Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Moment In Time

Today, via the auspices of Music Week – Britain’s one and only trade magazine for the business of music – came the news that tonight’s BRIT Award performances will be available online via a dedicated BRITS page on iTunes. All proceeds from said recordings will go to the BRITS Trust.

This follows last year’s ‘experiment’ of the same which saw the collaboration between Dizzee Rascal and Florence of Florence + The Machine sell over three hundred thousand copies of their mid-February BRIT Awards’ on-stage mash-up.

Not much to concern ourselves about here… is there?

Not really… so long as those involved (the artists / their management / the musicians involved / relevant record companies etc etc) are all totally cool flying by the seat of their proverbials.

And, so long as those who purchase said artefact of the night, fully understand what they’re shelling out their money for – ‘cos what the public will be offered to acquire will be nothing more than an officially sanctioned bootleg of song X / onstage collaboration Y.

Perhaps I should set my stall out here and state that I believe live recordings contain some of my most favourite moments within all music: this is when it really is down to those four fundamental chords and the truth. Its when the magic of a band at the top of their game can send shivers down the spine; moments that can never be replicated – it is, for the moment and of the moment – a true snapshot in time.

And, something that’s incredibly rare to capture since every single star has to be perfectly in alignment for it – the magic – to happen.

Come with me, if you will and we’ll head off to Hammersmith Palais on the night of September 29th, 1980.

This venerable building began life in 1919 as The Hammersmith Palais de Danse and, besides being a ballroom it hosted an ice rink and was also where tanks were constructed during the war besides doubling as a tram shed. It was also one of the greatest music venues in all of London… and I saw countless bands there… U2 supporting Talking Heads (standing next to Bruce Springsteen on the balcony and later helping smuggle his Broooceness into the dressing room so that Bono and Bruce’s first meeting could be committed to celluloid by (our) photographer who, himself, gained access to the inner sanctum through an open window); OMD, The Clash, the B52s, Nils Lofgren, The Cramps, The Alarm, King Sunny Adé , Orange Juice, The Waterboys and literally dozens of others.

Its a warm, balmy early autumn evening… outside and inside some three thousand or so punters are gathered – John Curd the promoter of many Palais gigs was never that fussed with fire regulations that called for specified maximum numbers of an audience to be adhered to.

Edged up onto the pavement is a big truck; a mobile studio… cables spill from its innards like so much spaghetti, trailing into the venue via side doors. Inside this state of the art (for its time) articulated lorry are slightly-bearded sound engineer Godwin Logie, a veteran from Island Hammersmith studios, The FallOut Shelter and the ever-suave Alex Sadkin, imported over from Compass Point in The Bahamas to produce the recording.

A large spliff smolders on the edge of the desk, the air is fetid with the reek of high quality grass. Marianne Faithfull and her then husband, The Vibrators’ Ben Brierly are hovering in the background. Richard ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – more regularly employed as front-of-house sound engineer for The Jess Roden Band – meanders back and forth between his desk in the hall and the truck, checking and double-checking.

Inside, it’s a cauldron of noise, heat and anticipation – the latter most keenly felt by those at the sharp end of proceedings. A little over a week previously, a bit of a plan had been hatched… we’re going to create a bit of history here by putting out the fastest live recording in history; the Guinness Book Of Records are in our collective sights.

As near as dammit to the appointed hour, at nine pm, Toots and The Maytals bound on stage… theirs is high-energy reggae, not for them the languid build of a set… it kicks off in the overtaking lane with Pressure Drop (covered by label-mate Robert Palmer) and morphs along the central-reservation barriers almost seamlessly through classic Toots tracks such as Monkey Man, Funky Kingston, Time Tough and his timeless 54-46 That’s My Number… the crowd, predictably, go nuts… and, ninety or so minutes later… this one night of music is all there, committed to reels of two-inch, 24-track, analog tape.

The guys in the truck have been mixing on the hoof; they have time for one more pass of the entire show to readjust levels before filtering out the songs that – for whatever reason – are deemed (in those pre-ProTools days) as being sub-standard… thankfully, the key Toots songs have made it… Crowd noise is edited… the song sequence is chosen… before that is run off as a final, quarter inch, stereo mix.

A fast car is waiting… the stereo mixes – accompanied by Alex Sadkin – head to the mastering suite where the two sides of vinyl will start to take shape. The tapes are run through, levels are once again tweaked and the alchemy of mastering is underway; memory at a distance (in this instance) is hazy but, I’m pretty sure the knob-twiddler in chief would have been John Dent, one of the masters of this alchemic artform. In general terms, a good couple of hours would have been allowed for each track… but, on this particular night where time was of the essence, this vital process would have been cut to maybe two or, at a pinch, three hours max.

In the background – and only once the final album running order had been confirmed – the artwork was being completed… and sent straight to the printers, bypassing the usual colour checking processes.

Once the finished album had been mastered, the fast car was employed yet again – this time, destination EMI’s pressing plant at Hayes… the master became the laquer… the lacquer became the stamper that would produce the vinyl. The presses rolled early in the morning and each album was hand-sleeved… more fast cars stood by and, as record stores in London opened for business, the album was there to buy… recorded and in the shops in under twenty-four hours and yes… a few weeks later, the letter from the Guinness Book Of records people duly arrived.

So… how does all that relate to this evening’s little BRITS exercise…?

I’d say it was more down to the performance than anything… IF – and this a huge ask – IF everything goes according to plan for song X or Y then the sheer logistical exercise of putting that performance up on iTunes isn’t that much of a difficulty.

That IF, however, should be written in sky-high letters. For example – and lets take as one example the Grammys from the other night… in which Bruno Mars’ (sort-of) tribute to James Brown, a song called Grenade went horribly, horribly wrong.

For why…? Master Mars’ vocals were as flat as a pancake throughout much of the song… ooopsy, should’ve used the old auto-tune gadget, son… fixable after the fact in ProTools… yes, undoubtedly but… its time consuming.

So, lets imagine that there is a cock-up with an instrument… violas are notorious but lets think about something more fundamental, the bass drum pedal is at the root of most songs isn’t it?

So, consider what happens IF the mic isn’t securely-enough attached to the floor and, throughout performance Z… it moves… just a few centimeters but, trust me, that’s enough to matter. Why? Sonically (and noticeably) the song is out of kilter. Is it fixable… of course… ProTools to the rescue yet again. However… this, and trust me here, really can be time-consuming.

It’s a process I watched unfold during one of the archive projects I’m engrossed in currently – we wanted to use a particular live recording (from The Marquee since you’re wondering) and an absolute belter of a performance it is too.

However, during initial playback of the two inch multitracks something sounded… out… we couldn’t quite figure it out but, definitely something was wrong. My lankily-haired, cup-cake-eating, engineer cocked his head on one side… listened intently again and again then, one by one, started to ‘solo’ every single mic-input.

‘Aha… found it… the bass-drum mic moved.’
he pronounced after an hour of twiddling. ‘And the solution is…?’ I asked – worrying that this might be a problem too far even for his skill-set.

‘Well…’ he said, scratching what passes for a beard… ‘I could take one bass-drum beat right at the start where everything is aligned properly and use that and put it back on every beat in the song… that should, in theory, do the trick… you might want to go and make a big pot of coffee, though… we’re in for the long haul… it’ll probably take the rest of the day.’

The song was nine minutes long and… it did take the rest of the day. Ultimately, it did get fixed but the point is, it would have been unusable without that fix.

With the BRITS tonight… how will they do this; make sure that that we, the end-users – the iTunes purchasers, are on the receiving end of performances that are as good as they can be in every single way?

Well, if they’re heading down the sheer speed route, I’d imagine its highly unlikely that they’ll use the actual performance from the televised show – there will be a safety net in place whereby the run throughs, the sound-checks will have been recorded and those performances will act as audio-security… perhaps with a live (auto-tuned) vocal laid on top.

Why..? Well, I can’t imagine any of tonight’s scheduled performing (loosely applied adjective as that is) acts such as Take That, Plan B, Rihanna, Cee Lo or Tinie Tempah) comfortable enough with their own – raw – performances to allow anything sub-standard out there.

Arcade Fire or The Mumfords… perhaps… but then again and in the cold light of day, would one want to really head over to iTunes and pay to download a copy of The Mumfords backing His Bobness, growling out a dirge-like Maggies Farm from the recent Grammys?

You know what... quite honestly, I reckon its far better to leave everything as is... don't bother with the kerfuffle and uncertainty (and undoubted pressure) of recording to release from a show like this... leave it as a moment in time that can be found on YouTube in time to come, just like so many great performances where the visual combines with the audio - and its that which makes it work as well as it does - as a final example, Mick Jagger's solo Grammys performance of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love was hardly perfect but, the visual of Mick as man in motorway service station caught out by an over-hot hand-drier in the men's lavaotories, belting it out made it work.


Mirth Travers said...

Regarding the wonder of live experiences, you're forgetting the recent "magical" half time show at Superbowl last week.

The live performance of Black Eyed Peas outed them as being musically incompetent and unable to sing... as seen in the scathing writings of the twitterati as well as die hard music critics.

Fergie's mic didn't kick in - and it's a shame it did - it would have been much better if it had stayed off.

Would I have paid for a mp4 of this travesty? absolutely not.

Where is Simon Cowell when you need him?

Patrick said...


Missed seeing this article when you posted it. It made me nostalgic for gigs at Hammersmith and how raw things were then compared to now ... I'm sure the same would have been said then for decades before that.

I remember doing live shots and trying to be creative, taking multiple exposures, overlaying faces on guitars, bringing 2 artists close together who were always on opposite sides of the stage etc and then often a quick trip to Joe's basement in Soho to get film processed in the early hours, eager to see what had come out, because it was all largely on a wing and a prayer.

Nowadays with digital and such amazing software, you could pretty much stagger out half-cut to cover a gig and be able to rescue the dire results in the morning. I've actually got quite a bit of material lurking in files, that I'd rated unusable, but with a couple of minutes on even basic software I've got a fine photo.

Times have moved on and I really appreciate craftsmanship as opposed to automated perfection. Live music, with real performances is so much more enjoyable than processed varieties ... unless of course they just can't sing or play :-)