Thursday, December 29, 2011

Producers and their shelf-life: Brian Wilson, Jimmy Miller, Producers in General and more thoughts about SMILE vs. Smiley Smile…………

Years ago, when I was in high school, I used to love hanging out at the library in my school since they had a super cool book in the stacks. It was called “Making Music” and it was edited by Beatles producer George Martin. Here’s a picture:
Nowadays it would be a great description of how things used to work. For me at the time it was a window into better understanding how the music I loved came into being. Fact was, since the book was in the reference section of the library they wouldn’t lend it out so I HAD to read it in the library. Anyone who really knows me won’t be too surprised by this admission of supergeek behavior. It would be a few years before I got anywhere near a real recording studio, but the credits on the albums I listened to had me wondering what the roles of the various people were – engineer, producer…..what did it all mean? More fascinating information came in the form of The Beatles Recording Sessions book which appeared in my freshman year of college (and, yeah, I spent plenty of time sitting in my dorm reading that thing too!).

Both of those books helped me to understand a little better what a Producer does, so I started paying more attention to how records sounded and who was listed as the producer in the credits. It was especially interesting to me when a particular group changed producers – more often than not, the same group of musicians could sound really different when working with a new producer at the helm. Ever hear any of Aretha Franklin’s sides when she was recording for Columbia in the early 60s? Pretty flat-sounding stuff. She wouldn’t really become ARETHA FRANKLIN until she jumped ship to Atlantic Records with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd at the helm. The Atlantic team really knew what to do with her – how to present her best artistically and commercially.

 I had originally wanted to write an entry extolling the virtues of the great record producer of the 60s and 70s, Jimmy Miller. I was listening to a record he produced that was knocking me out yet again, but I realized his name probably just didn’t mean much anymore to the general public today – certainly not helped by the fact that he passed away awhile ago. Also not helped by the fact that his last significant productions happened back in the 1970s. But what glorious productions they were! When The Rolling Stones reissued “Exile on Main Street” last year to general fanfare, hoopla and media bombardment I kept thinking about the contributions Jimmy Miller made even beyond the control booth. How many people know that it was Miller, not Charlie Watts, who played the drums on “Tumbling Dice”? Yeah? Yeah! Actually – Exile was near the end of the golden era for Mr. Jimmy (immortalized in the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – yeah? YEAH!). The main thing I wanted to mention in a public place was how, in my view, Jimmy Miller damn near SINGLEHANDEDLY saved the Rolling Stones from passing into 60s Pop has-beens when he produced the 45 single of “Jumping Jack Flash” for them in 1968. No way in hell the Glimmer Twins had that up their sleeves – it was a pure Jimmy Miller deal from soup to nuts. Anyway – if you want to know more about this Jimmy Miller guy, check out this link:

Really – a hell of a producer in his heyday. One of those rare guys who – if you see the name listed on the back of a record jacket, it is probably worth checking out the music even if you’d never heard of the group before. But the idea of “heyday” – this word seemed to naturally spring to mind when reflecting on the role and/or shelf-life of the average music/record producer figure. Maybe a quick refresher course on what a Record Producer is/does would be a good idea…………….

In the golden age of recorded music, studios were places where the machines lived. Tape machines, consoles, microphones, various compressors and other outboard equipment. These tools were usually only manipulated by a person known as “The Engineer”. The engineer’s job was to capture the sounds made by the musicians on magnetic tape. The Producer, on the other hand, would determine the quality of the sounds, the music being recorded and how all of that would be presented to the record company for whom they worked. However involved in the finished product the singer/artist was depended upon all sorts of variables – relationship to the producer, technical ability – but it was rare for the artist to be calling the shots in the studio. Sometimes producers could be obnoxious autocrats. But, in the end, they were the ones responsible for the finished musical product.

 Also – the best producers could coax more exciting performances out of the artists they worked with. The word “catalyst” could be used here. And, of course, each producer had the potential to have a unique sound – one that made their productions stand out (and hopefully in a good way). The penultimate example of this might be Phil Spector. For him, the recording studio itself was an instrument of expression. And his records don’t sound like anyone else’s.

However, Phil Spector had his “heyday”. From the early 60s to the early 70s. Times change, technology changes. Where Phil was cutting edge in the early 60s – his sound became yesterday’s news by the mid-70s. Some producers can ride the waves of technological change better than others. Some leave a greater personal imprint in the music they oversee than others. In the case of Jimmy Miller – the sound of his productions was less distinctive. His influence was more on performance and overall presentation of the material. Some folks call this the “transparent” approach.

One thing’s for sure though – producing records can be a lot of work and a lot of pressure. I don’t know if there are any bootleg recordings that highlight Jimmy Miller at work in the studio – I certainly never heard any myself. But there ARE plenty of legitimate (and otherwise) recordings of Brian Wilson at work in the studio in the 1960s. Pet Sounds sessions. Good Vibrations sessions. And now – The Smile Sessions. The story goes that Brian Wilson became so overburdened by the pressures of this ambitious project that it caused him to abandon the whole approach to his craft that he spent years building up. And quite an abrupt and jarring change in style it was, too. The material that was to make up Smile – after many months of recording – ended up in a remade rush-job of two weeks spent recording at his home studio. The public was expecting the sophistication of Good Vibrations on a whole LP record. What they got was a cartoon-like version that sounded like an amateur home recording (which is EXACTLY what it was).

Since my last posting on Smile vs. Smiley Smile I have since taken delivery of the new Smile Sessions boxset. While I haven’t plowed through everything there, I have come away with a new understanding of the music and the complex story of its creation. I have to agree with Beach Boy Bruce Johnson who, in the liner notes, relates that Smile – had it been finished – would have been more suited to release as a Brian Wilson solo outing perhaps on the classical branch of Capitol Records. But the problem with that was Brian’s instrument at the time was the very commercial Beach Boys. I think maybe Smile, had it seen release in 1967, would have been tamed of some of its wilder moments, but still would have had plenty of advance-guard sensibility to up the ante on what a pop group could do in a recording studio. The story of why Smile was abandoned as a project is understandable. Lawsuits with Capitol, ambitiousness of the project outstripping the available technology – it all makes sense.

What didn’t make sense was Brian Wilson’s choice to walk away from a signature production style for his group. A few other factors to consider…….

A. In 1967 – pop groups who didn’t play the instruments on their own records were under heavy criticism. It wasn't acceptable to merely sing on your records (as the Beach Boys had done for many years by that point). That was the domain of The Monkees – who, no matter how enjoyable they were, were essentially a pre-packaged entity. The Monkees did not have the same street-cred as the Jefferson Airplane, dig?

B. The Beatles – who had also become ambitious in the recording studio – had stopped performing live. The Beach Boys couldn’t walk away from touring even if they wanted to and needed to have new material that they could perform live if need be. Those Smile arrangements would have been hell on them in a concert hall.

C. The above realization necessitated the move to a more band-friendly production style. Unfortunately, it bore only a casual resemblance to what Beach Boys records of the past sounded like.

D. The possible inspiration of an unlikely source: Jan and Dean’s predicament courtesy of Jan Berry’s accident in April 1966 which left Dean in control of keeping their “group” name alive……how he tried to do this was…..
……….to record an album’s worth of material in his primitive home studio which he eventually released as a “Jan and Dean” record on his own private label – a charming, lo-fi masterpiece called “Save for a Rainy Day”.

It still sounds a lot like a Jan and Dean record of the era even though it had no input from Jan Berry who was in a coma the whole time. No lie – it sounds a lot like a poor man’s “Pet Sounds”, but despite the cheapnis factor it’s a really enjoyable little record! It really had no right to be as good as it is, but any fan of the Beach Boys needs to hear this. Sundazed put a reissue out in the 1990s. Highly recommended. Alright, here's a sample:

Could it be that Brian Wilson, who upon hearing this “Jan and Dean” record, figured “if Dean Torrence can do this in his garage – why can’t I?” Hey – it’s conjecture, but go ahead and track down “Save for a Rainy Day” and compare to what Brian Wilson was doing with Pet Sounds – Smile and (ultimately) Smiley Smile. The “heyday” of the old Beach Boys sound was ready to pass on. Consider this though…………..

If 1967 represented a total confusion for the Beach Boys – we could argue that the official release of the July ’67 Heroes and Villains 45 was the point at which Smile became a lost cause – by the summer of 1968 the new Beach Boys single was “Do it Again”. And, in fact – that record had a pretty new and updated sound for the group. But, of course it was a new era for rock music. One that had moved on from the surf and car image the Beach Boys rode to success. These days “Do it Again” has a reputation as a classic Beach Boys song, but upon its release there must have been an anticipation for a return to better times that, at least in the USA, just didn’t happen until the release of the classic material on the now-famous Endless Summer compilation in 1974. The Beach Boys never stopped trying to record new material after that, but their bread and butter remained as a celebration of those golden days under the tight direction of Brian Wilson.
I really wonder if any of this will matter worth a toss as technology continues to change the creation and consumption of music in modern times. Well, kids – there once was such a person as a Record Producer……………

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