dislike the guitar sound used by Mick on most of "London Calling".
I wish "In Color" sounded more like "Cheap Trick".
"Looking On" by The Move is ruined for me by the mud and murk.
On the other hand, I rather like "Let It Be Naked", as it sounds more like disc three of the "White Album".
I wish Phil hadn't over-produced "All Things Must Pass".
I'll bet the demos for XTC's "Big Express" are easier on the ears that the finished product.
"Manifesto" is when Roxy Music went off the rails.
I could go on and on.

Anonymous said...

Hello, please remain seated,

Lots of good comments above. And on this topic, it's hard to avoid mentioning Production-Sins-of-the-Eighties!

Quick listicle....

Albums that are WAY too bright and brittle (at least for MY tender little ear-holes):
- All Steely Dan albums after Aja.
- Certain Richard Thompson albums produced by Mitchell Froom in the 80's.

Albums that are WAY too flat:
- Goat's Head Soup - was it the drugs? Sticky fingers has such a nice 3D sound, Exile, the seminal murky/alt sound, then GHS. Hadda be the drugs, right?
- John Barleycorn... - I note Noame Sane's comment above with approval.


Heather Taylor said...

1000% agreed with Capt. Al - Bruce's last fifteen years have been bogged down by Brenden O'Brien's mud; the last record or so was a bit better. Have always thought that a stripped-down record with Little Steven producing would rock!


Bill said...

I wish Squeeze had found some better producers for their post-East Side Story albums. Sweets from a Stranger was pretty murky, and then their return Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti went even further into the murk.

More 80s examples, I know...

Michael Giltz said...

The first names that sprang to mind, everyone above has mentioned. I'm also thinking of Dylan's "Empire Burlesque," a very strong collection of tunes that was ruined by its production.

I assume William Repsher is referring to Springsteen's artistic career since obviously "Born In The USA" did exactly what it was intended to do commercially.

And now, apparently, after listening a little more to Procol Harum, I need to track down a mono Surrealistic Pillow AND Double Fantasy stripped down (which no one told me about -- how did I miss that?). See, this is why I don't read this blog! Always more homework.