Monday, 22 March 2010

Blessed Are The Limited

This post comes hot on the heels of watching It Might Get Loud. An 'OK' film rather than a great one, it’s chief effect was to make me realise what a great band Led Zeppelin were. So I dug out a load of Zep to listen to, the chief effect of which was to make me realise what a great band The Beatles were.

Back to the film.

Seeing Jack White make an electric guitar out of a few bits of wood and a coke bottle threw into sharper relief the Edge’s struggle to find the right setting for ‘Pride’ on a pedal board with more effects than the entire Abbey Road studio (circa 1970) and more processing power than Mission Control, Houston (circa 2010).

Right there I got an insight into why the Beatles were able to produce so much, so quickly, and so consistently whereas U2 (and most of their contemporaries) produce so little.

Don’t underestimate the power of limiting your choices.

When you have only 4 tracks, a few instruments, and some reverb you quickly exhaust all the possibilities and you are faced with doing yet another take or just saying ‘let’s move onto the next song.’ Even at their most technically advanced the Beatles had less to play with than I do on the garage band-equipped Mac I’m typing this post on.

I’m convinced that one of the (many) reasons for the Beatles greatness was that they wrote and recorded so many songs. The more you do something, the better you become. Duh!

But here's my point -

The Beatles productivity was inversely proportionate to the number of gadgets they had to dick around with. Spending 2 hours deciding how much decay to put on the guitar echo and 2 days soundchecking a drum kit might mean you take 2 years to record an album. And 2 years in the studio will often need 3 or 4 years on the road to recoup the advance.

Comparisons can be misleading, I know. Bono takes time out to save the world whereas The Beatles practically lived in the studio.

Nevertheless -

In 7 years...

The Beatles recorded over 12 albums worth of material.
U2 recorded 5 albums. (And in the last 7 years they've only recorded 2).

I think there's a lesson to learn.

Do you need to limit your options?

Scratch that. Why don't you try limiting yourself, whether you think you need to or not?

Take a hard look at the following areas.

Time (both recording and mixing).
Number of tracks.
Places to record.
Number of people involved.
Instruments/gadgets/hardware used.


  1. I couldn't agree more.

    I play guitar at church, and at one point had three pedals (Danelectro Grilled Cheese distortion, Ibanez SM7 overdrive, and Danelectro Fab Chorus). I pulled the GC off of my line about a month or so ago, cause I never used it.

    I pulled the chorus pedal off my line cause it crapped out (and I don't really miss it).

    Now the only pedal I have is the Ibanez OD, and I don't use it THAT much.

    Heck, in my most recent "raw" recording, I spent more time on my drum sequencing than I did on recording my guitar and pseudo-bass (drum seq was done in Cakewalk Music Creator 5).

    The Beatles were masters at churning songs. They knew the beauty of rawness. Just take a look at how many songs Elvis had from the 50s, and compare it to the 70s "jumpsuit" Elvis. Raw, pure rock and roll versus "pop" rock.

  2. Good point Thunder

    I've lost count at the number of times I've been drooling over some famous guitarists pedal board (I'm speaking figuratively not literally BTW!) only to find that the guts inside the pedal board are basically a bunch of cannibalised Boss pedals just like the ones I own.

  3. I wouldn't put U2 in the same league as the Beatles. Bono should stick to politics!

  4. I agree in terms of influence and innovation there is no one to come close to the Beatles, but as a yardstick 'biggest band in the world' at the moment I think they're a reasonable source of comparison. Anyone else you'd suggest instead?

  5. Despite the bad taste that U2 leaves in my mouth, I thought that the filmmakers picked the perfect 3 guitarists. 3 different generations, 3 different guitar styles, and 3 different interpretations of rock and roll. Loved the film.

  6. I really don't think that the Beatles and U2 can be compared on an output-based mentality as it pertains to recordings. Times were completely different, touring was different, recording processes and methods were different, record companies were different, executives at record companies were different, social norms were different, etc.

    1. I think that's my point Scott - look how times have changed, by comparing the biggest band in the world then with arguably one of the biggest band in the world now.

      It's reasonable to say that advances in touring and technology should make it easier for a top band to be more prolific, yet we find the exact opposite. This post is an attempt to give one possible answer why.