Saturday, December 31, 2022

Having fun onstage with Lydia

Down at the Rock and Roll Club #34
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I was happy to round out the year with Lydia Loveless and her band in a loose, intimate show at Golden Dagger, a tiny box of a venue in Chicago. I hadn't seen Loveless for years, and was pleased to watch her play, and goof around, with the same fellas from last time, guitarist and keyboard players Jay Gasper and Todd May and drummer George Hondroulis, along with bassist Mark E Commerce. In addition to their rhythm section, the band fit three guitarists—well, four, if you count Gasper's twelve-string—on a postage stamp-sized "stage" winkingly cordoned off with a toy-size velvet rope. Wedge in two keyboards and it was a tight fit under the lights. The old pals hit a warm groove from the opening number,  and Loveless made the small space her own. The joint was sold-out (she's playing there again tonight) and the crowd was attentive and grateful, singing her songs right back to her. The woman behind me had flown in from Brooklyn for the show.

Loveless played several songs from her most recent album, 2020's Daughter ("Love Is Not Enough" killed) as well as a handful from Real (2016) and Somewhere Else (2014). She introduced "Daughter," an emotionally complex and personal song, as being about reproductive rights, and "Sex and Money," a new song, as about "being poor and thinking about sex a lot." (So too was the band, apparently; the evening abounded with innocently smutty jokes. Life on the road.) Later she remarked of another new song: "it's about health care," then stopped, screwed up her face and chuckled, and said, "and it's about breaking up with someone," adding, "All my songs are about breaking up with someone, and then worrying about health care." It was funny—it got a laugh—but it's also genuinely true, as she writes songs that navigate the complicated politics of a woman's body, from desire and surrender to autonomy and self-reliance. "Fuck this country," she was heard to mutter at one point.

Loveless wore a spangly top, black pants, and sparkly boots. A couple of days ago she cut her hair to somewhere between a pixie and a crew cut, which makes her seem even more diminutive, and even more arresting as she belted out her songs. Her terrific band plays with loose-limbed, frayed-at-the-edges comfort, Gasper the class clown in a Metro hoodie, cracking jokes, leaning into Loveless to grinningly mock a melody hook, bandana-wearing May with an air of distraction, absorbed with his beat-up Fender, at a few points crouching on the stage to play a small keyboard. He seemed fascinated with it all. 

The band orbits Loveless, who was equal parts flip and self-deprecating. At the close of the opening number, she stepped back and tripped/stumbled, mouthed "Oh shit!", and laughed merrily—this set the mood for a band that plays serious songs about romance and messiness without ever taking themselves too seriously. Despite Loveless's trademark poignant songs, material devoted to love and loss, the night was fun, and also funny, the musicians goofing around between (and during) songs, suggesting there's a thin line between life in the van and life onstage with this group. During several songs her tour manager Michelle Sullivan hopped onstage to sing back-up (and groove and wave a plastic flower), following one song taking drink orders for the band; "waitress, tour manager, whatever," she muttered to me as she smilingly headed to the bar. 

Loveless's records are great; onstage, her personality, which is often channeled through personae in her songs, emerges, and she's a blast. Midway through the show someone behind me yelled for her nervy 2011 ditty "Steve Earle," but she flatly refused. "I'll never play that song again," before adding, "Don't video this 'cause he might see on the internet and I'd feel bad." Her blend of vulnerability and no-shits-to-give is very appealing. I once wrote about her voice: "Her twang usually arrives snapping off the end of a line, as a kiss-off or a heartbreak, sassy or vulnerable, depending on the mood." She's lost a bit of that twang on her newer material, which is more polished than her her noisier, rawer Bloodshot stuff, but that shifting mood remains, and the hard edges return onstage. Walking a line, she delivers moving and lasting songs. Highlights included "Poor Boy," "Real," an affecting "Wringer" during a brief solo set, "Summer Lover," which she announced she'd written for a songwriting workshop she teaches as an attempt to produce "a sweet love song," and "Bilbao," which, half-lamenting, she remarked is about the breakup of her marriage and yet's a song that everyone wants her to play "at weddings and shit." Such are the dimensions her songs assume, inside of which she, despite her casual air onstage, loses herself, and reemerges often visibly moved.

Her humor's as earnest as her songs are thoughtful. She ended one long tune by opening her eyes, stepping to the mic, and then, gathering herself in a very Loveless guise of humor and melancholy, said "Intensity! Whoo!" Then she smiled and apologized.




Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Loud at any volume

How the Dave Clark Five went BOOM in the studio
I'm always astounded at how booming Dave Clark Five songs are, especially their early tracks, especially on their 45s. Hell, even their ballads were loud. I pulled out "Glad All Over" the other night, but, as great as that song is, I was struck this time around by the flip side, which I hand't cranked in a while. "I Know You" makes a lot of noise in its detonated two minutes. 

The "Tottenham Sound" was made for the 45, a format that, in short, is hospitable to volume with its wider grooves and faster rotation. As explained at the essential Classic 45 site, in 1948 RCA engineers via a "precise optimization procedure" determined the speed at which a seven-inch single rotates, "given vinyl groove dimensions and certain assumptions about bandwidth and tolerable distortion." Their figures revealed that "the optimum use of a disc record of constant rotational speed occurs when the innermost recorded diameter is half the outermost recorded diameter." This is why a 7-inch single has a label that's 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Genius! The 33-1/3 12-inch album format, developed later by Columbia Records, "was a compromise that attempted to fit more music on a single disc, accepting the [sound] limitations." In order to cram singles and tossed-off tracks onto an LP, "a wide dynamic range or amplitude have to be reduced in level, otherwise they can damage adjacent channel grooves."

In the case of 45s, the cutting engineer has more available surface area and a greater rotation speed to play with, since he only has one track to worry per side. The higher rotation speed of 45 RPM allows for a wider frequency response, and the larger available surface area allows for less compression of any signals with a wide amplitude. Bass is an example of a wide amplitude signal that sounds better on 45. Overtones and high treble are also better.

45s literally move faster than LPs, thus more can be squeezed into the grooves. Essentially: "More bumps and grooves created in pressing a 45 means better audio quality." And BOOM goes the Dave Clark Five—not to mention most those great-sounding records exploding from transistor radios in the 1960s. The sheer wallop of "I Know You" is extraordinary, from the rumbling low end through the aggressive mid-range and chiming high end. Guitarist Lenny Davidson's kicks things off with a snarling, dirty riff that wraps around the song, barely containing the grinning mayhem of Clark's pounding drumming and Rick Huxley's bass, which positively throbs (especially through headphones), and the toweringly stacked vocals. The song's so loud—so heavy—that the change at the bridge threatens to topple over the whole thing. Good thing it's over in only a hundred and twenty seconds. 

~~

The Dave Clark Five benefitted mightily from the staff with whom they worked at Lansdowne Studios, in London, where they demoed and recorded their key early material. "Built in 1958 by producer Dennis Preston and engineers Joe Meek and Adrian Kerridge, the studio was housed in Lansdowne House, a former artist apartment complex constructed in 1904 in the Holland Park section of London," Matt Hurwtiz wrote at Mix. Kerridge had helped the legendary Meek build the studio in the late-50s. I was unaware of the Five/Meek connection, and it makes perfect sense: Meek was obsessed with the possibilities of studio recording and sound engineering, and Kerridge carried the torch. (Don't look now, but the studio that was rough enough for the Dave Clark Five and the Sex Pistols is now a high-end triplex apartment. Alas.)

Clark loved Kerridge, thought he was "brilliant" and "a master," and especially dug that Kerridge, after Meek, strove to capture a live sound at Lansdowne. Dave Clark Five shows were legendary in their stomping mania and energy transference between band and crowd, and Clark and his band were eager to in the studio to replicate, or at least catch the vibe of, their shows. "We were basically a live band," Clark said. "So I believed we should try to get a live sound.” Hurwitz relates a great detail: "Key to the experience of a Dave Clark Five show at the Tottenham [Royal, a concert venue) was a bit of audience participation, typically involving a Clark drum break, getting the audience stomping their feet in time to his playing."
“I’d actually pay somebody five pounds to go switch all the lights on and off in the ballroom, in time with the stomps,” he says. “That’s what gave Mike and I the idea for ‘Glad All Over,’” whose chorus features a can’t-help-yourself “bomp-bomp” chorus.
Another advantage to working at Lansdowne was the band and Kerridge's ability to push everything into the red, needles aquiver as the band stomped and roared. Because Clark independently produced his recordings and leased the masters to labels, his band weren't beholden to a particular studio's rules and regulations common to the industry. (Think of George Martin and Norman Smith's early reluctance to get loud at Abbey Road.) “We took it to the limit,” Clark acknowledged. “And if we hadn’t been independent, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. But I just felt you needed to re-create that excitement that you got when you were playing live.” Another great detail that Hurwitz shares is Clark's alertness to his band going slack over multiple recording takes. “We’d never go more than three takes on a song,” Clark says. “I always believed that if you went through any more than that, it becomes automatic. If we went through three takes and didn’t get it, we would just stop and go down to the pub for a beer, and then come back and try it again.”

That bonkers reverb so familiar on the early Five recordings was attained via two chambers at Lansdowne: "a true reverb chamber, designed and built by Meek and Kerridge, used most typically, and another, which took advantage of the old brick building’s tall stairwell, with mics at each end."
“We usually used the reverb chamber, but we would occasionally use the stairwell version, for special effect,” Kerridge explains.

“It had a great sound,” Clark notes, “but if a resident came down the stairs while you were using it, you had to start all over.” Adds Kerridge, “It would upset the residents when we’d use it. They used to get angry.”
All of this—needles in the red, a lager-loosened band, pissed-off neighbors—amounted to some great and eternal rock and roll. Go ahead and crank this upload of my ancient and lovingly-worn 45. You don't really have a choice. It'll be loud at any volume.


Photograph of The Dave Clark Five in Lansdowne Studios via PBS; live photograph by Raymond J. Lustig Jr. via Milwaukee Journal 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Thursday, December 15, 2022

When the world is wrong

The Free released only one single, and what a marvel it was
I'd been watching the Free's "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" 45 in an eBay auction; I lost out, but was able to grab a copy (for less than what I would've paid in auction) via Discogs. Either way, its arrival feels fated. Occasionally a song makes contact through the ether and rearranges things.

The Free's scant history has been unearthed by the usual intrepid sleuths; the folks at Garage Hangover and Kossoff1963 tell the story here and here, respectively. In short, the Free were short-lived. Detroit-based, the band included guitarist Joe Memmer and singer Dave Gilbert, who together wrote "Decision For Lost Soul Blue." Area radio DJ Tom Shannon owned and operated Marquee Records with Nick Ameno and Carl Cisco, the latter of whom also managed Shannon and earned a production credit on the single, which was cut at Tera Shirma Studios. Released at the end of 1968, "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" enjoyed regional success, including a three-week stand as the “Pick of the Week” on CKLW. The major label Atco took interest in the local buzz, and in March of 1969 this good thing happened:

Alas, despite the national distribution push from Atlantic, a Billboard mention, and a title change, the single vanished from the charts soon after, enduring the all-too-common fate of glorious misses: a future of used record stores, thrift shops, online marketplaces, shuffling among hands of avid collectors, and  appearances on obscure compilation albums, including Psychotic Moose And The Soul Searchers and Sklash—Rare Tracks From The Psychedelic Aera, both ‎in 1982, and, more recently, Garage Daze: American Garage Rock from the 1960's ‎in 2017. The Free split up within twelve months of releasing the single, their only record. Within a couple of years, Memmer and Gilbert were working together again in Shadow; Memmer has gone on to play and tour with several groups, while Gilbert, who died in 2001, at one point toured with Ted Nugent and later joined New Order with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s drummer Dennis Thompson. He also sang with the Rockets.

What an astonishing single the Free left behind. Before the song begins, the title declaims. The tune's a soundtrack to a resolution of sorts, music to decide by. Who's Blue? (And did they at an earlier junction mean Blues?) It was the era of lost souls, Summer of Love realists, early acid casualties. The opening ten seconds give the impression of things elevating, and it sounds as if we're escaping something, tom drum to rhythm and wah-wah guitars, eighth notes propelling things upward. Then the singer arrives, and the litany of complaints, or heavy-lidded observations: the generation's wrong, he's sittin' home wonderin', people are turning their backs on each other, doctor can you help? The chorus is sung in  drone, and things are laid out starkly:
This is wrong, that is wrong
What do you do when the world's wrong?
The second verse is less articulate—a shrugging anti-answer maybeeeeee is stretched out over three bars, answered by its anguished cousin don't ever know a few long bars later—but doom's still in the air. Everything feels a little more complicated, things churn. The chorus returns, and feels more dimensional now, but the answer to "What do you do?" feels further away than ever.

Something remarkable happens next. At the 1:40 mark a shriek tears at the fabric of the song, and nothing short of a different song begins. The rhythm section begin an aggressive, four-on-the-floor drone-march while for just over a minute the guitarists—one screeching in fuzz, the other answering in wah-wah, both languages foreign to the singer but native to the song—drag the song into a darker place. On some listens it gives the impression of a randomly plotted acid trip—many songs of the era attempted to sonically reproduce such a thing—, on other listens it feels as if two things inhuman have landed onto and into the song, electrified and amplified, arguing. Nothing's solved. But it sounds great loud. Viva Detroit.

The third verse repeats the laments of the first, and to my ears the final chorus somehow sounds prettier, even though the song's disgusted with the world, and jaded in the face of the thin promises offered by culture, friends, drugs. But the melody's nice, and that's something, if not an answer.

~~

"Decision For Lost Blue" was not a hit, did not unite millions of listeners and take its place in the open-air festival culture. It was not used numbingly often on soundtracks of films twenty years later "set in the Sixties." That was the Free's bad luck. It's my great luck. Because the song was not embalmed with the others of the era that are hauled out as Classic Rock, Oldies, Nuggets—you know them, are already humming them, I don't need to mention them—the song feels, is, fresh to my ears, and is in a very real and accurate sense undated. I've only recently discovered it. I don't have to blow off decades of tiresome, sentimental bullshit about the decade, didn't have to endure an actress in a flower power costume selling it to me on a Time-Life commercial, suffer its misuse in car or medication ads, or watch as an eleventh-generation Free Featuring One Original Member hauls out the song on tour. (Though that might've been nice for him.)

I watch the single spinning on my turntable in real time, turn up the volume, close my eyes and am timeless, out of time, with the song's eternal question: what to do when the world is wrong? Of the era, indeed.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

On Tommy Keene

My latest for The Normal School
Tommy Keene left us five years ago. In my latest for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine I wrote at length about his career, music, and the beautiful melancholy I hear threading through so many of his songs.

(You can read my other Normal School music essays here.)

Photo (detail) by Chris Rady

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Sincerely, your beloved son...

One of Chuck Berry's greatest car songs took the form of a letter to Dad
Berry and muse, in repose in 2011. Photo by Danny Clinch.
Chuck Berry released "Dear Dad" on March 15, 1965, his 38th single for Chess. It cracked the Top 100, idling at the 95 spot for a month. It's always been one of my favorite Berry tunes, a post-peak gem that tells a witty story with a great punch line while rocking slyly. Berry recorded the tune on December 16, 1964 at the Ter-Mar Recording Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, with a band led by the guitarist Jules Blattner, who Berry knew from seeing him play in the St. Louis area. With Blattner, bassist William L. Bixler, and drummer Howard Jones backing Berry, the performance motorvates along nicely, Jones's chugging backbeat especially propulsive as Berry plays a groovy and grooving syncopated car-horn riff in the verses (there is no chorus); somehow the thing both rocks and teeters. (I recently scored a copy of the 45, posted below, and the mono mix puts the anemic stereo mix to shame. Berry and the band also cut the loose-limbed "I Want To Be Your Driver" at these sessions, both tunes appearing on Chuck Berry in London in 1965.) 

In the tradition of the epistolary, Berry writes from the perspective of Henry Ford's son, who's desperate for a new car but who's afraid to ask for one, Berry merging the idiosyncratic with the universal, his super power. (He also knew that the family dynamic is one of the great issues in American art, the rock and roll 45 no less.) The premise alone—that even Ford's son is relegated to driving a piece of shit like every other teenager in America who can't afford a better car—is hilarious and fresh. Junior knows that if he's going to approach the old man, then his argument better be tight. He respectfully placates Dad at first ("don't be mad") and then in a long anxious breath lays out the dire mechanical issues, with one hilarious image-phrase after another: I might as well be walking; if I ain't going downhill I'm out of luck; if I push to 50 this here Ford will nosedive; cars whizzing past me look like I'm backing up. Fantastic. The whole argument's over in under two minutes. We never get Pop's return letter.

Berry was infamous taskmaster to his pickup bands, who were often treated churlishly, yet it's virtually impossible to hear this and not imagine grins on all of the musicians' faces as they rev tup. It's an essentially perfectly written rock and roll song; though the band sounds a tad underrehearsed, and the sloppy-even-for-1960s-Berry guitar solos feel a bit tossed off, to my ears the off-the-cuff performance conjures the car itself coming apart at the seams. (Like many rock and roll fans of my generation, I was introduced to the song via Dave Edmunds, who released a version on D.E 7th in 1982. His take is respectful, yet just as wittily rocking: he adds some period reverb and tidies up Berry's solos, offering one of them to pianist Geraint Watkins, whose winking glissando in the third verse mimics the Ford's "nose dive.")

~~

Casting around for some diversions as I recover from Covid, I got the idea of transposing the song's lyrics as a hand-written letter. Unsurprisingly, the translation from lyrics sheet to scrawled note was effortless, Berry's vernacular perfectly capturing that cracking voice of an average teenager sweating out a letter to a parent asking for something they know they probably won't get. Read it aloud without the song—it works and sounds like a letter, too, so tuned was Berry's ear to the music in everyday speech. Berry's genius was so distinctive and dimensional as to seem epic, larger-than-life, when really what he did—superbly, poignantly, hilariously, and seemingly casually—was to capture that male adolescent perennially poised between stuck-at-home and bound-for-the-road, as American, as universal, really, as anything there is. As Berry himself once said, "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening."