Friday, 18 January 2019

(Don't) Wait - The Forgotten Secret To Writing A Timeless Album


On the 21st April 1967 The Beatles put the final touches to Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band bringing to a close almost six months of ground breaking work. What would their next move be? A long holiday? Side projects? A world tour?

Four days later they started recording Magical Mystery Tour.

FOUR DAYS.

Pepper wouldn't even hit the stores for another six weeks and they were already working on the next project.

This was by no means unusual. From the beginning George Martin and Brian Epstein had a masterplan built upon a new release every three months (single, album, single, album). That meant on average they started recording a new album two months after the previous one had been released. The longest break they took was the eleven months between Pepper and The White Album1- during which they recorded 16 songs for the Magical Mystery Tour TV show, The Yellow Submarine film and a handful of singles.

The Production Line



The band were able to achieve this because Lennon and McCartney (and later Harrison) were always in writing mode. Writing happened on tour, and while the Beatles were in the studio cutting other tracks. An early take of Let It Be appears on the White Album anniversary edition, even though the finished track didn't appear till the final album. One After 909 was first attempted in 1963 (7 years before Let It Be) as was Hold Me Tight (With The Beatles). Wait (Rubber Soul) was recorded in large part during Help! The Fool On The Hill was written during Sgt Pepper and Something (Abbey Road) was completed during the White Album, as was Polythene Pam, The Long And Winding Road and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. If the Beatles hadn't split in 1970 the next album was pretty much written with solid tunes like Maybe I'm Amazed, All Things Much Pass and Instant Karma in the works.


Though the Beatles excelled at this rolling program of releases but they weren't unique. David Bowie started recording The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a mere two months after recording Hunky Dory and one month before that album was released. Bowie producer Ken Scott sees this punishing schedule as a Darwinian filtering process “One of the great things for me about that time was that the recording contracts were such that the artist had to come up with an album every six months. Now, to keep that kind of pressure up, only the top artists are gonna be able to keep it going – only the most talented people. And they’re the ones that we still listen to today.”

The production line mentality worked because the support network was as efficient as the band. The Fabs didn't even attend mixing sessions prior to Beatles For Sale let alone take part, and mixes were usually completed a couple of days after the band's final session. This was possible because mixing was taking place while the album was still being recorded. How? Because the band worked on one song to completion before moving on to the next. They maintained this practice strictly up until Sgt Pepper and broadly worked in this manner till the end.


The production line was familiar to Stevie Wonder too, who grew up on a record label literally modelled on the car industry. Having already released thirteen albums for Motown, “Stevie Wonder made what felt like a lifetime’s worth of music...between 1972 and 1976”2 producing five classics in an unprecedented creative streak - Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life (a double album plus EP package). And Stevie didn't achieve this by becoming a studio hermit. He spent the summer of '72 touring with the Rolling Stones and produced, co-wrote, and played most of the instruments on his wife's debut album. In '76 Wonder was in a life-threatening car accident that left him in a coma for several days. And did I mention he was blind!? What's your excuse?

Slow Down

The Beatles worked fast. Rubber Soul and Revolver were recorded and mixed in one month. Beatles for Sale took two. With The Beatles three. Even with extensive blocks of time off for filming, A Hard Day's Night and Help only took five and six months respectively3.


And those months weren't spent holed up at EMI Studios. The Beatles hardly every recorded on consecutive days. Their touring schedule wouldn't allow it. So even though Please Please Me took four months to complete, the recording was actually done in four days (not one as is often claimed)4. With The Beatles took six working days and the numbers gradually rose to the ten days spent on Help and fifteen spent on Rubber Soul.


Again, The Beatles weren't unique in this. Another Side Of Bob Dylan was recorded in a single six hour session and Bringing It All Back Home, which featured a full band, was done and dusted in three days. Even in the 80s this kind of speed work was still possible. Bowie's LP Let's Dance was recorded and mixed in 17 days.

When they got to Revolver things changed. Though it took the same amount of time to make as Rubber Soul, Revolver had double the number of recording sessions. This was only possible because a contractually obligated third film never happened5. Revolver also marked the start of late night sessions and longer recording blocks. Sessions continued on past the midnight hour and they began working in 2-4 day recording blocks followed by 1-2 days off. But though 'office hours' were becoming a thing of the past The Beatles still took weekends off, even to the end. After this things multiplied again - Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road both took 40 recording days and The White Album took 72 (for twice as many songs).

Small Print

It's perhaps worth noting that, though the later albums are rightly regarded as more impressive artistic statements it's not entirely due to the longer time spent on them. Pepper took four months to record but much of December 66's sessions were devoted to Strawberry Fields Forever which didn't end up on the album6. And the sessions would have wrapped three weeks earlier if the band hadn't decided to add some hidden 'easter eggs' at the 11th hour7.

Likewise The White Album was filled with holidays8 and sessions that contributed nothing to the finished album. Three and a half days wasted on Not Guilty, two days on aborted versions of Sexy Sadie, two and a half on the pre-Clapton version of While My Gently Weeps and half a day on the first attempt at Helter Skelter. The band even blew three whole days on Ob La Di version 1, made a second abandoned version, then spent a further half a day on version 3 before returning to (and completing) version 2.

Now And Then


Times have undoubtedly changed. In the 60s, once albums began to overtake singles as the main musical statement every band worked hard to remain relevant and stay in the spotlight.

From 1962 Bob Dylan released 11 albums in 9 years (including a double album), three classic albums9 arriving in one fertile 15 month period. The Rolling Stones released 12 albums in their first 11 years, Joni Mitchell 10 in 11 and Elton John 11 in 8. Chicago released 3 double albums and a quadruple live album in only 2½ years.

Things began to slow in the 80s and only a small minority of artists maintained the old fashioned work ethic. Prince's 1978 debut began a run of 10 albums in 11 years but his productivity stood out like a quadruple live album in a punk rock singles bin. In their first ten years as recording artists Rihanna and Van Halen released seven albums, U2 six, Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Green Day, Bon Jovi and Metallica all managed five, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Mumford And Sons, Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga four10. And Adele and Take That could only scrape together three.

Quality and Quantity?

It's easy to assume that any artist constantly churning out new material with barely any time to revise or recharge must be operating far below their best. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

After producing so many albums in such a short space of time Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life went straight to no. 1 and stayed there for three months, selling 10 million copies, producing two No. 1 singles and earning Stevie his third Grammy in four years.


In 1967-68 Aretha Franklin, who'd already recorded eleven albums, released four more in 15 months, filled with top 10 hits like Respect, Chain of Fools, Think, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. This kind of creative spurt is how many major artists produce their most enduring work, “each of the 10 albums topping Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list … arrived no more than one calendar year after the artist's previous album”11.

Songwriters, like any other craftsperson, improve with practice and more writing produces better writing. Constantly returning to the studio breaks the monotony of touring. Mark Caro is right to wonder “whether the years now … taken between albums is resulting in stunted artistic development and a shortfall of great music”. Longer gaps turn each release into a major event rather than just the next step. Ken Scott: “I fear that … coming out with a new album, somewhere between three and five years after a successful album, [is] watering everything down. They’re trying to second guess themselves too much. It just becomes robotic”. Rehashing the old hits night after night only digs the creative rut deeper.

Another hinderance is tracking multiple songs, one instrument at a time. Recording one song to completion (as the Beatles did for most of their career) not only allows greater focus but it gives those who oversee the project (whether producer, manager or label) more chance of enforcing deadlines and even the option to say “screw it, we're just going to release what we've got 'in the can'”. Which is impossible if all you have in the can are 40 drum solos.

It's Only The Sistine Chapel

Painting by Yuriy Shevchuk

It sounds counter-intuitive but perhaps the best way to create timeless music is to treat it with less reverence. Ken Scott expressed amazement that people were still talking about Ziggy Stardust forty years later because “It was never meant that way … we thought that an album would have a six-month life span.” The Beatles worked as though they were replaceable artists working in a disposable medium. 'Beat music' was a flash in the pan - the next craze - and the Beatles just transient foam on the latest wave. All evidence pointed to them being washed up by the age of 25. A Hard Day's Night was rushed into production for fear that the beat boom would be over by the time the film hit cinemas.

So I guess the takeaway lesson is:

The key to writing a 'timeless' album is - spend less time on it.


[Thanks to Rod Johnson and Lee Pat for title suggestions].

Footnotes:

1 Which happened after Epstein's death.
2 Jack Hamilton: Slate.com.
3 The Beatles took six weeks off mid-recording to film A Hard Day's Night and Help was recorded at the same time as filming in the UK, Austria and the Bahamas, allowing them only one recording session per month in April - May '65.
4 The bulk of the album was completed in a single day but because the four previously recorded single tracks were included on the album, the laborious early sessions for Love Me Do and Please Please Me account for the extra time spent on the album.
5The Beatles rejected every option from a western to a version of Lord Of The Rings.
6Penny Lane and Only A Northern Song also failed to make the cut.
7A dog whistle and some gibberish for the run-out groove.
8During this period George Martin took three weeks off, Paul went to the U.S. (twice), as did George (who also popped over to Greece). Ringo visited the U.S. and Sardinia and quit the band as did engineer Geoff Emerick. Ringo came back after a week and a half; Emerick took a lot longer.
9Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde.
10Not counting Gaga's album of covers with Tony Bennett.
11Mark Caro: Chicago Tribune. The Rolling Stone Top 10 are as follows:

  1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles (1967)
  2. Pet Sounds - Beach Boys (1966)
  3. Revolver - The Beatles (1966)
  4. Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan (1965)
  5. Rubber Soul - The Beatles (1965)
  6. What's Going On - Marvin Gaye (1971)
  7. Exile On Main St. - Rolling Stones (1972)
  8. London Calling - The Clash (1979)
  9. Blonde On Blonde - Bob Dylan (1966)
  10. The Beatles - The Beatles (1968)
Sources:

Mark Caro: Chicago Tribune: Why Do Albums Take So Long To Make? Jun 28 2016
Slate.com The Greatest Creative Run in the History of Popular Music
Ken Scott: Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and Forbes
Let's Dance: Wikipedia

Links:

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6 comments:

  1. Great to get a new post - I thought maybe you'd "done a runner." ;-) Very eye opening and inspiring, as we're going to start FAWM in a week. Thanks for the tasty content, commentary, and all of your work keeping this site up. Peace & love from frozen Minnesota, USA.

    ReplyDelete
  2. yeah, great post Matt! the long medium suits you well :)
    back to the writing (and recording) table it is then...

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  3. Replies
    1. I have no idea. Do you want to make your question a little more specific?

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