mind keeps returning to something Mary Gauthier said during one of
our many conversations over the past few years. ‘I had to go
through a lot to get to simple’. She was referring to the exposed,
stripped-back approach she takes to the production of her records,
but it is a quote that also accurately expresses my own relationship
I started my record collection when I was ten, in the golden era of
Rock ‘N’ Roll. I bought singles by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly,
Ricky Nelson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the Everly Bros…great
songs, recorded with huge energy onto two- track analogue tape machines,
all the musicians playing together in the studio, with no overdubs, no
digital editing and definitely no cutting and pasting! My entire teenage
years were spent listening to music recorded this way and there is fantastic
value in the honesty of this approach.
It wasn’t until the mid-60’s that records began to really
push at the limits of the available studio technology and it was, specifically,
the incredible impact of the Beatles ‘Sgnt. Pepper’ that
accelerated the concept that production could be more than just making
sure everyone was reasonably in tune or choosing a good take. Only four
years earlier, the first Beatles L.P. had been recorded and mixed, start
to finish, in eleven hours flat. Now, ‘Sgnt Pepper’ encouraged
the idea that an album offered a freedom to record in a completely different
way…extended solo’s, psychedelic effects and layered production.
4 and 8 track mixing desks arrived, then 16 tracks, then 32 then 64,
with gadgets capable of seriously warping electronic sound.
Suddenly, bands were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on stoned
studio experimentation, a development ‘Whistle Test’ enthusiastically
reflected. The programme featured many of the Progressive Rock and stadium
bands of the 70’s and I was additionally spending many midnight
hours behind the board at Morgan studios in London, working with Rick
Wakeman, perfecting just the right degrees of reverb on a Paul Cosker
guitar solo for the latest Wally or John Golding album we were producing.
With the brief interruption of the back-to-basics approach of Punk, it
was the gizmos that increasingly dictated the agenda into the big echo,
big haired eighties and for a while, like everybody, I thought it was
Then, it all somehow got too much. Music was sounding increasingly like
the ringing of a cash till and no one seemed immune to the fashion of
the massive sound. Roots music virtually disappeared, Blues musicians
went to ground or played with U2, mainstream Country morphed into big-drum
pop-with-a-pedal-steel-guitar and even Bruce Springsteen succumbed…abandoning
the E. Street Band to make the synth-laden ‘Tunnel of Love’.
As corporate music moved ever further away from the true spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll,
so it became more and more difficult to find anything of lasting integrity,
other than the occasional gem. The made-for-sixpence, tiny label records
were hellish difficult to track down apart from through a few specialists.
Certainly, the local record shop didn’t seem interested in stocking
Salvation, however, was about to arrive in the form of three events,
the first of which was the impact of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by
Nirvana, released as a single at the end of 1991. This was clearly music
that comprehensively rejected the idea of being controlled by anything,
let alone something as inanimate as new technology. At a stroke, the
energy of that record catapulted us back to the ethos of the raw sound.
The second event was more of an undercurrent…the discovery, by
a new generation of musicians, of the legacies of Gram Parsons and Traditional
Country. The ‘No Depression’ movement began to take hold
in America, with Uncle Tupelo, then Son Volt, Wilco and the Jayhawks
bringing a whole new take on Americana. Steve Earle came through clean,
launched the E-Squared label and, with Ray Kennedy, started making exciting,
straight-to-the-microphone albums with a range of new left-field acts.
Buddy Miller and Lucinda Williams emerged, while Gillian Welch and David
Rawlings began to release their living room recordings. Subsequently,
the success of the ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ soundtrack
album persuaded even Music Row to revisit its heritage.
The third event is one that is impossible to overstate. It arrived,
wouldn’t you know it, in the form of a new technology, one that
has revolutionised the way Alternative artists are able to get their
music heard…the Internet.
Musicians no longer have to compromise with the major labels. People
like Sunny Sweeny, Sam Baker and Lizanne Knott operate brilliantly just
under the radar…self releasing, setting up their own sites, circulating
their album details among other web sites and on MP3 files, contacting
programmes like mine and talking by e-mail to fans and promoters all
across the world. No longer is it crucial that their albums didn’t
get big distribution and aren’t in the local shop. They are available
on the net. The freedom is fantastic.
Most of the music I play has been made with that kind of organic approach,
without having had huge sums of money thrown at it. It is music that
comes from the heart and soul, recorded on basic, analogue equipment.
The albums go onto the net and onto the merchandising tables at the back
of the gigs to cover the relatively low cost. Meanwhile, the artists
keep control of their work and careers.
I am thrilled and encouraged by the way things have come full circle…that
just under the radar of the mainstream is a wealth of timeless, lo-fi
classics, that so much new music has gone back to real. Emphasising the
point is the arrival recently of a energised, straight-ahead, self released
roots rock album by Michael Ubaldini called ‘Empty Bottles & Broken
Guitar Strings’. You must have heard it on my programmes. Three
of the tracks were recorded at the Sun Studios in Memphis, home of the
early recordings by Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
I had to go through a lot to get to simple.
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