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.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jacksonism: Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

I think it was Greil Marcus who observed that Michael Jackson was a god who became a mere celebrity, and there is a terrible truth to this observation. For the last quarter century of his life—that is, the second half—Michael Jackson’s career seemed like nothing so much as an apocalyptic spiral that served as an illustration of the Platonic allegory of the consequences of the inevitable deviation from the Good. He resembles no rock star so much as Elvis, for reasons, I suspect, that will emerge in those inevitable biographies sure to be published, controversial and otherwise, in the coming years. Who shall be to Michael Jackson what Albert Goldman was to Elvis? Jacksonism’s biggest year, arguably, was 1984, the year during which the tidal wave crested and broke, but by then he could claim a world record no one, not even Elvis or the Beatles, had managed to achieve: he had made one monumental, colossal LP—THRILLER, produced by Quincy Jones—which was the source of more hit singles in the Top Ten (seven) than any other record, rock or otherwise, in history. He even trumped that claim to immortality by marrying, briefly, King Elvis’s only child, Lisa Marie Presley, in 1994.

THRILLER contained “Billie Jean,” a tremendous single and perhaps the best song he ever recorded. Michael Jackson’s future career could be read in that song, not only in its lyrical substance (about the perils of stardom), but in what he did with the song, subsequently transforming it into “You’re a Whole New Generation,” that is, a Pepsi commercial jingle. (He did the same thing with other of his songs as well.) The anger and indignation of “Billie Jean” was transformed into a mere soda pop advertisement, but his legions of fans forgave him—as they always did. For THRILLER sold so many copies in its first year and a half of release that its significance was not only measured in total sales, but in terms of its social impact and in its implications. Elvis and the Beatles did that, too, of course, but the phenomenal popularity of that album even surpassed their vast sales.

Michael Jackson’s fascination with the Peter Pan myth became a well-known and idiosyncratic fact of his biography; he even built Neverland Ranch, a juvenile’s attempt (not a juvenile attempt) to equal Hearst Castle. But since Michael Jackson died a celebrity and not a god, it’s unclear whether Neverland Ranch will be named a National Historic Landmark like Hearst Castle was; it may even be torn down. Nor is it clear whether Neverland will be transformed into the shrine to Jackson that Graceland is to Elvis. While Elvis spent compulsively, lavishly, and extravagantly, he never built a shrine to himself remotely like Neverland: compared to the other homes of the rich and famous, Graceland is a very modest home. Elvis never well understood the American myth that he represented; he wore sideburns, for instance, because he thought they made him look like a truck driver. Michael Jackson, likewise, misread the myths he embodied; while he may have had a fascination with the Peter Pan myth, he didn’t understand the myth very well at all. For Michael Jackson reminds me of no one so much as Tennyson’s Tithonus, the mere mortal who fell in love with Aurora, immortal Goddess of the Dawn. Because he had fallen in love with an immortal goddess, Tithonus asked the gods for Eternal Life. His critical mistake, though, was that he forgot to ask for Eternal Youth: only a fool tries to negotiate with the gods, that is, Fate. Tithonus, as Tennyson tells his story, just grew older and older, more and more decrepit, enjoying the blessings of Eternal Life but not that of Eternal Youth, until he haunted the woods alone, afraid to show himself to other mortals, while his body slowly, but not quite, disintegrated. His blessing was a singular curse, one that no one, not even Peter Pan himself, would ever have to suffer. Even late his career, just before the train was about to run off the tracks, Elvis could laugh, and laugh heartily, perhaps most deeply, at himself. I don’t remember Michael Jackson that way, and perhaps that makes all the difference.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


“Garage rock” is meant to invoke a “tradition” in rock music, but it is a tradition that has been created only in retrospect. For it is a fact that no group of amateurs, inspired by the Beatles to pick up a guitar and do covers of British Invasion songs, ever imagined themselves as a “garage band.” The difference between a so-called “garage band” and a “rock band” is that the latter achieved stardom, while the former did not. Limited largely by economics and by technical deficiencies, garage bands never broke free of the local scene, and failed—although not, presumably, by choice. No doubt they would have preferred to have been successful. A local band may have a local hit, but very few local bands are able to transform a local hit into a national hit; there are exceptions to this rule, of course, but as always, the exception proves the rule.

Jack Holzman and Lenny Kaye’s NUGGETS collection, issued in 1972, invented the faux tradition within rock culture named “garage.” What they were really doing was celebrating the abject, that which had been ignored and forgotten. Although that wasn’t its explicit purpose, the NUGGETS anthology served to remind fans of the sacrifices, largely personal, that those who failed made in order to maintain rock music as a significant cultural value. By the mid-1970s, a decade after the Beatles’ annus mirabilis of 1964 and by which time the Beatles no longer existed as a band, the cultural ruin created by the Beatles—rather like a massive tsunami destroys the cities built too close to the shore—could be surveyed, catalogued, and celebrated. NUGGETS did just that. But like any historical reconstruction that attempts to make the past intelligible, such ruins can only be assembled from fragments, which is precisely what the first NUGGETS collection is, an assemblage of abject fragments, of proverbial “diamonds in the rough.” So what, precisely, is meant by “garage”? Michael Hicks conveniently provides us a set of features:

A garage is a rougher, dirtier place than where humans typically reside; a place to store heavy machinery and marginally useful possessions. It is a place of noise of alienation, a psychological space as much as a physical one. In this light “garage band” implies a distancing from more respectable bands (and from more respectable social enterprises in general). The Clash put it well in the chorus to one of their early songs: “We are a garage band/We come from a garage land.” (Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions, p. 25.)

Garage is perhaps the only “tradition” in rock that is defined strictly by economics and by the professional stature of the band members. But as Hicks reveals, the values celebrated by 1970s punk transformed music that had been marginal in an earlier era into an “authentic” form of rock music in a later one. But if it was so obviously authentic, why had it been marginalized? Collections such as NUGGETS are premised on the assumption that they rescue masterpieces from undeserved neglect, and while that is a powerful myth, it is just that, a myth. The fact that it is just another “sales pitch” goes unremarked. I suppose I’m jaded, because the discourse of popular music has always pitted the “authentic” (The Real) against the “conventional” (The Popular) for the purpose of selling records to a broad (as opposed to a narrow few) audience. It is an old ploy. Listeners are encouraged to find “authenticity” in the marginal (“alternative,” once “underground” rock), the canonical (“classic” rock), or the unfamiliar (e.g., Delta blues). The same holds true for “garage” rock, a faux tradition where listeners are told they may also find the “authentic.” Am I “anti-garage”? Not at all: the NUGGETS collection contains perhaps nine great songs, but what a great nine they are. Not everything is genius, or the word has no meaning. And a great song is a great song, regardless of its putative “tradition.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Progressive Rock Redux

I’ve blogged on the subject of so-called “Progressive Rock” (or “Art Rock,” a collocation presumably derived from the phrase “high art,” as in “high art pretensions”) previously, but since yesterday’s entry on Ali Akbar Khan, I’ve been thinking again about the subject. My earlier rumination on the subject of progressive rock argued that its development is inseparable from developments in recording technology, i.e., studio engineering. By the early 1970s (and possibly sooner), the recording engineer began to be listed on an album’s credits right along with band members, suggesting his essential role in the recording process. The trouble with writing about something like prog rock is that the bands normally associated with this kind of music (e.g., King Crimson) were stylistically adventurous, and hence did not consciously identify themselves with one style of music: the term has been applied only retrospectively, in order to explain a certain stylistic direction in rock music that developed during the late 1960s. By way of analogy, think of the history of “Punk Rock.” Punk, as a term used to describe the culture around a type of rock music, had no currency until 1975. Soon after, the word punk gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures that preceded them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5 and The Stooges, while others memorialized the Velvet Underground, and so on. The point is, historical narratives were formed around punk rock, the function of which was to create predecessors for the music (and hence legitimate it), but these predecessors could not have fully understood the future they supposedly authored.

On albums such as RUBBER SOUL (1965) and REVOLVER (1966), which incorporated Eastern music and instruments (the incorporation of novel timbres) uncommon in rock music at the time, the influence of Khan is somewhat easier to trace, although certainly this influence doesn’t explain the actual songs themselves, nor does it explain the use of the symphony orchestra or orchestral instruments, or songs with large sectional forms distinguished by textural contrast between the sections, certain stylistic features of progressive rock. In addition, prog rock characteristically employs what Charlotte Smith calls linear through-composition:

. . . the text is generally divided into short phrases that are introduced and imitated. As each phrase ends in the imitating voice, a new theme is entering in the other voice, overlapping the conclusion of the previous phrase. The overlapping, or dovetailing, technique makes it possible for the melodic flow to continue, as it would not if both voices rested at the same moment. As each theme is imitated, the original text setting is repeated, and the voices, after the imitation is dropped, continue toward a cadence. The same procedure is then repeated for successive phrases, the cadence interrupted each time with the new theme in one voice overlapping the conclusion of the previous phrase in the other voice. This style of through-composition, each interior phrase knit to the preceding phrase, is made more convincing by having the linear emphasis reinforced by the devices of imitation. (A Manual of Sixteenth-Century Contrapuntal Style, pp. 65-66).

My candidate for an excellent (very) early example of this songwriting technique in rock music would be the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (October 1966), which also happened to be heavily dependent on studio technology. Certainly “Good Vibrations” qualifies as an instance of prog rock: novel timbres (orchestral instruments; the Theremin), sectional forms distinguished by textual contrast, and linear through-composition (“each interior phrase knit to the preceding phrase,” as well as the way each theme is successively imitated). (Youtube video here.) According to Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life” (both on SGT. PEPPER’S, June 1967) were inspired by Brian Wilson. And in November 1967, the Moody Blues released DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, which virtually codified prog rock, particularly with the songs “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” (Given my definition, memorable songs from this period such as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” don’t really qualify.) Thus it seems to me to understand thoroughly the stylistic development in rock music known as progressive rock, the late 1966 - late 1967 period is key.