I was pondering on the fate of the mighty Dr Feelgood and how they failed to make any great albums after Wilko Johnson left. It wasn’t just about Johnson’s guitar playing and song writing, they still had good songs and good guitar players. It was also to do with the lack of identity the band experienced after Wilko left. This meant that the every record the band made subsequently was a reflection of the producer they were offered at the time.
Let’s be honest, virtually every band makes more records than are strictly necessary. Here’s my set of rules to any band that would ensure that no one has to make (or listen to) a substandard record again.
Stick to what you are good at.
This is not necessarily a plea for musical conservatism but usually a band comes to prominence because they are good at what they do. Dr Feelgood were a great live R&B band, they were not a great soft rock band as their album ‘Classic’ shows. The Stones were great at blues influenced pop and later blues influenced rock, their ‘Satanic Majesty’s album was a bit of a mess. Bob Dylan is a great singer songwriter, his covers are painful. The problem is we just can’t forget the 60’s, in the space of months bands would transfer their allegiances from R&B covers to psychedelic wig outs. It’s not going to happen again… leave it !
Lay off the Drugs
The history of music making is one of classic fuck ups. Drugs can be creative we know that but an album like Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ only happened after the band realised they had to get their act together rather than sprawling about stoned. Again, it’s the bleedin 60’s which are at the heart of this, drugs really did help bands unlock new music, no one takes LSD anymore (why?). Ever since then it’s been a downhill struggle with drugs, cocaine has been responsible for so much shallow shit from the 80’s and 90’s, lets just assume that lots of drugs in the studio is going to be a bad thing. A band off their heads either produce self indulgent nonsense or just let the producer get on with it which is a mistake. See below.
Don’t let the Producer get on with it.
Post George Martin the producer evolved from the bloke who sat behind the mixing desk and said ‘jolly good chaps, that’s a take’ to someone approaching god. We have now reached the stage where the producer is the single most important person on a lot of projects turning gossamer thin songs into YouTube sensations. There are great producers like Joe Boyd who bring out the best in the best in the natural qualities in a band and dictators who threaten to shoot you if you don’t get the bass part right in one take. Occasionally a bit of tension helps, there have been strange combinations which almost worked like Sandy Perlman producing the Clash’s ‘Give em enough Rope’, when the band subsequently turned to Guy Stevens to produce ‘London Calling’ they discovered a man unhinged enough to smash things up in the studio to create ‘ambience’. That was a good producer! Almost always the bad producer choice is the record company’s idea. Essentially they have signed a band they like but then want to change them, the idea inevitably will be to make them ‘more commercial’. This almost always has the consequence that it will diminish everything that was good about the band in the first place. If Mutt Lang has been called in you had better like big drums if its T Bone Burnette or Daniel Lanois be prepared for lots of ambient sound whether you want it or not, if it’s Phil Spector you have to be comfortable with loaded firearms on the mixing desk. If the producer is a bigger name than the band then be very wary. Invariably bands pretend to like the production if makes them more popular and slag it off when, inevitably, it just alienates the old fans without gaining any new ones.
Beware of Guests.
Again, usually another record company ploy. The idea is that the more other famous people you can cram on to a CD the more people will want to buy it. There was a time, of course when other people played on their friends records under assumed names to avoid publicity (Elton John appears on Jackson Brownes ‘For Everyman’ LP under the name Rockaway Johnny for example). Not now, everything has value. The trend started with John Lee Hooker’s ‘The Healer’ (if all those artists really wanted to pay tribute to Hooker they should have stayed away and let him get on with it), but to be honest my heart sinks if I see a ‘guest artist’ sticker. The resulting product will sell but really are any of these actually great records? The answer, clearly, is no, listening to them is like eating junk food, it seems ok at the time but ultimately leave you feeling dirty.
Do some work beforehand.
Why so many artists are first and second records their best? It’s simple, they’ve had years to prepare for this moment. Following the debut record there are tours/interviews/rock and roll distractions and the creative process is ignored. When the band turns up with a guitar riff and a couple of lines on the back of a fag packet a classic album is not going to be made. Worse still the producer will suggest a re-recording of a motown classic so they can show off their snare drum compressor and the bass player will reveal a sensitive song they’ve written about their girlfriend. All bands are under pressure, they may be tied to record deals but also bands without deals may suddenly find a recording opportunity is available as long as they can be available next Wednesday. If you need further proof of the need for preparation just listen to the Stones ‘Dirty Work’, a record so half arsed that Ronnie Wood has to play drums on one of the tracks. And this links in with the final rule.
If you’ve got nothing to say, say nothing.
This is the impossible rule unfortunately. It’s like the news, it has to happen every day and so events will expand or contract to fit the time available. This means a lot of the stuff that is reported is not newsworthy but there’s nothing else so fill the slot so we’ve got to assume it’s important because it’s news. In the same way a band or artist produces a record because it’s time to do so not because they’ve got a fantastic aural experience for us.
And that’s my manifesto for a better musical world, imagine a world where everyone has produced between one and three really great albums, a world where ‘16 Big Ones’, ‘Self Portrait’, ‘Cut the Crap’, ’Trans’, or a million other crap records simply don’t need to exist.
Any thoughts and comments are very welcome, are mistakes just hidden intentions? Is there a charm in the really shite records? Let me know.
As usual none of the above applies to the Beatles.