March 10, 2017

Mono-holic Mis-Rememberment & Keith's Studiocraft

Several years ago I became peripherally aware of “analog vs. digital” skirmishes being waged among musicians, music fans and the recording industry. Respected artists like Neil Young were touting the superiority of analog LPs (“Long Players”) over the ubiquitous formats of CDs or MP3 files. In a 2001 interview, Neil tried to explain the differences: “Analog recording, Young said, ‘produces real emotion, because there are so many possibilities for the sound in that recording, so many variations in sound that are recorded, that it's almost like real life’ […] Digital, though, is a single, stable picture. Young described the record industry sitting in a room, changing the picture: ‘We don't really need to see the sky in all its detail – just paint that in blue…No one will know.'”

Analog recording used to be the recording industry's standard, from four-track tape recorders of the 1960s, to the monster 24-track tape transport machines, until the industry went virtual with digital, unlimited “tracks.” Neil Young's argument against digital sound was that it’s only an approximation, a computerized reproduction, of the air pressure variations of sound. Analog sound is similarly complex:

And here's a nifty analog vs. digital breakdown from the Recording Connection site:

These debates provoked me to start collecting analog sound again and the only format I find interesting are vinyl records – which have been achieving many new converts and laudatory audiophile reviews since at least 1988. The lure of vinyl now occupies my spare time, with my focus on monaural blues, rock and jazz recordings of the 1950s and '60s.

My experience with mono records was closely tied to my childhood and my first exposure to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Animals, and the Americans (Byrds, Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Kingsmen, Shadows of Knight). We played those records on monaural players, often portable, with a single speaker powered by small tube amps. The concept of stereo was exotic and wasn't fully accepted as universal until '69 or '70.

Parenthetically, the basics of how to “go mono” are easily found – here’s a good source. My solution was to buy an inexpensive modern turntable with built-in “preamp” and plug it into my receiver’s auxiliary (AUX) input. But from the experts: “In general, newer stereo gear, including most mini-systems, Bluetooth speakers, home theatre units, etc. don’t have phono inputs. [Phono stands for “phonograph,” a quaint term for turntable.] To use a vintage turntable with these newer units or to play through a computer, powered speakers or headphones, the turntable signal must pass through an external phono preamp. You’ll then plug the output from the phono preamp into line-level inputs on your gear (these may be marked Aux, Tape, Line, Video, CD, etc).”  

I had kept a handful of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howling Wolf Chess LPs but I hadn't heard them in years. A couple were in mono and when I placed them on the turntable and “dropped the needle,” they sounded fantastic: bass, drums, guitars, blues harp merged almost tangibly in a centered shape between my speakers. Other mono-holics have raved about mono sound being concentrated, with a solidity that makes a band sound like a band.

Having long ago sold my record collection, bedazzled like many people by the hype of CDs, I prowled the few record stores available and did some “crate-digging.” To my surprise, I discovered lots of new vinyl by contemporary bands. Alas, none are in mono, of course. 

Then I remembered there was a 2014 release of Beatles albums in mono, newly mixed from the original, analog tapes. The prospect of hearing some of those was too tempting to pass up so I purchased the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver mono LPs from Amazon. What a pure joy it was to hear those familiar songs, that I'd only been hearing for years in stereo via FM radio or CD, in their glorious original mono mixes once again. (1)  

It was while rebuilding my lost Rolling Stones mono album collection that I discovered some tantalizing information. As you may know, 45 rpm singles were the path to success via the Top Ten for many rock 'n' roll bands on both sides of the Atlantic. I was surprised to learn via some Stones fan sites that a few Stones 45s were released with alternate mono mixes, some of which weren't included on the subsequent albums.(2)

This intrigued me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if an “early” mix of a song was played on the radio but later replaced with another mix this could theoretically affect a listener's memory of the song. One would have forgotten which single we actually heard on the radio. In other words, if you heard that “later” mix played now, for instance, in an “Oldies but Goldies” program, your appreciation of the song would be flawed by this mis-rememberment.

Secondly, regardless of a Mis-Rememberment Issue, the fact that different “official” mixes of songs exist provides us a revelation about the record-making process. Traditionally, the goal of recording songs was to capture a performance. Early recording technology allowed only real time capture, but later multi-track recorders gave musicians the chance to re-do their song “takes,” to add tracks and other musicians, and these actions could be done any time. Sound technology further developed the aural manipulation of individual tracks so that equalization, volume and tone could be altered on each track. This was when the mix of a song became malleable and the point at which songcraft became studiocraft.

I admit that I became obsessed with the idea of Stones' original, as well as alternate, mono mix singles. Original copies of Stones' mono mix singles are somewhat elusive; they have been included on various compilation albums, but many of the songs suffer from “electronically re-channeled” mixes. What you want are the original mono mix singles but you will quickly learn if you peruse eBay, 45cat or Discogs that these legendary alternate mono mixes are very collectible.

Case in point: “Street Fighting Man.” Recorded in 1968, SFM hit the US airwaves in late August. The Democratic National Convention had just concluded on August 29, with its violent, televised clashes between Chicago's police and Vietnam War protesters. Because of this many radio stations banned SFM, fearing it might incite more violence. In actuality, the lyrics are decidedly apolitical with a chorus proclaiming: “what can a poor boy do / 'cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band / 'cause in sleepy London town / there ain't no place for a Street Fightin' Man.”         

The studiocraft behind SFM involves guitarist Keith Richards' innovative use of an early Philips cassette recorder to record his acoustic guitar. SFM remains one of Richards' favorite Stones songs, he says, “because the music came together through a series of accidents and experimentation.”

Surprisingly, the only electric instrument on “Street Fighting Man” is an overdub of Keith on bass guitar. Drummer Charlie Watts played a small traveling trap kit, the kind that folds-up into a suitcase, with a snare like a tambourine. But it's the experimental studiocraft, the open-tuned, acoustic guitar overloading a cassette recorder's mic, merging with tambourine-snare and cymbal stabs, that makes the song so unforgettable.

Here's that alternate mono mix of SFM you may have mis-remembered:


1. If you have read anything about The Beatles' recording sessions then you know the Fab Four only cared about the mono mixes; those were the only mixing sessions they attended as they had no interest in the stereo mixes.

2. My research turned up some wonderful Stones sites, including Beat Zenith’s exhaustively detailed site, with full particulars on all the LP’s, both UK's Decca and the US London releases, including catalog numbers, release dates, highest chart positions, etc.

3. Both Richards and Mick Jagger had been in Paris in May 1968 during the student riots that nearly shut down the government.

January 1, 2017

Forget the Gears & Do the Work

Sometime in the early Sixties, Tommy Jackson saw a South Bend, Indiana rock band play a song called "Hanky Panky." The tune stuck with him and back home in Niles, Michigan he worked it out with his high school garage band, The Shondells. "I really only remembered a few lines from the song, so when we went to record it, I had to make up the rest of the song…I just pieced it back together from what I remembered."(1)

Tommy and his Shondells recorded it at local radio station WNIL and Snap Records released it in ‘64. It sold well in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but without national distribution the single disappeared from the airwaves. Tommy moved on, finishing high school in 1965 and The Shondells broke up.

Cut to 1966: An out-of-work Tommy Jackson got a call from "Mad Mike" Metrovich, a Pittsburgh DJ who’d been playing the Shondells’ "Hanky Panky" 45 on the radio. With the single now a regional hit, Tommy decided to re-release it, hired a Pennsylvania band to become the "new Shondells" and changed his name to "Tommy James."

James took the master tape of the WNIL recorded track of "Hanky Panky" to New York and sold it to Roulette Records. "The amazing thing is we did not re-record the song. I don't think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good…I think if we'd fooled with it too much we'd have fouled it up."(2)

Roulette released that original mix and “Hanky Panky” soon became the Number 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in July 1966.  Tommy James and the Shondells would go on to have several hit records throughout the Sixties, including “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover” and others.

What can we learn from this little footnote in pop music history? The machinations of the recording industry and its concomitant relationship with radio in the 1960s are rife with intrigue and scandal. However, the story of Tommy Jackson and his unforeseen hit record has little to do with that. When Tommy's record and band petered out he probably thought his career was over, not knowing about those other events that were afoot to give the little single an unexpected life. Clearly, Tommy's commitment to act on his stroke of good luck made the difference and launched his career.(3)

What I want to talk about is how events and actions that are taking place completely without our knowledge may intersect with our lives to change our very destiny. For artists, this is a powerful idea that has to be recognized. The simultaneity of our lived experience with hitherto unknown events that might just alter our life path are a gift from the Universe. Our acceptance of this theory is simple: forget about what unknown gears are turning and continue to make your work.

Several manifestations of this alternative destiny trope have affected my own life, and with positive results, fortunately. The most powerful example is a chance telephone call I received from a woman living 2,500 miles away who would later become my wife. Moreover, her belief in and comprehension of this unknown factors of the Universe theory has schooled me about the importance of maintaining calm focus as I proceed as an artist.

Most recently, I was engaged in dialogue with a curator about an art proposal I had submitted for her planned exhibition. My proposal was to travel to the site and construct my participatory installation; I also offered to give public talks and to launch the installation at the opening reception.

Several weeks had gone by with no email or call from the curator. I was anxious so I mentioned to my wife I was going to send an email to learn about my proposal's status. She said: "There are events occurring in the Universe that you know nothing about. People are talking and things are happening. Just be patient."

This wisdom was incredibly calming and I took her advice to heart. Sure enough, within a few days I got an email from the curator. She accepted my proposal with genuine excitement, and guaranteed me airfare, hotel accommodation and per diem; she also organized talks with art departments, local artists  and the public.

This truth about trusting the Universe and moving forward with what you do is all the more potent when it is learned first-hand. But whether or not "success" or "fame" comes to you, the essence of what you do - the art you make, the music you play, the poems you write - should remain your focus and goal.

Simply put: Forget about the gears turning and the events occurring that are unknown to you - just do your work.

IMAGE/LINK: The Shondells original release of "Hanky Panky" on Snap Records in 1964; video accessed via CrisVangel1958 YouTube channel.    

1. The song was originally composed by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for The Raindrops. Barry has said "As far as I was concerned it was a terrible song. In my mind it wasn't written to be a song, just a B-side." 

2. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, New York, 2003, p. 203.

December 2, 2016

My Gaga Dream

I had a dream last night about Lady Gaga. As some of you may know, she studied art before she became a pop singer. So in my dream I was at an opening of some of her artwork – which is hard to describe, but it was composed mainly of text, with some imagery that was smallish and secondarily placed. The text was apparently embossed, white raised lettering on a white background. The gist of the words’ meanings has faded over the daylight hours but I do recall there were footnotes and the further exposition of the “meanings” there in the footnotes is also lost on me – but I was left with a profound sense that it was my responsibility to explain these works of art to my students.

I am not teaching currently so I don’t have any students. However, I often dream of teaching, prepping for class lectures and carrying out longish conversations – which remain steadfastly logical and pedagogic, even in the unconscious realm of my dreams! 

Several things struck me about this dream, as my consciousness came into focus throughout the morning, and I began to reflect about the uniqueness of the transference of knowledge in the act of teaching. I recalled something my old professor, Richard Klank, had said about understanding, that essentially it describes the state of “standing under” whatever the term or concept we’re discussing, as if under an umbrella. The physicality of that image and the way it conveys how knowing something feels has remained with me all these years.

This kind of dissection of words can be fruitful and I do it often. So I worked on this dream a bit more, considered that feeling of responsibility I had while walking through Gaga’s dream, that I would need to be able to talk about Gaga’s work with my students, to explain it. This easily granted me insight into the nature of responsibility, that I had that “response-ability” and that my pedagogic duty was to transfer my understanding of Gaga’s art through my responses to her work.

At a Thanksgiving dinner with friends last week I listened as a fellow educator, now retired, spoke of his own “life-long learning” as a science teacher. It is well known among us teachers that one is constantly researching our subject areas to stay abreast of developments in our various disciplines. For me in the fine art area, particularly with relevance to theory, this meant subscribing to art periodicals, perusing the Internet’s art sites and blogs to read reviews, essays and critiques. Additionally, I toured DC’s museums and art galleries, usually got up to New York City each season and foraged through whatever world-class cities' venues I found myself in, from Denver to Hong Kong.

We became learners to be better teachers. My syllabi evolved over the years, expanding into new eras and covering new artists for class lectures. I also was able to create another Corcoran College class based on my research on postconceptual tendencies in contemporary art.

All of this takes time, of course, and the educator who hits that 10-year, 15-year, or even 20-year mark does benefit from the specialized knowledge gained. But what do we do with it besides lecture?

There’s publishing, obviously, if you have the stamina for it. But with the wealth of free material awash over the Ethernet, one shouldn’t hold out for a career in the academic textbook niche.

Be that as it may, I want to return to that dream. Lady Gaga is a pop phenomena, and she seems like a respectful person, as she impressed Tony Bennett – probably not easy – and performed and recorded with him. We know that she studied art, and I’ve lectured on her savvy appropriation of Tania Bruguera’s lamb-meat dress (1) and her obvious emulation of Madonna’s persona shifts – possibly inspired by David Bowie’s brilliance in pop star “shape-shifting.” But she doesn’t make art...yet.

And those “white-on-white” words and sentences, even without knowing their context or intent, bear some close reading. If we can see that it’s almost invisible, would that help? Is it “Art” with a Capital A if it’s hard to see, hard to make out, and even harder to respond to?

It is precisely because my 13-year tenure as an art theory professor, coupled with those concomitant “response-abilities” to my students, had recently ended, that I find myself reflecting on my continuance of research and critical discourse as “Art.” And this moment is when the dream has emerged in my unconscious. Did my unspoken yet anticipated critique of Gaga’s word-works represent my indecision vis-à-vis my own art practice?

Any thoughts?

IMAGE: Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the 2010 VMA Awards; taken from YouTube without permission.

1. Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak created yet another meat dress ("Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic") in 1987; go here for more.