Saturday, June 27, 2009

Avant Garage

For some reason, I awoke this morning thinking about the role of the recording engineer in rock and pop music. The best analogy I can think of to understand the role of the recording engineer is that the engineer is to a record what the cinematographer is to a movie. If the latter makes artifice and theatricality seem “natural,” the recording engineer makes sounds seem “captured,” not created. It is therefore not surprising that the contributions of the recording engineer and the cinematographer are recognized within their professional disciplines by prestigious awards (e.g., the Grammy and Academy Awards). There have been, and are, many revered engineers in the history of popular music, many of them known for their contributions to the success of various groups, for instance, Dave Hassinger (early Rolling Stones), Roger Nichols (Steely Dan), Hugh Padgham (Peter Gabriel, The Police), Alan Parsons (Pink Floyd), and Bill Szymczyk (The James Gang, The Eagles). A lesser-known engineer whose career has always interested me, primarily because of his association with the experimental, avant-garde band Pere Ubu, is Kenneth (Ken) Hamann, who began his career at the Cleveland Recording Company in 1950. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History website, Ken Hamann was named the chief engineer of Cleveland Recording Co. in 1956,

and over the next decade, in addition to engineering award-winning remote broadcast recordings of the yearly Bach Festival and Oberlin College Contemporary Music Festivals, helped build the studio into a state-of-the-art recording and mastering facility in which many regional and national hit records were produced. These included the Outsiders’ “Time Won't Let Me,” the Human Beinz’ “Nobody But Me,” the Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine,” and albums by the James Gang and Grand Funk Railroad.

The encyclopedia entry goes on to say that in 1970 Hamann and production engineer John Hansen purchased the Cleveland Recording Co. from original owner Frederick C. Wolf. I discovered that a few years later, in 1977, they sold the company, and Hamann moved to Painesville, where he set up Suma Recording Studio. According to this site, Hamann died in January 2003, but his son Paul Hamann continues the family tradition of engineering and recording as the owner and chief engineer of Suma. While by no means definitive (it’s a work-in-progress), here are a few rock albums engineered by Ken Hamann over the years. The problem with compiling a definitive list is that the engineer wasn’t always acknowledged in an album’s credits, but I have done my best.

Tiffany Shade – Tiffany Shade (1967)
Yer’ Album – The James Gang (with Bill Szymczyk) (1969)
Smooth as Raw Silk – Silk (with Bill Szymczyk) (1969)
On Time – Grand Funk Railroad (1969)
Damnation – The Damnation of Adam Blessing (1969)
Grand Funk – Grand Funk Railroad (1969)
Closer to Home – Grand Funk Railroad (1970)
Bloodrock 2 – Bloodrock (1970) (“D.O.A.”)
Survival – Grand Funk Railroad (1971)
E Pluribus Funk – Grand Funk Railroad (1971)
Live–The 1971 Tour – Grand Funk Railroad (issued 2002)
Thirds – The James Gang (with Bill Szymczyk) (1971)
Mom’s Apple Pie – Mom's Apple Pie (1972)
Bloodrock Live – Bloodrock (1972)
Bang – The James Gang (1973)
Wild Cherry – Wild Cherry (1976) (“Play That Funky Music”)
Jesse Come Home – The James Gang (1976)

For me, though, Ken Hamann’s most interesting work is for the self-proclaimed “avant garage” band from Cleveland, Pere Ubu. I’m not quite sure about Ken Hamann’s age when he began working with Pere Ubu, but I remember reading (or being told by someone) that he was nearing retirement when the band approached him about recording their music. My memory may be incorrect, but this fact seems intuitively correct since he had been in the U. S. Navy during World War II, and hence would have been around sixty years old when he was introduced to the band in 1976—just a few years from retirement. In any case, according to The Hearpen Singles, a box set containing reissues of the first four 7” singles released by Pere Ubu in the 1970s, Ken Hamann engineered all of the band’s first singles except the very first (“30 Seconds Over Tokyo”/”Heart of Darkness”), released in December 1975. The band began recording at Cleveland Recording Co. in February 1976 (“Final Solution” and “Cloud 149”). Hamann is also credited as producer on the single “The Modern Dance”/“Heaven” (1977). He is credited as engineer and co-producer of the band’s first three studio albums as well:

The Modern Dance (1978) (Three songs recorded at Cleveland Recording Co.; the remainder at Suma Recording in Painesville in 1977)
Dub Housing (1978)
New Picnic Time (1979)

For whatever reason (retirement?), he ceased working with Pere Ubu after 1979’s New Picnic Time, but he later engineered Variations On A Theme by David Thomas and the Pedestrians, released in 1983. His son, Paul, engineered all subsequent Pere Ubu albums beginning with The Art of Walking (1980) through Cloudland (1989), and continued to engineer various tracks on subsequent albums thereafter, while also remastering and mixing live tapes from the 1970s and early 1980s for release on CD (e.g., One Man Drives While The Other Man Screams, 1989). Ken Hamann’s contribution to Pere Ubu’s sound is acknowledged by David Thomas in this article from 2006. Moreover, Hamann’s work also inspired one doctoral dissertation. According to this article, Susan Schmidt Horning, who met Hamann in 1968 and marveled at his ability to manipulate sound, was later inspired to investigate the relationship of music and technology in sound recording studios. She authored Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977 (Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2002), which won the Ohio Academy of History’s 2003 Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Below is a list of books exploring the link between technology and music. If anyone can contribute to my on-going list of records engineered by Ken Hamann, or additional information, please feel free to send me an email.

Additional Readings:
Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. Verso, 1997.
Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. University of California Press, 2004.
David L. Morton, Jr., Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1997.

1 comment:

Larry said...