Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pop is a verb

I wrote a piece recently in The Word about The Beatles. It's here. It was an attempt to rescue them from beneath the dead weight of all that social significance and point out that what made them exceptionally good was the catchiness of their records, particularly the early ones. I got a reader's letter which was so derisive that I almost felt like turning up on his doorstep. His argument seemed to be that their greatness was so Olympian it couldn't possibly be reduced to mundane matters of craft. How could the word "catchiness" possibly do justice to their achievements? There's no point arguing with customers so I'll pursue my theory here.

Somebody recently slipped me a copy of an excellent documentary called "The Wrecking Crew". It's about Los Angeles session musicians of the 60s and 70s. It features the reminiscences of people like Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson and Glen Campbell, the people who played the actual music on everything from "River Deep Mountain High" through "Somethin' Stupid" to Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull". It's like going under the bonnet of a whole era of peerless pop music, from The Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man" to the theme from "Hawaii 5-0", and seeing what makes it tick.

To hear Carol Kaye (pictured) and Al Casey talk about how they arrived at the backing sound of "These Boots Are Made For Walking" is to realise how much of a hit record's emotional stickiness arises from the uniqueness of a particular performance. This in turn owes a huge amount to the idiosyncratic ear of a certain musician. Nancy Sinatra has performed that song thousands of times since that recording date but she hasn't found anyone who plays the distinctive bassline like the combination of Chuck Berghofer on string bass and Carol Kaye on electric did on that day. "It's very difficult to capture," she says. Capture's the word.

"The Wrecking Crew" proves how wrong my Beatles correspondent was. And I think most rock fans are probably every bit as wrong in exactly the same way. They think greatness in pop is all about soul and inspiration and having your heart in the right place. It's not. It's about the tiny details that, in the words of some musician here, "make the tune pop". If it doesn't pop all the elements - song, singer, musicians and that unspecified box of skills which we in our ignorance summarise under the word "production" - just lie there on the slab.

When these musicians used the word "pop" it's as a verb, not a noun. That's my learning for the week.


  1. Sounds great - when do the public get to see it? And, for what it's worth, I thought your piece on The Beatles was one of the best bits of writing I've read in a long while: fiercely evocative and thoroughly successful in its aim to get past the hype in order to discuss the actual music. I may even read it a third time.

  2. Anonymous6:41 pm

    Hi Lucas,

    The plan is to release the film in January.

    Its been a grassroots project from beginning to end. It took 13 years to get to this point. My friends helped me film it and with 135 cues of music in the film, I had to befriend many music labels, publishers, and artists to get it to this point.

    Now my publicity department..(me) is trying to get the word out. Thank god for the internet.

    If you go to the web sight, you can sign up and see the out-takes as well finding out when its released. Take care and enjoy.

    Denny Tedesco

  3. In my job - graphic design - I often mention Mies Van Der Rohe's line "God is in the details" to my assistant to make her remember that even the best idea in the world needs to executed well. It's not just about inspiration, craft is important too.

  4. That's exactly why I won't be rushing out for the Beatles remasters. I don't want them airbrushed for modern ears

    Standing in the Shadows of Motown is another mechanics of music movie well worth a watch - based around the Funk Brothers - the engine of the Motown sound. Disc two of the soundtrack comes loaded with exceptional extras including an instrumental version of possibly the template tune for Northern Soul Love is Like an Itching in My Heart

  5. David, I think your point is something that McCartney has always understood. Indeed, he is often viewed as undermining his own legend by referring to his songs as 'a nice little job' or similar. No doubt he does this to shield himself from the madness of ultra-celebrity, and after Manson and then John's shocking end, who could blame him?

    I agree with you that 'craftsmanship' should not be damned with faint praise. Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hours' theory is sound, I feel, or alternatively Gary Player's classic line 'the harder I practice, the luckier I get'.

  6. Surely the essence of the matter is that great music is the combination of inspiration and skill, or genius and craftsmanship.

    I don't think anybody has a Carol Kaye record in their top ten.

    I think it was Paperback Writer that I read Paul refer to as a "work song", meaning that it was something that they knocked up because they needed a rockin' single for release that month.

    The ability to come up with something basically to order is pure craft. The ability to make it Paperback Writer is genius.

    PS Mondo - don't write off the remasters quite yet; let's give them the benefit of the doubt. I know where you're coming from, though.

    Also: what about the Mono Box being a 'limited edition' of 10,000 and already being sold out. How ridiculous, from so many points of view...

  7. True enough but there were a couple of points I made in my Beatles piece that are relevant here:
    a) they combined the skills of a good instrumental group with the skills of a good vocal group;
    b) they thought in terms of records, not songs.
    In that sense they were their own Carol Kayes and their own Phil Spectors.

  8. “I don’t think anyone has a Carol Kaye record in their top ten”.
    Not sure about that. You could say that God Only Knows is as much “a Carol Kaye record“ as it is a Brian Wilson record or a Carl Wilson record or a Beach Boys record. Making a “perfect” record is like making a perfect dish: every ingredient in the recipe, even a seemingly insignificant, small one, is equally important. I think that’s the point DH is making.

  9. Ah but Richard, if you go to a fancy restaurant for a delicious meal, at the end do you say "my compliments to the Maldon Salt"?
    Terrific though Carol Kaye and her oppo's clearly are, I think you are over-egging your case.

    DH's point that the Fab's were their own Spector and Kaye is well taken.

    And the difference between a good record and a good song, and the Venn diagram thereof, is worth further investigation.

  10. Mondo -

    I thought part of the point of the Beatles' remasters (the monos at the very least) was that we would get to hear them as they originally sounded on vinyl, more or less. The modern airbrushing problem occurred when they original CD transfer was made.

    Totally agree about the craft of a song, which is part of the reason why Revolution in the Head is such a great book, focussed as it is on the nuts and bolts, and so many music books are just kinda tedious.