Perfect Sound Forever

Is This Thing On?
Production Fuck-ups

by Jason Gross (November 1996)

Once upon a time, producers hooked up with a singer then chose the appropriate musicians, songwriters and arrangers to make a record. People usually think it was the Beatles who changed this and took control but it was actually visionaries like Ray Charles and James Brown who started to take over the process and make their records truly their own.

As studio technology changed, there was still a need for techinical wizards to twiddle knobs and order the engineers around. A few like Phil Spector even became more famous than their artists by creating a certain sound around their records. Of course, a lot of people got carried away with this crap- why the hell does it take most performers a goddamn year to make a new record?

Another symptom of this change was assorted mismatches and botches. Intentions may have been good or bad but the result was embarassment. There was (and still is) just as much over-production as under-production going on. Sometimes, this was done willfully for one reason or another (trying to recreate a certain sound usually) and this tended to be more fun and inspired when you had a decent band/performer. Still, a lot of these mistakes and examples of over-anxious bottom-lining by record companies are a good argument for artistic control. The mountain of low-fi crappola that's been unleashed in the last ten years or so is a great argument against it- fun's fun but why should we have to suffer through some lamebrain's work-tapes.

Heartbreakers LAMF (Speedy Keene)
The muddy mix may have been in a "back-to-basics" appropriate way but how come Jerry Nolan quit over this? In any case, years later it would be released in a cleaner version. A shame that this is their only studio legacy but Johnny Thunders wasn't sober enough to do the job unless you count So Alone (which you might). Sadly, almost all of Thunder's other work after this is pretty haphazard in more ways than one.

IggyStooges Raw Power (Iggy Pop/David Bowie)
People piss all over Bowie for this one but they forgot that his enthusiasm brought these guys back to record one last time. Anyway, Iggy is listed as the producer. Still, since Bowie lavished much more clearer sounds on his own records (not to mention his Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople records he did), you got to wonder why he sludged things up so much. Fun House was a lot louder and clearer and nobody's going to tell you that was fluff. Lots of un-mixed versions of this have appeared in the last couple of years including an official remix that does balance out the instruments a little more sanely.

Velvet Underground- all LP's (Warhol, Velvets,?)
Poor Lou was just cursed with bad luck. After going through assembly line pop productions, trying to sell-out with surf music and dance crazes, he and his buddies came up with art rock. As mythic as all this stuff is, it's all pretty botched in one way or another. First album has Warhol's non-production which Tom Wilson supposedly did anyway. Third album has a "closet mix" and a guitar-friendly mix that have been constantly switched over the years with each reissue. Loaded was done and edited without Reed's input. Even the after-the-fact live Max shows sound awful. Most of this is not intentional (check out White Light, White Heat for an exception) but this really must have had an effect on all the lo-fi schmo's years later.

Marshall Marshall Crenshaw Field Day (Steve Lilywhite)
Lilywhite has actually done some great work- most would tell you his U2 LPs, I would tell you XTC's Drums And Wires. This pairing was a big mistake though. The last thing thing great pop needs is over-definition. Didn't we learn anything from Phil Spector? In any case, Crenshaw's material was still so strong that this is a great album despite Lilywhite. Shamefully, unfluffed-up versions of some of these songs were released by Warner Brothers as an EP available only in England.

Beatles Let It Be (Phil Spector)
I would argue that Sgt Pepper itself was a mistake if only that it meant that they were taking their whole "artiste" trip too far. In the end, when they couldn't stand each other and had the lawyers to prove it, they left a month-long session in the hands of Spector. Since the original idea was a back-to-basics approach, this was a disaster. McCartney's lawsuit mentions the production here as one reason he was suing his old buddies (though Spector said he had a letter where Paul praised his work). The strings and choirs on "Long and Winding Road" are horrible but it actually almost sounds appropriate on "Across the Universe." Strange that although Lennon wasn't happy with all of this either, Spector worked with him on his first few albums (even the raw Plastic Ono Band). Harrison did too, using his services in the beginning of his solo career but soon he wised up too. (The un-Spectorized versions of Let It Be are only on bootlegs right now- some have appeared on the third part of the Anthology series).

Ramones Ramones End of the Century (Spector)
You might as well blame Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny since they wanted this to happen badly. They didn't want to get locked in Spector's mansion and held at gunpoint though. I only know one guy who said this is his favorite Ramones LP. I don't think it's that bad but can you can't say that making Johnny do a guitar chord for a day to get the right sound or adding strings is what they're really about.

Captain Beefheart Strictly Personal (Bob Krasnow)
Supposedly, this was done while Beefheart was touring Europe. When he heard it, he was justifiably pissed (Krasnow claims he approved it though). Some of the same material (if not the same sessions) appeared years later as Mirror Man and show how startling the real stuff was. Krasnow probably though that the knob twiddling and weird phasing would be the Capt in the good gracies of the hippies looking for a psychedelic sound- Beefheart was a lot more original and bracing than that. It's as if Krasnow didn't believe that fact is stranger than fiction. Years after Mirror Man came I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird which again draws on the some of the same material though it's still probably not the un-mixed versions of the original sessions.

Jimi Jimi Hendrix Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning (Alan Douglas)
The first couple of albums that were released after his death were actually pretty good (mainly because there wasn't a lot of tampering done with them): Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge in particular. Then it went downhill. Alan Douglas committed crimes against humanity. This disgusting moron took some of the last sessions of one of the most (if not THE MOST) innovative musicians to ever walk this planet and BUTCHERED them! Not only did he wipe out the backing tracks but also wiped out some of the Jimi's parts and then overdubbed studio musicians on top. If this wasn't bad enough, he then took composer credits for it. Amazing that he didn't try to add a dance track to the stuff years later. The fact that a lot of material still sounds good is a testament to the quality of Hendrix's work.

Howlin' Wolf Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley/Howlin Wolf London Sessions
I don't know what kind of intentions were at work here but the whole idea of having these legends backed up by a bunch of Brits who got their start ripping off their music only sounds like a half-baked commercial proposition to me. Having Clapton, the Stones and Ringo back them up is no substitute for the Chess house band with Willie Dixon and company. The actual sound is good but truth be known, some of the best work these guys did were enshrined in a low-fi aura that was appropriate for bar rooms and juke boxes. Most of the material was definitely done better years ago. The Howlin' Wolf session itself isn't bad- at least, it helped remind Clapton and Winwood what they were supposedly all about (definitely not Blind Faith or their solo careers).

X X Ain't Love Grand (Michael Wagener)
It cracks me up to think that record companies can snap up an indie band then think it can break it onto the radio and charts with a hot-shot producer. I don't know how much complicity the band had in this though. Still, even if you hated the Doors, give Ray Manzarek credit for helping them (X, I mean) put out three great records before this one came out. I'll grant you that martial strife was at hand but part of that conflict made their earlier records exciting. Wagener manages to flatten them out like a steamroller. What the hell were they thinking- a guy who does records for a Christian metal band was right for them? It was downhill from here- Dave Alvin couldn't save them and their reunion doesn't hold a candle to the old days.

Clash Give 'Em Enough Rope (Sandy Pearlman)
I actually like this one a lot though I can understand why a lot of fans were pissed about this. CBS balked on releasing their debut in the States and had even put out a wrong song for one of their singles. This would be the first of many times that they screwed the band. Pearlman had handled Blue Oyster Cult (and the Dictators) for Epic/CBS so must have thought he could help make the band hot. A lot of it sounds overblown but the band was still committed to its wrong-headed politics and raw sound back then so it's a keeper nevertheless ("Safe European Home" and "Guns on the Roof" are LOUD). Anyone who had their doubts about their ambitions got their worst fears confirmed as soon as double and triple albums (which were done in part of get out of their Epic/CBS contract) and the dreaded Combat Rock (which actually ain't that bad) came out.

Rich Kids Ghosts of Princes in Towers (Mick Ronson)
Thanks to Ira Robbins of Trouser Press for pointing out this fiasco. See the above link for more details.


Nirvana In Utero (Steve Albini)
Albini doesn't consider himself a producer (the credits say "recorded by..") and considering some of his Big Black work, he may just be right. Frank Black said that when he worked with the Pixies, he took great pains to get the guitar parts down and rushed through the vocals. It sounded a little more professional when Kurt Cobain requested his services. In all, this was one of his many bold moves he made considering that Albini was a respected underground producer but definitely not major-label league yet. Of course, for a cool million dollars, Albini decided that he could work with them. You'll note on the CD that there are special treble and bass control settings marked out to show you how the CD is meant to be heard- sure enough, this does change the sound of the thing quite a bit. The sound is more rawer than Nevermind as I'm sure they wanted. In all, Cobain's record company (DGC) wasn't amused with the proceedings so they had to send Scott Litt in to clean up some of the stuff to make it radio-friendly. Supposedly, the whole project was hotly disputed between Albini and the band and the company though Albini claims everything turned out hunky-dory. Except for the Litt remixes, he and the band had their way.

Chilton Alex Chilton Flies On Sherbert & Sisters Lovers
Chilton is unique- a pure rock and roll fiend and El Destructo when it comes to his music and his legend. The guy is perverse as hell and I love him. These are two of his most extreme examples of this and proof positive that Neil Young would be a breath of fresh air for a record executive after trying to deal with Chilton. Chiton consciously sabatoges his work when he feels appropriate (less often lately). As he proved in the Big Star reunion (not to mention his Box Top days), the man's got the knack to cross over into respectability not to mention real sales. Obviously, this isn't his real intention even if he has made music his career at a cult level.

Neil Young Tonight's The Night & Journey Through the Past
After hitting the big time, he took a commerical nose dive and for the most part, his music was the strongest its even been. This meant raw music and raw emotions. Journey doesn't quite fit in because it's out-takes and work tapes but it successfully helped to sabatoge his career nevertheless. Tonight might be his best record and definitely one of his scariest. One thing you have to admire about the guy is that no matter how many wrong-turns he takes, he does things his own way.

Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street (Jimmy Miller)
Before this, even with Satanic Majesty, these guys never had any problems with their sound (London Records didn't like their record covers though and didn't have the heuvos to release "Cocksucker Blues"). The fact that this is one of their best attests to the music but also the whole cruddy sound here. Just like the Chess records they copied when they started (only the Stones had better equipment at their disposal now), they made a authentic sounding R&B record that swung and stabbed and lashed out and cried. Keith's french Villa was no much for their famous Mobile Unit but nothing they recorded there sounded this fresh.

Mark E. Smith The Fall- whole catalog
Other than Brian Eno (hell, maybe including him) and some house producers, nobody's used the studio more self-consciously than Mark E. Smith and company. As well as they can dig into rock riffs, they also had a wild experimental side (they loved Krautrock) that led them to aural fuck-ups, rants, and strange edits. The fact that a lot of indie bands tried to do this and flopped is not their fault.

Pavement Pavement/Sebodoh
Probably the best exponents of the Fall's work, they themselves inspired a lot of less talented morons to do the same. The fact that both bands had good songwriting chops definitely helped them through all their own sludge. This is something that's lost on their imitators. The possibility that either or both of them stands a chance of making some serious sales will inspire many more idiots though it will be heartening if they stay true to their roots and not pimp their sound and their music.