Masters of Production Part 2: Horror in Holloway
David Byrne not only is a deeply cool force in the Universe, but a fine writer and thinker too. If you don't have a real, physical hardback of How Music Works, get one straight away. One of David's core concepts for understanding the evolution and devolution of popular music is the cumulative impact of performance venues, recording technology and playback devices. So for example the shift from R&B flavoured rock, funk and soul to stadium oriented styles in his view was provoked by the fact more intimate sonic approaches go mushy and quiet across a massive football ground.Of course this shift in venues and taste always affects production, and therefore the Producer. Helping to determine what music gets made and how, and not always for the better. The genius behind not just Warm Leatherette but also Mute Records, Daniel Miller, had a late model Ford with a base spec FM radio in it to help the final mixdown of classic Depeche Mode records.After the War, tapes, tubes and transistors took production into far more flexible space. Tape was the most crucial at the start because just like film, you can cut it, paste it back copy it over itself and effectively make sonic SFX. Tape had been around in various forms since the late 1800s - but usually in the form of steel wire. So when you see an old movie or hear about a "wire recording" it means weapon weight coils of metal spun past a nasty hot magnet at twenty four inches per second. Thats quicker than a samurai sword swish. And even less fun to cut.Powdered metal bound to a backing material was a better scene. Allied Armies wondered how Nazi ranting could be heard in different time zones at the same time, sounding far clearer in its filth and far longer in its madness than could be expected from a 78rpm record. It was a Magnetophon. A captured Magnetophon recording outfit was given to Army Signal Corps vet Jack Mullin. Jack took the liberated gear back to Hollywood and in 1947 was pimping it large in the classical, clever PR style. Jack would have a bunch of musicians playing live behind a curtain, then replace them with a tape recording of the same performance before revealing the trick. Bing Crosby was still sober enough to notice, and so proper tape was unleashed into music production, and the pallette of the Producer.It took a while for the Producer possibilities to sink in. At first, it just meant records and broadcasts sounded a fucktonne better and longer than before. But in the early 50s two and three track versions appeared from Ampex, meaning again clearer sound as different musicians could be miked up separately. Three channels also mean backing bits can be done or added separately. Three became 4, and this is why 4 track believers, Atlantic, put out such lovely sounding records in the 50s. Combine that with the fact tape is so easy to stretch, loop and splice and some started to realise the studios where production took place were an instrument too. Guitar genius Les Paul ordered a super special custom 8-track recorder from Ampex in '56 for around £100,000 in today's money.All this tech helped to change the role of the production master to the Producer we know today. This created a real choice for the people that ran the game, and it depended on how much ego, self medication and lust for power was in the studio. A Producer could use all the tech to bring the best of an artist's vision into a record. Or else enables an artist to evolve with the technology, removing restrictions and stewing up new styles. Or become a overlord, the real power behind legions of pretty popsters and puppet people who are just another knob to twiddle in the Producer's Power.Just as porn pushes tech to new limits, novelty records used to be a showcase of tools and techniques.Joe Meek, a former RAF Radar Technician, was the first to push and then burst this envelope. Joe's often called "The British Phil Spector", given his clear stamp of a signature sound, but this is unfair to both. Phil had access to a coke powered Rolls Royce jacuzzi of talent and tech - the Wall of Sound was expensive enough to be diamond. Joe had to deal with the ghetto post war mean reality of the UK. A place so cheap and small in ambition that the designers who created the posters for Hammer's Horror pictures were forced to use Ryman's grade markers rather than proper paint. So Joe was forced to make one track sound like eight and two sound like twenty nine. He had to use every ounce of his military training and tech terror techniques to make magic from nothing. In 1959, pretending to be a group called The Blue Men, Joe issued the I Hear a New World EP on the cheapo indie record label he sort of co-ran in sane moments. It took the Producer into a time traveller, sending a silent echo across the ages at the likes of Kraftwerk.The man was a genius, and he knew it. This is never a good thing. Joe's deeply damaged, tragically closeted personality and unhinged occultist obsessions meant that any self respecting artist, or in fact most anyone, skipped away as soon as possible. That meant he was left with dead eyed plastic unfantastic folks, fake studio band names and tabloid dumb song titles. That said, out of 245 singles 45 or so were big hits before he performed on himself.6,000 miles away Los Angeles Legendary Producer Kim Fowley was recording every two bit and half wit high school student, or anyone else who was walking by. To these ears at least, Kim's Producer credits have more fun and magic in them than most of Meek's output. But I'm not strictly normal. And I'd forgive him anything just for Johnny, Remember Me.Next time we'll move further in the Lost Angles to pay a visit to Phil Spector himself, before checking in with some electricians in Kingston.