Kyle Matteson and I were on Tony Thomas’ Minneapoliscast (it won’t be up for a while) last night with Chris Hill (aka Acoustic Death Machine) and Stook of Stook and the Jukes. As expected, Stook and I got into it, mostly over my view that the processed sound of a lot of ’80s music is kind of a barrier to getting into it sometimes. I mostly referenced Stevie Ray Vaughan’s studio albums, which, in my opinion, sound nowhere near as good as the live recordings (and studio outtakes) I’ve heard because there’s so much processing on the drums and bass (in particular) that they sound thin. Vaughan’s guitar tone, of course, is still great, but honestly: if you listen to “Texas Flood” on the album of the same name, and then go listen to the same song performed on Live at the El Mocambo, you can see what a disservice not so much he, but his band was done by gated reverbs and echo in the ’80s.
Stook was livid. He maintains (and partly rightly, I think) that the things that have endured from the ’80s are the things with great melodies and songwriting and that nobody cares about production or how something sounds. OK, maybe I’m overstating his point, but he’s a pretty opinionated dude, and that’s how it sounded to me. It’s not like I’m saying I’ll listen to something with great production if the music is crap, but simply that it’s all part of the picture, and often bad production can hamper appreciation of essentially good albums.
We continued on to talk about “American Idol,” which I’ve never really watched and have no interest in, mostly because I feel like the most interesting singers are eliminated early on in favor of people who are blandly skilled at strict performance. Stook thinks it’s good entertainment, and felt like I was attributing too much importance to it.
But anyways. When I got home I was thinking about this some more, and I realized these two things are actually connected. To me, someone’s straight-up skill at singing is just one tiny piece of the puzzle when it comes to making a musician, and also when it comes to making records. I think of recordings of songs as being like pizza: It’s not just one ingredient you have to do well, but a whole plethora of things you have to have work together. The writing has to be good, the performance has to be good, the way it’s recorded has to be good, etc.
To me, having people come in and sing a capella is like just evaluating the pepperoni. Even if your pepperoni is awesome, you might still end up with a crap pizza if the sauce is bad. And then when it gets to the point of people singing songs on stage, a lot of what makes a song a classic is production, so I’m not interested in hearing a bunch of session guys slaughter the classics.
Think about that first snare hit in “Like A Rolling Stone”—if you’re at all familiar with the song, I’m betting you can hear it in your head right now. You can hear it echoing out and carrying over into the first organ chords. It’s a great song on paper, but part of what makes it memorable as a recording is the sound it has. Or think about “You Really Got Me” and tell me that it’s not the snarling, almost shitty guitar tone that makes that song. You make The Kinks record that clean, and there’s no way it’s the incredible song it is.
So, are songs the abstract idea of the tune plus the chords, or are they the recordings? Any time you see a band live and they play songs from different albums together, you can see how much choices made in the studio shape your impression of the songs. I dunno. Maybe what’s great about music is the way it exists half as an idea in both the listener’s and the musician’s head, partly cast in stone by putting it to tape and partly left undone because there’s always room for reinterpretation.