Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What do ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, Led Zeppelin III and an obscure group called CARGOE have in common?

…….I’ll cut to the chase: engineer Terry Manning and Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, to be fair, only parts of Led Zeppelin III were recorded at Ardent – the other parts were cut with Andy Johns at (I’m guessing) Olympic in London. Although most folks already know the Zep and ZZ Top albums, most have never heard the CARGOE album. I stumbled upon Cargoe in a thrift store dollar bin this summer and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since! I bought it since I liked the cover and knew their record label – the Ardent imprint distributed through Stax – was the same label Alex Chilton’s Big Star was on in the early 70s. So I figured, “this could be good.” And I was right!

Cargoe sounds like a great hybrid of Badfinger and early, Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac! Fabulous harmonies, solid and creative playing, top-notch songs and really, really excellent production. CARGOE is a winner on so many levels. One of the few credits on the back cover lists Terry Manning as producer. Googling his name turned up the fact that he has since worked on a good amount of popular music over the years, but somehow, until the Cargoe album, I never noticed his name before. He tends to name-check Cargoe as the best record he ever worked on that almost nobody’s ever heard! Seems that Ardent was poised to follow parent-company Stax into Chapter 11 not long after Cargoe’s release. With the whole company being sold off to Fantasy Records, the master tapes for Cargoe went with the sale, the band long since broken up and a re-release never to be (the tapes are still locked in the Fantasy vault to this very day). The only way to hear the record is to find an old one – which I did against pretty stiff odds I reckon. There aren’t a whole lot of copies listed on ebay either. Honestly, if anybody wants to hear this record – send me a message through the blog and I’ll see what I can do. This album really deserves to be heard and re-discovered. I bet Terry Manning would agree!

So I’ve become a pretty big Cargoe fan in the meantime while tucking Terry Manning’s name in the back of my mind………

Just yesterday I really wanted to hear ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres album for some reason.  I became a bigger fan of this record after hearing the Quadraphonic mix – talk about INTENSE! But I opted for my old London Records LP. Spinning the platter on the upstairs system after work I glanced at the credits on the back cover (as I’m likely to do) and lo! Recorded at Ardent Studios by Terry Manning. 1973. One year after the Cargoe album. Wow! I sure like hearing the old ZZ Top stuff in its original form. I think re-releases of the old ZZ Top catalog on CD features some re-recorded and certainly re-mixed elements – to make it sound more modern! Phooey on that nasty practice! And that’s coming from someone who likes the modern ZZ Top stuff too! Why can’t these bands leave their old catalog well enough alone? Does everything have to sound like a big, compressed, distorted mess in the name of progress? One earful of the quad mix would put an end to any critics of this great record and whether or not it ought to be “modernized”. I like my ZZ Top funky and greasy like the food pictured on the inside cover:

So that was yesterday. Today, I’m home from work and thinking to myself, “Today reminded me of Led Zeppelin III. I want to hear that record.” Instead of pulling my well-worn LP copy off the shelf, I picked up my original CD issue instead. I was wondering if this was one of the original batch mastered to CD by the great mastering engineer Barry Diament (which it was) and right above Barry’s mastering credit – fercryinoutloud……Terry Manning at Ardent Studios? People, you can’t make this stuff up. What are the odds of me picking two random albums one day after the other, both having been recorded by this Terry Manning guy? I guess the same kind of odds as me finding the Cargoe album in the first place. (Why can’t I have this kind of luck with something more lucrative like…….lottery tickets? Would that be asking too much?)
I was already thinking about writing a little deal on Led Zeppelin III before  I noticed the Terry Manning connection. Zep III is one of my favorite Zeppelin albums if only because it wasn’t played to death on classic rock radio (Immigrant Song notwithstanding). The esoteric nature of the material on Zeppelin III was such a stylistic curveball compared to the blues-rock fixation on the first two records. Goodness knows why the band took such an unusual path so early in their rise to fame – quite a gutsy move, especially by today’s standards. I know when I got my LP copy as a young lad (with the cool picture wheel built into the front album cover – what a great concept!) – I didn’t know what to think of it at first.
The whole record struck me as whacked-out as the cover art. Everything is a little off-kilter and not what you’d expect with maybe the one exception being “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. That’s the one link to the early sound of the first two albums. The polar opposite would have to be “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. I can appreciate “Harper” these days, but it sure threw me for a loop when I was younger. Roy Harper himself is a pretty accomplished guitarist and has the unlikely distinction of being mistaken for Roger Waters – Harper supplied the lead vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” from Wish You Were Here. Most casual rock fans probably never knew the difference (I certainly didn’t for many years myself!).

As for Terry Manning, he’s still around and has worked with everybody from Bobby Fuller (when he was alive, of course) to Shania Twain. Here’s a wiki-link for Manning:

Just goes to show, if you think you already know everything there is to know about the golden era of rock music, there's most likely a story you just haven't discovered yet. Cheers to Terry Manning for all the great work he's done over the years. Certainly one of the less-heralded "behind the scenes" guys I've encountered, yet so many people have heard his work on many classic recordings. As always......... Happy Listening!