Author Archives

Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

Shelved: The Sound of Big Star’s Self-Destruction

Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (3,146 words)

 

In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the first commercial long-playing record, which revolved at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and could hold more than 20 minutes of music per side. The older technology, 78-rpm records, couldn’t hold more than three and a half minutes per side. It was now possible to make a self-contained album.

Prior to that, the term “album” was used to describe a printed collection of short classical music pieces, such as Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Later, 78 records would be bound in volumes called albums, which would allow the limited medium to communicate longer orchestral works. By the same token, the books that contained family photos also became known as albums.

With the new technology, it wasn’t long before albums were used to communicate a collection of songs united by a common theme. Frank Sinatra is widely credited with releasing the first concept album, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. All of the songs were arranged by Nelson Riddle and were united in their themes of love, loss, and romantic dissolution.

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Shelved: Bill Evans’ Loose Blues

Bill Evans. David Redfern / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,248 words)

 

“Loose Bloose” has a beguiling head riff. Such motifs are played at the beginning, or “head,” of a jazz or rock song. They’re typically repetitive and simple enough for musicians to remember — an arrangement kept in one’s head, not written down. Pianist Bill Evans changed that. The head riff on “Loose Bloose” is too complex to not have been notated. Played in unison and in octave harmonies on piano and tenor saxophone, it is somehow both intimate and imperious. It moves with the strange grace of a mantis. It is a part of Evans’s legacy that is without either parent or descendant.

That is partly because “Loose Bloose,” and the album with which it nearly shares a name, was shelved. Thought lost, Loose Blues remained in vaults for 20 years. It was created during a time of grief and addiction, formed from necessity and ambition, and frustrated by financial limitations. It was conceived by a man in the middle of an intensely creative period, only to be released after his death; recorded by a group of ad hoc players not fully prepared for its compositional intricacies; and produced by a man who didn’t fully believe in the project.

Recorded in two days in August 1962, Loose Blues was the product of extraordinary recording activity for a normally reticent artist, one who took almost two years to record a second solo album. “The burst really began,” remembered producer Orrin Keepnews, “when Evans surprised me by announcing that he was ready to record with his new trio; eventually it meant that he was in three different studios on a total of eight separate occasions between April and August 1962, creating four and a half albums’ worth of solo, trio, and quintet selections.”

“I don’t know how impressive that sounds to anyone else;” Keepnews wrote in the Loose Blues liner notes, “to me, who was on hand for all of it, it is still overwhelming.”

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Remembering Pioneering Studio Engineer Geoff Emerick

Ringo Starr of The Beatles congratulates EMI recording studio audio engineer Geoff Emerick on his Grammy Award in 1968. Photo by Monti Spry/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

I once met legendary record producer George Avakian, who worked with everyone from John Cage to Ravi Shankar to Dave Brubeck. I was especially interested in his sessions with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, and the incredible stand up bass sounds on those records from the 1950s.

“What mics did you use, George?” I asked, certain I was about to acquire some arcane and sacred knowledge. “Oh, I never touched the mics,” George said quickly. “I was the producer.”

The recording engineer, as opposed to the producer, is the one person actually responsible for what we hear. The musicians write and perform the music, the producer (at least in the previous century) concerns themself with song selection and arrangement, and the engineer captures the sound. The latitude for personal expression here is incredible: there is the size and shape of the studio room, and its relationship to the microphones. There are all manner of musical instruments, some acoustic, some amplified, and how they sound when recorded. There is a wide spectrum of microphones: ribbon mics, condenser mics, dynamic mics, mics with diaphragms large and small, each contributing a sound engineers variously describe as “dark” or “bright” or having “air on top.” It’s been my experience that most people can’t hear a good performance through bad production. Engineers bear the brunt of that responsibility. So, at least to my mind, Duke Ellington’s dictum “If it sounds good, it is good,” applies to the recording process as much as anything else.

Geoff Emerick died on October 2, 2018. Having engineered late period Beatles records, he was one of the best known and most innovative engineers of the twentieth century. Many modern recording techniques are the result of his work. The best way to illustrate this is to focus our attention on one day: Wednesday April 6, 1966. Emerick was 19. As a 15-year old intern, he had witnessed the Beatles’ first recording session, the one which produced “Love Me Do.” This day was his first as the band’s engineer. He was terrified.

This ‘66 session was the first for the Beatles’ new album, Revolver. The first song to be recorded was also the album’s most sonically ambitious: John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon, never technically minded and always looking for a way to disguise his voice, asked producer George Martin to “make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop.”

“Got it,” Martin said. “I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.”

Emerick’s solution was brilliant. After securing Martin’s blessing, he instructed the maintenance engineer to wire a certain amplifier to use for Lennon’s vocal. “The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie,” Emerick recalled in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, “a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers, one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies; it was the effect of those spinning speakers that was largely responsible for the characteristic Hammond organ sound. In my mind, I could almost hear what John’s voice might sound like if it were coming from a Leslie.” No one knew exactly what that sound would be, as it had never been done before.

After recording the first take, the band listened to the playback in the control room. The effect worked perfectly. “It’s the Dalai Lennon!” Paul McCartney shouted.

Lennon was amazed and asked for an explanation; he got one he didn’t understand. “Couldn’t we get the same effect by dangling me from a rope and swinging me around the microphone instead?” he asked. It’s hard to imagine now, but Emerick’s lasting contribution here is that he did something that had never been done: Leslie amplifiers were designed to use with Hammond organs, not with human voices. Once this experimental door was opened, any combination of artistry and technology was possible.

Before the day was done, Emerick would make another major contribution to modern sound engineering. To do so, he had to break house rules. EMI, who owned Abbey Road studios, did not allow microphones to be placed closer than two feet from a bass drum. The concentrated “wallop” of low end frequencies can damage sensitive microphones. Excessive low end would also make phonograph needles skip, which is why there are no bass drums on early jazz recordings. Drummers used bass drums, but engineers banned them.

Inspired by the slightly muffled sound of Ringo Starr’s snare drum a side effect of the heavy smoker keeping his pack of cigarettes handy Emerick grabbed a nearby wool sweater. “As quickly as I could,” he remembered, “I removed the bass drum’s front skin the one with the famous ‘dropped-T’ Beatles logo on it and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.” He then purposefully overloaded the circuitry of some outboard gear to affect the drum sound. The result was punchy, exciting, and unprecedented.

The heavily compressed drum sound set the template for almost all British pop music for the rest of the decade, from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to Led Zeppelin; the dampened, close-miked kick drum technique is still in use. After Revolver, Emerick went on to engineer the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road.

With his first work day over, Emerick took the waiting car back to his parents’ house, where he lived.

There are home studio plugins for all these outboard effects now. You can run your vocal through a virtual Leslie cabinet, or employ a faux Fairchild limiter to make your drums sound more Beatles-y, or distort your Neumann microphone, or a digital facsimile, to sound like Lennon’s voice on “I Am The Walrus.” But these innovations were made during a time when engineers at Abbey Road wore white lab coats and ties and could be fired for any misuse of studio equipment. Geoff Emerick, who was part of the Beatles’ career when they began using the studio as an instrument, was as much responsible for their iconic sounds as anyone. “He was smart, fun-loving and the genius behind many of the great sounds on our records,” McCartney remembered. “God bless you Geoffrey.”

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Shelved: The Velvet Underground’s Fourth Album

The Velvet Underground at The Record Plant on May 6, 1969, during a session for VU. L to R: Doug Yule, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, engineer Gary Kellgren. Photo by William "PoPsie" Randolph.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2018 | 18 minutes (3,669 words)

 

The Velvet Underground album VU is the binding agent in a career of releases that differ so dramatically one from another as to be almost artistic reversals. VU has the dark majesty of The Velvet Underground & Nico, the neurotic strut (if not the head-wrecking dissonance) of White Light/White Heat, the tenderness and emotional insight of The Velvet Underground, and the pure pop sensibility of Loaded. In its 10 tracks, it contains refined versions of what the band did well during the four years they lasted. The irony is that VU wasn’t released until more than a dozen years after the Velvet Underground disbanded.

Recorded primarily in 1969, after the ouster of multi-instrumentalist John Cale, and later cannibalized by principal songwriter Lou Reed for his solo career, the recordings that make up VU were shelved for 16 years. They stayed in the MGM vaults, mostly unmixed, until discovered during the process of reissuing the band’s catalog in the early 80s. As a result, VU benefitted from much improved audio technology and was released to a world not only better prepared for the Velvet Underground, but one that had largely absorbed its lessons. The album made a beautiful tombstone for the band’s career, at a time when all the members were alive to see it.
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A History of American Protest Music: Which Side Are You On?

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2018 | 8 minutes (1,536 words)
It’s axiomatic: In hard times, the vulnerable suffer most. Although the Great Depression left no American untouched, those who lived in the penury of Kentucky coal country bore a greater burden.

“In the early thirties I had one of my babies starve to death,” recalled Kentucky singer Sarah Ogan Gunning in Voices From the Mountains.

It literally happened — people starved to death. Not only my own baby, but the neighbors’ babies. You seed them starve to death too. And all you could do was go over and help wash and dress ‘em and lay ‘em out and sit with the mothers until they could put ‘em away.

On February 16, 1931, the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association reduced their employees’ wages — already at subsistence level — by 10 percent. The miners responded by organizing a union. Union members were either fired and evicted from their company-owned homes, or beaten and killed. Soon there was a general strike. Thus began a period of harassment and violence known as the Harlan County War, or more simply, Bloody Harlan. The sheriff’s department acted as enforcers for the mine operators.

Sam Reece worked as an organizer for the National Miners Union. “Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to our house in search of Sam — that’s my husband — he was one of the union leaders,” remembered musician and activist Florence Reece. “I was home alone with our seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, waiting to shoot Sam down when he came back. But he didn’t come home that night.”

The next morning, Florence, in her words, “tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall,” and wrote a new lyric to an old melody.

Come all of you poor workers, good news to you I’ll tell

Of how that good old union has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?

 

If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there

You’ll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair

Which side are you on?

Reece couldn’t have known that what she created would become the most durable anthem of the labor movement, and a template for protest songs for decades to come. “Which Side Are You On?,” written from acute personal trauma, has been universalized, both in lyric and musical modality. After making its way out of Harlan County and into a New York recording studio, it got modified to fit the message of countless underdog protagonists.

“Which Side Are You On?” quickly became an anthem in the union halls and picket lines. Jim Garland, another organizer and songwriter, immediately used it as a tool for protest. “In the course of such fights, songs expressed people’s feelings in a manner that allowed them to stand together,” he said. “Rather than walking up to a gun thug and saying, ‘You’re a bastard,’ which might have resulted in a shooting, we could express our anger much more easily in unison with song lyrics.”

In December, 1931, Garland and his cousin Aunt Molly Jackson travelled to New York to give concerts to raise money for the striking miners. They performed “Which Side Are You On?”, where it ultimately caught the ear of Pete Seeger.

By the early 1940s, Seeger was changing the face of American popular culture. He formed a band called the Almanac Singers with folk hero Woody Guthrie and singers Lee Hays and Millard Lampell. They sang folk songs — some they wrote and some learned from others — that were pro-union and anti-war. “They did not perform in costume, either of the concert stage or of the radio barn dance,” wrote Robert S. Cantwell in When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, “and yet their street clothes, in which they ordinarily appeared, ranged from pieces of business suits in various permutations and combinations to dungarees, workshirts, and construction boots….”

“Back where I come from, a family had two books,” remembered Arkansas-born Lee Hays. “The Bible to help ’em to the next world. The Almanac, to help ’em through the present world…We became the Almanac Singers.”

The first Almanac Singers album, Songs for John Doe, sold well enough in Communist bookstores to merit a new record. Talking Union was recorded in the same Central Park studio in May, 1941, and released on Keynote records in July. “Which Side Are You On?” was the last of its six songs. Even though they didn’t change Reece’s original melody or lyric, the Almanac Singers took “Which Side Are You On?” from the personal to the universal. It’s instructive to hear both versions. First, Reece, singing her composition in later years.

The melody for this song originated centuries ago in England, and is known as modal music. Modal music doesn’t have a key or chords in the way we would understand from, say, a Beatles song. Traditional Irish and Scottish folk music, which became the basis for Appalachian folk music, is modal, and predates 1650.

Reece’s performance is declarative and singular. She sings as an individual, without accompaniment or harmony. She sings to us as a group of individuals, each with a decision to make. “You have to be on one side or the other,” she once said. “In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.” She is asking us to decide, because even if the idea of community, in the form of a union, was comforting, the reality is that people were being picked off one by one.

The Almanac Singers’ version of “Which Side Are You On?” is an example of tonal music. (Again, think of a Beatles song, with chord changes and harmonies.) Pete Seeger begins with a stark, descending banjo riff — a foil for the upcoming single-string guitar melody — and then sings the first verse. The chorus is a haunting response to his call, sung by a group of voices. A community has formed, and what they sing is as much indictment as encouragement. Florence Reece’s modal melody, an artifact of Appalachian fiddle music, has been incorporated and expanded. We hear harmonies now, as sympathetic as a friend, as organized as a union.

Jim Garland, who brought “Which Side Are You On?” to New York, stayed and became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, one largely founded by people like Seeger and Guthrie. It was an alternative world, one informed by a mix of races and cultures and classes. These folk artists collected and composed songs of the people, performed them in small clubs, union halls, and regional festivals, and made them available through recordings, virtually none of which were available to Florence Reece back in Kentucky.

Seeger had a knack for popularization. Remember, it was he who changed “I Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” Seeger also identified “Which Side Are You On?” as being pliable to other applications. He penned some new lyrics in support of the National Maritime Union in 1947:

The men who hate our union, they say we dodged the draft

Not one of those damn liars knows his forward from his aft

From there the song gained immortality. The Freedom Singers, a group formed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962, rewrote the lyric to reflect their Civil Rights struggle.

Come all you Negro people, lift up your voices and sing

Will you join the Ku Klux Klan or Martin Luther King?

They certainly employed, to great effect, the Almanac Singers’ call and response arrangement, bringing altogether more church into the proceedings.

Len Chandler, a topical singer from Greenwich Village who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, wrote his own version:

Come all you Northern liberals, take a Klansman out to lunch

But when you dine, instead of wine, you should serve nonviolent punch

Through the rolling years, “Which Side Are You On?” has been adapted and covered by myriad artists, including Dropkick Murphys and Ani DiFranco. The question renews itself as each generation struggles against inequality.

The melody proved as durable as the lyrics proved malleable. Although Reece claimed to have borrowed the melody from an old Baptist hymn, the truth is much less sanctified. A listen to an a capella version of “Ho Lily Ho” by Appalachian singer Sarah Hawkes reveals the song’s origin. This is an ancient tune, also known as “Jack Monroe.” In most of its iterations, the song tells the story of a young woman who dresses like a man to find her lost lover in battle. In every version, fearlessness defines her:

‘Your waist is slim and slender, your fingers they are small

Your cheeks too red and rosy to face a cannon ball’

 

‘My waist, I know, is slender – my fingers they are small

But it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall’

Even if Florence Reece, the young and beleaguered Kentucky housewife, did not know the original song’s themes of transformation and bravery when she wrote her lyric, she carried them forward nonetheless.

Now it’s our turn. The new lyric has yet to be written, but the circumstances that will inspire it are with us daily. There may indeed be one humanity; there may indeed be “no such thing as other people’s children,” but right now this world is binary, and we are called to choose. Which side are you on?

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry

John Henry
Illustration by Aimee Flom

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)

 

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)

 

In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll. Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: ‘We Have Got Tools and We Are Going to Succeed’

Illustration by Aimee Flom

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

Read part one of “Hammer Songs.”

Lee Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned to sing Sacred Harp—the traditional shape-note choral music—in his father’s church. Just as he reached his teens, Lee’s life fell apart. His father died in a car accident. His mother lost her mind from grief. The Great Depression wiped the family out, preventing Lee from attending school. He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, working as a page in a local library. Here the 16-year-old Lee Hays—already over six feet tall, blue-eyed and sandy haired—became radicalized.

“Every book that was considered unfit for children to read was marked with a black rubber stamp,” Hays remembered. “So I’d go through the stacks and look for these black stamps. Always the very best books. They weren’t locked-up books, just books that would not normally be issued to children—D.H. Lawrence, a number of European novels. Reading those books was like doors opening.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Nina Simone
Nina Simone, 1966. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns) via Getty Images

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,329 words)

 

On June 12, 1963, in the early morning after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his Mississippi home. He was returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers and officials, and carried an armload of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was taken to a local hospital, where he died less than an hour after being admitted.

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.” Read more…

A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845
Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845. "Unknown Artist, American School: Hutchinson Family Singers (2005.100.77)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)

 

On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

The Story of ‘Ella and Louis,’ 60 Years Later

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)

Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.

The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.” Read more…