Wednesday, December 16, 2009

That Sound

I’m writing this from a bench at the airport, so forgive any slips. I’m writing from memory of songs and sounds that have carved their ways into my brain and brainstem.

Everybody knows that there is something about the Chess sound that sets it apart. As a teenager I used to say it sounded like it was recorded in a garbage can. That was a bad analogy, although I was on to something. I later learned that some parts were recorded in the tiled bathrooms to get a form of prehistoric reverb. Once electronic reverb was available Chess records were flooded with it. But this didn’t result in a spacey sound. The bass was deep. The piano was sharp. The drums were slamming. And there was an electric bite to Chuck and Muddy’s guitars that I’ve seldom heard elsewhere.

In other words—Chess records sound like live performance.

It helps that they were, essentially, live. Mistakes hardly mattered compared to the energy—and that energy could only result from a single, charged performance with all instruments blasting. (A little overdubbing of lead guitar didn’t erase the energy of the original jam.) (Great picture HERE).

Years later record producers at other labels would leave a few false starts on their albums just to show they were still creating music. But within a few more years pop music became an oil slick of electronic bumps and buzzes. The magic is gone.

But the Chess sound was (is) more than the live nature of the recording. Chuck Berry kept doing that at Mercury—but even the best of the Mercury records don’t have anything close to the texture of the early Chess recordings. The sound at Mercury is tinny, and weak. It probably sounded great in the studio, or at the Fillmore, but it didn’t get through on vinyl.

It may have been as simple as losing Leonard Chess’s peculiar genius. He knew what he wanted, and got it, even if he had to kick out the drummer and slam the bass by himself.

More probably it had a lot to do with losing Malcom Chisolm, an engineer at Chess who kept working on Chuck Berry’s records as late as the “Back Home” album, which sounds more refined than the early records, but just as alive on cuts like “Tulane,” “Have Mercy Judge” and “Flying Home.” I posted Chisolm’s CV elsewhere on this site. Here it is again. (Click Here).  It’s amazing. He sat almost anonymously at the center of cultural history.  (For a look at lots of old studios, click here).

And you have to say—that Chess sound (gone, I think, on "San Francisco Dues,” lived on through parts of “Bio” (the parts recorded with Elephant’s Memory, which, at their best – i.e., “Woodpecker”!-- sound like a live jam happening in the same room where you’re sitting.)

And the sound, in a slightly modernized form, made it to England for “The London Sessions.” Both sets sound live—even the studio session. The drums thud. The guitar has bite. There’s not so much echo as immediacy. You feel like you’re there—and Chuck Berry’s guitar playing, though rougher and meaner than what we hear on “Back Home,” is just as good. As for the live session (now spoiled for me by the lasting legacy of “My Ding-a-Ling,”) it just sounds great. You feel the room and the crowd.  Compare it to another fine live set—“Live at the Fillmore”—that was recorded for Mercury. That one sounds dead and tinny. The music itself is wonderful.  The song selection is grown up and serious. (It's a relief not to her the hits.)  The guitar playing is great. The backup musicians are fine and know the blues. But the whole thing is lost in space. There’s no sense you’re there. It’s like you’re listening through tin cans and string. The audience was probably going mad, but sound like they had all left, or were involved in a sleep-in on the floor of the Fillmore.

I sometimes wonder what could be done with the master tapes from the Mercury years by someone like Malcom Chisolm or some other competent authority. I don’t have enough background or knowledge to know—but I think someone should try. Pump up the bass. Increase the middle. Accentuate some of those great horns. Fatten up the guitar. Put CSI to work on the crowd noise in San Francisco.

Some of those Mercury songs are as good as a lot of the Chess material. “Ma Dear Ma Dear.” “Back To Memphis.” “It Hurts Me Too.”

When they get re-released in a box, they should put out two versions—an historical set, as was, and a set that’s reengineered to exploit what’s likely there on the tape: great music, recorded almost live, by a great artist and some fine musicians.

(The Mercury remakes of the greatest hits? Just dump them. They’re not terrible, but they’re unnecessary.)

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