Station Seven: WAMS-AM

The seventh radio station in my career was back at WAMS in Wilmington, Delaware where I had been previously successful. What a homecoming. I loved the beautiful neighborhood where the studios were. I found a great condo.

I was fired on my sixth day.

My program director explained to me, very seriously, that for some reason, my voice didn’t go through the transmitter! Yup. I explained it had gone through very well on my last stint at WAMS, and that I’d buy a new microphone or whatever he thought necessary to get me back on the air.  Nope. I cried. Still nope. Down like Joe Frazier! I think the Frazier – Foreman fight might have lasted longer than my second round at WAMS.

My mother still lived outside Philadelphia so I camped there while I sent audition tapes out, trying to stay in the biz. I got a bite from a radio station in Scranton, PA. Not exactly a high-profile move up, but I took the job, and I feel that I really learned radio there.

Station Eight: WARM

“It’s always warm for me.” Either one of the radio personalities or a recorded voice said that regularly. The station was WARM-AM, with a darn good signal, since it broadcast at 590 AM, at the lower end of the dial.  When it rained, though, the wires to the transmitter got wet and we sounded like a cheap phone.

“The Mighty 590” had real personalities and they performed daily, with a darn good news department, a good general manager and a program director with major market experience. I worked 7:00 pm to midnight, plus I did production of commercials as needed. One advantage of that shift is the cleaning crew would come in and unlock the program director’s office. I got very good at reading upside down, because I’d do a nightly scan of his office desk just to make sure I wasn’t in trouble. Like, say, for invading his office. Didn’t touch anything – just read what was sitting on his desk. I was pretty insecure after my not-so-successful six-day return trip to WAMS.

But they wouldn’t let me be me. The afternoon guy was named Bob Woody and used his real name. The management didn’t think it would be a good idea to have him followed by Bob Wood, so I chose the radio name Christopher Sky. Part of my deal with WARM was a trade-out for an hour or two of weekly airplane rental time at a local airport. [Bob is a licensed pilot Ed.]

So, being a flyer I thought Sky was a unique name, and liked the cadence of Christopher Sky (never Chris). I had never been anyone but myself, so it was strange to take on an alternate persona, and I asked those who knew my real name not to use it as it when I was at the station as it would inevitably goof me up. I never said my “wrong” real name on the air, but did say the wrong station name once or twice. My show was unique, well-rated, and jammed with news, features, many commercials, and me playing the hits.

Skyyyy…pilot!

I never got used to five-hour air shifts, always running out of gas in the fifth hour.

WARM was, essentially, a top station worthy of a larger market. I feel I “learned” radio there, as the personalities were talented, varied and great to study. Later in life I’d put some of the lessons I learned at WARM to use. I learned what’s it took to build a good full-service radio station, what’s it’s like to be on the air on a station with a great signal and how to mirror and reflect the needs of the community we were in. I also learned what true radio personalities did, and what being one was like. I would get teenybopper girls hanging out at my apartment door (I never took advantage of them) and walk through the mall and hear voices (real shoppers, not voices in my head) pointing me out as a local celebrity.

Remote broadcasting 1970s style.

One great thing about WARM was how I felt appreciated by the management. That really builds your confidence. I also found out what everyone at the station was paid and I felt it a fair distribution – the morning man (and it was always men in those days) always made the most, as was the case at WARM, but as evening guy I wasn’t being paid a pittance, which was typical for some stations. Plus, I got to fly.

Some snapshots of life at WARM:

The weekend news guy was all hyped up because he had a “foolproof” betting system that was “working with the horses.” Several weeks later he came in very sad. The system had failed. Let’s just say big time…

I figured WARM was the only radio station which Patty Hearst, then on loan to the Symbionese Liberation Army, could pick up, once it came to be known where they were all hiding.

My apartment complex was said to have been a haven for swingers, but that was before my arrival. But, no swinging when I got there.

I had a date on Christmas Eve and she fell in the parking lot and broke her ankle. She wouldn’t get out of the hospital until New Year’s Day. I had to call her dad and explain what happened. Her dad was coming from midnight mass…and he looked like a mobster. Happily I’m still here to tell the tale.

I did manage to smuggle, decorate, and light a real Christmas tree in her room before they caught me though.

I decided I someday wanted to be the boss of what went on the air…so I eventually managed to become a program director in Canada. I must note that in 1973 studded tires are not allowed over the border. But that’s another story.

Contemplating the end of the Swinging Sixties.

Every now and then I’m going to write about artists who deserve wider recognition. I can think of no one more deserving than James Lee Stanley. Since 1972 the singer-songwriter-producer-recording-engineer-actor has released no less than 34 albums, many recorded in his project studio.

His music is acoustic guitar-based and draws from elements of pop, folk, rock and more. He’s collaborated with ex-Monkee Peter Tork, John Batdorf and others. In addition to original material Stanley has released All Wood and Stones and All Wood and Doors, very different acoustic takes on those bands’ songs, and is now recording All Wood and Led with Dan Navarro. He played various roles in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He wrote the 1984 dance club smash “Coming Out of Hiding” for Pamala Stanley. He just started hosting Another Radio Show on folkmusicnotebook.com, featuring singer-songwriters he admires. He is a very funny guy.

I first heard Stanley in 1998 on his Freelance Human Being album. I was knocked out by his songwriting, at once familiar-sounding and distinctive, his evocative singing and accomplished guitar playing. (My Stanley favorites sidebar is at the end of the article.) His latest release Without Suzie is a strong collection of folk-pop-American music, from the wistful opener “Every Highway” to the wry “Live It Up Now” (“Live it up now/You can live it down later”) to the simply gorgeous “I’m All In.” Stanley has remixed and remastered Without Suzie for January 1, 2020 re-release, so it was a good occasion for an interview.

Which might never have happened. James Lee Stanley now wears another hat – that of cancer survivor.

Frank Doris: What made you decide to become a musician?

James Lee Stanley: I come from a musical family and my grandfather was a huge influence. He could play guitar, piano, mandolin, trombone, flute, anything. There’s a picture of me as a very young boy, sitting on the side of the stage and watching him, riveted. I started on clarinet when I was 10, then the ukulele when i was 12, guitar at 14 and piano at 21.

FD: What inspires you to write songs?

JLS: All of my music is biographical. I always need to have some meat in my songs. When I was coming up and someone new would show up on the scene, the first thing we asked was if they had anything to say. Pablum lyrics, rhymes that don’t ring true and insipid phrases simply turn me off.

I play a couple of hours every day, so that seems to prime the pump. You play and then the music starts to play you.

FD: What would you call your music? It’s acoustic-based but it’s not stereotypically folky and it’s not really straight pop.

JLS: I just think what I play is American music. America is a place that attracts this big blend of people. The fact that we’ve had such a remarkably open immigration policy over the last 200 years means this place is a melting pot. It extends into art, literature, music, whether we like it or not, politics. The influences come from the whole planet. Coming out of folk music and listening to a lot of jazz, I sometimes refer to my genre as “Fo Jazz” or if you prefer, “Faux Jazz.”

FD: I’m really enjoying Without Suzie. How do you manage to keep coming up with good material?

JLS: I write a lot. On my phone right now there are probably 200 partial songs sitting on it. I asked my wife about this. “When you wake up in the morning is music playing in your head?” And she said, “no!” Well, every time I wake up there’s music playing. When I’m driving, I’m hearing melodies and I sing them into the phone. I’ve never had writer’s block in my life.

FD: You’re lucky! (Laughter)

JLS: I’m always trying to write a song you haven’t heard before, which is not something the popular music industry encourages. What they want you to do is to write a song that already sounds familiar.

You have to decide – do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a celebrity? I chose to be an artist.

FD: Some of your songs are lighthearted and some are emotionally intense. For example, “Just Let It Go.” My friend was going through a miserable divorce and couldn’t get his ex-wife out of his mind no matter how hard he tried. He would obsess over what she might be doing, even drive past her house. One day “Just Let It Go” came on my iPod and I realized that that song would give him better advice than I ever could.

JLS: I wrote that song for exactly that reason, for my friend, artist manager Derek Sutton who was going through a painful divorce.

FD: About two years ago you moved from LA to a rural area. Why?

JLS: My wife had been in the corporate world for almost two decades and truly needed to escape. I said find a place you want and we’ll go there. She found our lovely little home with spectacular views out every window on a couple of acres on top of a mountain about thirty minutes outside of Tehachapi, which is over two hours north and east of Los Angeles.

I have to work differently now. When I lived in LA I could call [people like] Paul Barrere, Timothy B. Schmidt, Rita Coolidge, Laurence Juber. “Hey, can you play lead guitar on this song?” And they’d all come over. Now I have to mostly record everything myself. I play the parts until I get something I like, then go out on the road to get a distance from it, then come back to the song.

When I do work with other people I call them in but don’t play them the demo. I like to get their contributions without steering them, because they’re such fantastic musicians that I don’t want to inhibit their creativity by trying to impose my ideas. Get the best people you can and then get out of their way. Why in the world would I tell Lawrence Juber how to play guitar!

Here’s James playing Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”:


FD:
You’ve become adept at home recording. How do you do it?

JLS: I have Collings D2H, Martin HD-28 and Taylor 810ce acoustic guitars, a 1969 Fender Strat, a Kimball grand piano, various drums, percussion instruments, synthesizers and amps. I use an AKG C414 and a whole raft of mics, Reaper and EZdrummer recording software, a Tascam 8-track recorder, three Alesis ADAT machines and a ton of other stuff.

I started recording in 1972 with a Teac A-3340. I was always making demos, up through 1980. I had refinanced my home in Santa Cruz to make an album but got screwed royally by a company called Regency. I lost my home and moved into a friend’s for a while. That’s when I decided that I would never rent studio time again. I started building a studio and slowly but surely I’ve added to it and now have a full-fledged studio with a 48-input board.

FD: How about some recording tips and tricks, especially since more and more artists are doing it on their own?

JLS: I used to use a Tascam half-inch 8-track multitrack recorder with a footswitch. I’d get ready and punch Record a nanosecond before I had to do an overdub. Eventually I found that it’s just easier to practice the part until you own it and then just play it.

Second, listen to the part again and get some distance from it. You might find that what you didn’t think was good at first actually is good. Third, everything you do has to serve the song. Fourth, if you’re working with a computer, it can become too easy to just add a track wherever you want and cut and paste, but it’s very difficult to not end up with disjointed, improbable solos. I tend to write my solos. I like them to have a momentum, an arc, a destination. But sometimes it’s also great fun to just play and see what comes out.

The more guitars you record, the more manipulation and EQ you have to do to give them their own sonic space. There are some engineers that can do this but I’m not a brilliant engineer, just a careful dude! Sometimes, the more layers you put on, the worse it sounds.

I like to mix instruments in mono, so that their individual voices and timbres come through. If you record everything in stereo and hear all the instruments and vocals from both sides it can mask the uniqueness of things.

I frequently put on a song I think is well-recorded, like Paul Simon’s “Train in the Distance” and listen to my recordings to see how they compare.

FD: What about live performances? Someone once told me once you get on a stage you’re not a musician, you’re a performer.

JLS: If you’re standing on the stage and in the spotlight, to be unprepared is arrogant and insulting. You also have a responsibility to be entertaining. When I’m onstage I’m a musician and a comedian. The fact is, I’m a really good musician because I want to be.

FD: Why did you decide to start your own record label?

JLS: All my performing life, I have been doing funny bits between songs. My audiences liked it, so I finally recorded a show at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. I shopped it to all the labels and they all said the same thing: “is this a comedy record or a music record? Pick one!” I refused and decided to release it myself. I received a ton of orders, so in 1985 I started my own label, Beachwood Recordings, and never looked back.

James doing one of his between-song bits:


FD:
Moving to the present: when did you realize you had cancer?

JLS: I was scheduled for a colonoscopy and my wife said, “you know, your breath smells funny; why don’t you have an endoscopy at the same time?” So I had them put a camera up my ass and down my throat. Musician on a spit!

They discovered I had a slight ulceration where my esophagus connects to my stomach. Two weeks after the endoscopy it felt like I was swallowing razor blades. It turns out I had squamous cell carcinoma on the base of my tongue near my throat. Believe it or not, what I got was from a virus that comes from oral [sexual] contact.

FD: Holy crap!

JLS: I thought about my pre-marriage days and realized that I was nothing if not full of reciprocity. Always trying to please, don’t you know.

I had started to feel irritation on June 14 and had a biopsy on October 14. Three weeks after I was in surgery. Luckily the cancer was on and not in my tongue or on my vocal cords. They cut the tumor out along with 62 lymph nodes from my neck.

I have no traces of cancer right now. I lucked out. If my wife didn’t tell me to have the endoscopy I wouldn’t have known because this kind of cancer doesn’t present any symptoms until you’re too far gone.

FD: So you produced Without Suzie before you were diagnosed?

JLS: I [thought I’d] finished it in April 2019 but I remixed, remastered and repackaged it over the summer and now I think what I have is the definitive version.

When I was diagnosed I worked on Without Suzie 10 hours a day. I finished the record on November 7 and went into surgery on November 8. I was kind of amazed that I wasn’t afraid of dying; I was afraid of not finishing the record before I died!

FD: You have your priorities straight. (Laughter)

JLS: I think so. I mean, anybody can die. Not everybody can do a record!

FD: How are you feeling now?

JLS: I sang for an hour yesterday. I have a show on January 4 and I’m gearing up for it.

 

Sidebar: 10 favorite James Lee Stanley songs, in no particular order (and I confess, I haven’t heard all of his albums in depth).

“When Love Comes Knocking Around” (Freelance Human Being)
“Somewhere In Between” (Freelance Human Being)
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (Traces of the Old Road, Bob Dylan cover)
“Just Let It Go” (Traces of the Old Road)
“Live It Up Now” (Without Suzie)
“I’m All In” (Without Suzie)
“Let the Tree Fall” (The Eternal Contradiction)
“Coming Out of Hiding” (Backstage at the Resurrection)
“Jericho Wind” (Domino Harvest)
“Some Say” (Once Again, James Lee Stanley and Peter Tork)

 

 

I worked for Harry Pearson full-time for many years in the late 1980s through early 1990s as technical director, managing editor and pop music reviewer and wrote for The Absolute Sound from 1984 to around 2000. I think it’s safe to say I got to know him as well as anyone.

Forgive me for being lengthy (and violating Copper’s semi-informal word-count rule)…believe me, I could go on and on. Harry was complex, and maybe I can impart a small if rambling glimpse here of what it was like to know the guy.

Like most I first became aware of Harry through reading The Absolute Sound, in the late 1970s when I was in my early twenties. When an issue arrived, time stopped. I would sneak the magazine into work and read it under the table, like a kid in elementary school with a comic book, and devour the reviews of the mythical equipment I thought I’d never hear or afford.

But especially I’d be amused, entertained, outraged, sometimes shocked and yes, even a little scared at what people would say to each other, which was often nasty, condescending, opinionated, egotistical and impassioned…with HP as the agent provocateur behind it all, who seemed to revel in the maelstrom. It only added to the mystique of The Great HP, who really was a mythical figure to us back then.

The author and Harry Pearson, fall 1988. Harry didn’t like being photographed. Photo by Bill Reckert.

Over and over again I would read something and think, “Man, I’d never want to be in the middle of all this. These people are crazy!” Yet as a music lover and musician who wanted to hear my favorite music at its best, TAS was a compelling portal into a world of sound I dreamed of hearing.

In the early 1980s my friend and fellow audiophile Robert J. Reina (RIP), who I had gone to high school with and who was then writing for TAS, told me they were looking for a pop music reviewer. To make a long story short (maybe someday I’ll tell the long version if anyone cares and if I can remember all the details), Harry hired me. I was thrilled. Good lord, I was a TAS reviewer! I would be known by my initials! I had actually spoken to The Great HP (in conversations that already had ranged from the inspiring to the humorous to the snarky to the incomprehensible). I’m not worthy!

But I still hadn’t met him. That would come nine months later when I was invited to one of his now-legendary friendship parties at Sea Cliff (even the name of the town sounded exotic). I had to rent a white tuxedo. I was so nervous I was worried about not peeing in those white tux pants, and wouldn’t drive. (Bob Reina drove us.)

I got to the party, a whirlwind of people on the porch. Someone introduced us. The details are now a blur. My first impression of Harry was a man of presence, a good-looking, confident guy, and when he spoke I felt somehow intimidated and put at ease at the same time. Lord knows what his first impression of me was.

I can’t remember what he first said to me. (I was having trouble processing the fact that here I was, a few years out of college and had somehow found myself in the center of the high-end audio world.) It was something humorous and complimentary. He then insisted he show me around the house. I was touched…here’s this big party going on with all these big shots and you’re taking the time to break away and show me around? And then for the first time I saw all that mythical equipment, now manifest—the Goldmund Reference turntable. The Infinity IRS V speaker system. The Audio Research SP-11 preamp.

The late Arnie Nudell of Infinity Systems and Genesis Advanced Technologies with Harry, fall 1988. Photo by Bill Reckert.

I was awed. I had a wonderful time at the party and met so many of the great, great people who have been friends since.

And of course, I wanted to hear The System. Harry clearly knew what I was thinking and invited me to come back for a listen. I wasn’t holding my breath, as he had stood me up a few times before. But I wound up coming back a week later. We went to an excellent dinner (Harry always did have good, and expensive, taste in dining out; ask anyone who picked up the bill).

Finally, time to hear the fabled Sea Cliff system. I was about to enter the listening room when Harry stopped me, looked at me with frightening intensity and said:

“I want you to really think about this before you enter that room. Because if you do, your life will never be the same.”

(Holy sh*t, what am I getting myself into?) I hesitated.

For a second.

He was right. The sound…orders of magnitude beyond what I had ever heard. Soundstaging, imaging and a sense of weight and scale that truly did make you feel like you were in the presence of the performers and the orchestra. Incredible low end, midrange and highs that were more detailed than anything I thought possible. Clarity, transparency…mind-boggling. Fiesta In Hi-Fi, Dafos, that Propaganda record, Lt. Kije…record after record…astounding. But these words are a pale shell of the totality, the experience, the magnitude, the sheer beauty and majesty of the system. I knew my life had been irrevocably changed.

To the point where, a few months later at the prodding of Reina (hey, what are friends for?) I refinanced my condo so I could buy an SP-11, Mark Levinson No. 23, Goldmund Studio…seemed crazy but sometimes you just have to go for it.

When, a couple of years later, Harry asked me to work full-time for him, I had to think about it for more than just a second as I knew that if I did, my life was really going to change. Especially since, as a now-TAS insider, I knew how hard Harry could be to work for, alternately charming, temperamental, always demanding the best when it came to the writing you handed in (he made me re-write an intro to a piece I did on Les Paul four times before he signed off on it), sometimes pissing manufacturers and staffers off, on occasion refusing to see manufacturers when they had come all the way to visit Sea Cliff, postponing appointments… Yes, Harry could piss people off, including me at times (to nuclear-force proportions on occasion, and I know there are people who view him less warmly than I do), but what friend, family member or lover do you know who doesn’t have foibles?

I took the job. I saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. It was.

I essentially became Harry’s right-hand man for more than five years.

Harry and I were fundamentally different personalities, but maybe because of that I think we were perfectly suited to work with each other. We were opposites in many ways—he loved controversy while I was pained by it; he would stand people up (including me) while I would struggle to return everyone’s phone calls; he would push handing in copy to the limit and I was always on time (but man could Harry type fast!); I would love going to trade shows, meeting my friends in the industry and hearing new gear while he was mortified at the prospect (until later in his life, and even then he would go grudgingly).

Yet we shared so much. Above all, we loved music. I know that sounds like a cliché, a vacuous platitude, but it’s true. Music was joy, solace, excitement, emotional release. Music was it for us. (That never changed, did it?) When we would first hook up a revelatory component, and there were many, we would sit down, look at each other and laugh, literally shout, sometimes just shake our heads in awe at what we were now hearing from favorite recordings that we had never heard before from those cherished discs—and how astonishing the performance of the components was and how the music sounded. When we got our hands on a new record, whether something I found at a used-record convention or a Classic Records, Chesky, Reference Recordings, Wilson Audio or other audiophile recording, we would very often drop everything and run and put it on. And be thrilled at what we heard and have to hear it again and again.

We saw manufacturers constantly, sometimes three times a week or more and I can’t count the great times we had with, essentially, a who’s who of the high-end manufacturing community.

Since we were both single at the time we hung out after hours a lot. Between that and the fact that I was working at TAS full-time, I got to see quite a bit of Harry, from his charming best, welcoming a visitor with Southern hospitality, to just after waking up in the morning, grumpy, unshaven, barefoot in a bathrobe and not all that happy to see me and start the day. I witnessed HP the legend and Harry the guy, Harry the center of attention to Harry lonely and looking for a friend to share a drink with on a Friday night.

I knew him when he was conducting brilliant interviews and listening sessions with people like Wilma Cozart Fine, and coming out of his writing tower with reviews I knew were landmark pieces the moment after I finished reading them, to when he yelled at me to drop everything one day because he had to have Velveeta cheese on his sandwich and there was none in the house.

Yet as so many others will tell you, he truly was an inspiration. He was incredibly passionate about music and about the gear. (Though not a tweakaholic gearhead; he left that stuff to me.) I, and anyone who worked with him closely in those listening rooms can tell you that Harry could hear the essence of what a component was doing in five minutes.

He was remarkably talented. Anyone who reviews equipment knows how difficult it can be to put what you’re hearing into words—as Frank Zappa said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but Harry at his best had a way of conveying what we were hearing in his writing which made you feel like you were in the room with the gear and knew what it sounded like. Harry I think almost single-handedly defined high-end audio writing (well, along with J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile) and as others have noted gave us much of the terminology we still use (and sometimes abuse and misuse) today, and especially, defined many of the concepts of high-end audio writing. Not that great audio writing hadn’t been done before, but Harry made high-end audio writing a reality in the same way that, while Leo Fender didn’t invent the first solid body electric guitar, Fender was the one who put it on the map.

Harry with J. Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile, fall 1988. Photo by Bill Reckert.

I’ll say it again—he inspired people. In his reviews he would pick out a component’s flaws, often at the not-inconsiderable wrath of the manufacturers—who would then go back and improve their creations. He was a voracious and fast reader, loved movies, doted upon his Maine Coon cats (I was never sure whether cleaning the cat box was actually part of my job description) and could talk at length about any number of topics. When he was in a good mood he’d be a charming person to talk on the phone and have dinner and drinks with. He could meet someone and get to the essence of that person’s inner core in moments and strike up a lifelong bond. (OK, sometimes when he met someone it was more like oil and water mixing, on both sides.) There are dozens, probably hundreds of people in the audio industry and legions of readers who have felt his influence.

In the early 1990s I moved from TAS and kept writing for it until around 2000 but always kept in touch with Harry. (Or tried—making an appointment or dinner date with him never did get any easier.) He wasn’t happy that I left, but understood. (I’ll leave the details for some other time.) We saw each other intermittently and kept in touch by e-mail and phone.

Around mid-2014 I heard the news that he had slipped on a patch of ice, broke his hip and was in a rehabilitation center. I quickly went to visit him. He was clearly dealt a blow by having such a serious injury at such a not-so-young age, and it was a shock to see him in a hospital bed looking frail. Still, my heart leapt to see him. We reminisced about the times we had spent together and I felt wonderful, and also scared that this had happened to someone I always regarded as something of a larger-than-life figure. Here was The Great HP, the man behind the curtain, founder of the mythical French University of Canadian Kings (check the acronym), Corvette enthusiast, subject of a New York magazine cover story, one of the creators of an entire industry, now lying in a hospital bed looking so weak and fragile.

Yet when we started talking and joking around it was like we were transported back in time, sitting on the porch at Sea Cliff again and not in some depressing, medicinal-smelling rehab center. The world became just the two of us reminiscing about the past and looking forward to more good times ahead.

I saw him a couple of more times in the rehab center and was thrilled when I heard that he had been released and was back at Sea Cliff. I went to see him there. Again we had a wonderful time, laughing about some of the outrageous times and crazy things that happened at TAS and elsewhere, gossiping, talking about friends, carrying on. Although he looked weakened and needed a walker, and the house was more than a little bit of a mess, I thought he was on the mend and we talked about going out to dinner again soon.

When I got the e-mail the morning of Wednesday, November 5, 2014 saying that he had passed I was stunned. I could not believe it and it took a very long time for it to sink in that I would never be seeing Harry again. I should wax more eloquently here. I can’t.

The last few times we met, Harry told me he considered me to be one of his greatest friends. It meant a lot to me then. It means a lot more to me now.

 

This was originally posted as a comment on the TAS Blog. It’s published for the first time here (with a few slight updates) by permission of The Absolute Sound.

CHAM, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

My next radio station move was a big one – to another country! A program director I had worked for at WAMS in Wilmington, Delaware was now in Canada as general manager at CHAM 1280 AM. We’d kept in touch and he offered me a job at CHAM. But –  first you had to prove that no Canadian was displaced in taking the job, and there was an interview with immigration, x-rays, blood tests…it was no simple matter, but I did get in, though without my studded snow tires.

Hamilton is at the left end of Lake Ontario, sort of like a nipple on a baby bottle. A steel town of days gone largely by today, though the mills still operated back then in the early 1970s. Stelco and Dofasco, I remember, even 40 years later.

I was hired as program director. That means the one who is responsible for whatever you hear on air.

CHAM was located in the Terminal Towers mall.

I felt I “owned” what was broadcast, had high standards, and couldn’t settle. I also felt that if you told your staff the right thing to do, they’d do it. WRONG! In fact the on-air staff almost walked out on me once. Lesson learned. Management involves more finesse then just being an on-air jock.

I’ve come to believe there are three types of talent. Some are naturals. They are great communicators. Some are growing, and want to learn. Some are egos who simply want to be “themselves,” and will balk – or worse – if you try to interfere. I’ve also now seen my weaknesses from the perspective of time.

We were getting clobbered by the competition. Under my tenure our ratings did improve though, and I got to work with several folks who justifiably went on to fame in Toronto at our sister station CFTR. But from my narrow point of view, they kept stealing my best people.

One DJ would scream on an inhale to “lower his voice” before he turned on the microphone. Except one time he turned the mic on first and made an awful-sounding gasping noise.

I didn’t inhale! DJ Steve Davis behind the board.

I made the morning newsman do the weather from outside the station every morning, and the weather in the winter in Canada was raw as you can imagine. You could tell he hated it, which I thought made great radio.

The CRTC, then the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, wanted broadcasting to “preserve the social fabric” of the country. I heard this from the commissioners directly. This means they did not want a copycat of a US station. They also force a certain percentage of Canadian music onto the air, and have other rules. There are fewer stations per population in Canada than the US.

That’s not Apollo 13 Mission Control; it’s the CHAN newsroom.

After a year and a half, the general manager was fired. The new GM (former sales manager) was promoted and took me to Toronto to our national sales team to show me off and declare a great new day. Several days later, the corporate bosses came to town and fired me. There was some resentment about me being American. The man who replaced me put up billboards that said “CHAM – Where All the Good Music Has Gone.” Huh? (You can read this both ways. A bad billboard.)

I was out of work for nine months. There was a postal strike in Canada during that stretch so I could only apply for jobs in the US by driving to Niagara Falls and mailing my packages of taped samples of my on-air work, my resume and so on. One day I took my girlfriend along and as we were just about to go through customs she had taped her mouth shut with my mailing tape supply and was going “mmmmmm  mmmmuph” as if kidnapped. VERY funny. She did remove the tape, and I didn’t go to jail.

Canada is enough like the US that it all seemed familiar but different. Like living in a movie. I have great respect for and love of Canada.

One night of many in my nine months of unemployment I heard something hit the patio a floor below my window. Something heavy. I looked outside but the lights from the driveway obscured my view of the patio. My flashlight revealed a young woman, face down. My brain immediately went in two directions at once. One half was logical – call the police! – the other half was in denial. That couldn’t actually be a…

I ran to the body after calling the police, rousing the building manager as I passed that apartment. There was not a mark showing on the body that we could see. It was a swan dive off the 13th floor. Word was she had mental issues but was out from treatment on a pass. So sad.

I got into Transcendental Meditation in Hamilton, and when fired, spent many a day in meditation. It helped.

 

This is the first in a new series about my misadventures in setting up audio systems. I’ve been an audiophile since the 1970s and have done uncountable setups for myself, The Absolute Sound, other magazines, manufacturers, friends, Romans and countrymen.

As such, I could do a series on setup optimization techniques, but…naah, there’s plenty of good advice out there already. I’d rather share some stories about the mayhem I’ve encountered.

A Shock to the System

Around the late 1980s when I was working at The Absolute Sound the late Mike Kay, former owner of Manhattan high-end dealer Lyric HiFi, brought over the then-new Carver Silver Seven monoblock amplifiers. They didn’t arrive without fanfare. Kay, not given to hyperbole, raved about how they were the best amplifiers he’d ever heard. (Note: this was the first version, not the Silver Seven 900 of today.)

Each amp had 15 KT88 tubes, two chassis connected by a thick umbilical, granite bases, big glass meters and immense output transformers on the back. They cost $17,000. Don’t remember if that was for each or per pair. I don’t remember how much power they put out either, other than…enough!

The amps sounded astounding. I remember the first time Kay and I set them up (with more than 30 tubes to plug into their sockets, it helped to have some help), sat back and listened, and were floored. We called TAS editor-in-chief Harry Pearson down to the listening room and his reaction was the same – completely wowed. These amps had it all – tight, powerful bass, a lucid, remarkably textured midrange, sweet highs, an epic soundstage, beautiful instrumental and vocal tonality, reach-out-and-touch-it imaging and most of all, effortless authority.

The Carver Silver Sevens quickly became the reference amp for the main system, complementing the Infinity IRS V speakers, Goldmund Reference turntable and so on.

The original Carver Silver Seven monoblock amplifier.

In fact, Harry was so enthused about them that he began inviting a bunch of people to come and listen. One of them was David Denby, the esteemed critic for New York magazine. Harry had hosted plenty of industry VIPs before but Denby was as VIP as it got.

The afternoon before the evening he was set to arrive, I did my usual pre-flight check of going over everything in the Big System to make sure all was working properly. David showed up a few hours later. Harry, ever the showman (and we were putting on a dog and pony show, after all), started the listening sessions in the second-room system, wanting to work David up to The Main Event – hearing The System From G-d.

In the meantime, I was in the main room double-checking the main system.

Except there was no sound coming out of the left channel.

Complete adrenaline-pumping white-out panic.

Shaking, I went through the components and determined the problem was one of the Silver Sevens. Sh*t! After doing the usual checking fuses, jiggling cables and trying to turn the amp off and on again I realized it was kaput.

From then on things went something like this:

I called Harry aside and told him I’d have to swap the amps. Oh no no no no. “WHAT!? David came here to hear the Silver Sevens, not some piece of crap other amp and HE’S GOING TO HEAR THE SILVER SEVENS! GET BOB CARVER ON THE PHONE!”

Going from shaking to quaking, I closed the door to the main listening room – Harry and I doing everything we could to hide what was going on from David – fished Carver’s name out of my Rolodex and called, hoping he’d answer the phone. A cheery Bob Carver answered. “Hi Frank, good to hear from you! What’s up?”

“I’m here with Harry and David Denby from New York magazine and there’s no sound from one of the Silver Sevens. Is there anything you can suggest I can do? They’re waiting to listen right now!” He asked me if I did the usual checking fuses and so on and I told him yes. He then asked, “are you good with a soldering iron?” I was.

“OK, take the back panel off the amp and call me back. I think I know a workaround that’ll get the amp running. A resistor probably blew and I can walk you through fixing it.”

I turned the amp upside down and took off the back panel. Meanwhile Harry stuck his head in and bellowed, “are we ready to listen yet?”

“I’m working on it! Keep stalling David!”

I called Carver back. “OK, look at the back corners of the amp,” he said. “Do you see a green and a yellow wire?”

“No.”

“Ummm, maybe it’s a white and a yellow wire. Do you see anything like that?”

“Yes.”

“Well, here’s what I want you to do. You see where one of those wires goes to a resistor? We’re going to remove that resistor and bypass it, and just connect the wire to what the other end of the resistor is connected to. Can you handle that?” At that point if he’d asked me if I could assist with open-heart surgery or run around naked in the middle of Sea Cliff I would have said yes.

“Yes.”

“OK, it’s not the greatest fix but it’ll get you through the listening session.”

So, OK then. I heated up the soldering iron, went to unsolder the resistor, stuck the soldering iron to it and…

WHAM!

I got hit with a titanic electric shock.

It was so intense that it threw me onto my back.

It was like someone grabbed me and slammed me onto the ground. I let out a scream.

David and Harry came running into the room. In unison, “Are you OK?” I couldn’t answer and was completely disoriented.

After a few seconds? A minute? I was able to reply. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just got an unexpected shock.”

You’ll be OK, right?” asked Harry, the implication clearly being, now that we know you’re not dead, you’ll be able to keep working on the amp and get it fixed and we can start listening already!

After replying in the affirmative, I realized I’d left Bob Carver hanging on the phone.

I picked up the receiver. “Hi Bob, I’m still here, just got a little shock, that’s all.” He replied, “You’re OK, right?” “Yes, and I’m going to keep working on the amp.” Which I did, in a state of near-incontinent anxiety. Was I really going to poke into the innards of this thing again? I felt like I was about to stick my head into the alligator’s mouth…again. Well, you know what they say about being young and stupid…

I managed to finish the soldering job, closed up the back, hooked up the amp and flipped the power switch.

The amp lit up. After about a minute I hesitantly put on some music at a very low volume.

The amp was working. The amp was working!

Then Harry came back into the room. “I HEAR MUSIC! Does that mean you’ve fixed it and we can listen?”

“Yes.” (Yes, we can listen to freakin’ music now, thought the person who just got the crap shocked out of him.) “Just let me call Bob Carver back and let him know everything’s cool.” Which I did, assuring him I was fine, which I sort of was at that point.

Post-mortem – oops, bad analogy! Bob Carver and I realized that one of the capacitors must have discharged – into me. Either that or I had forgotten to disconnect the power cord. (I think I had done so, but I was so harried and nervous that I might have forgotten.) To be fair, I have to think that Bob, figuring I was the all-knowing (hah!) Technical Director of The Absolute Sound, would have assumed that I’d known enough not to make a rookie mistake like not discharging the capacitors in a tube amp or unplugging the power cord before working on it. Or maybe I had forgotten to disconnect that $)#(*%! power cord.

David, Harry and I then sat down for The Ritual Listening Session…and the system sounded magnificent. The mood went from tense to celebratory and the wine flowed freely with, I confess, more than a little of it going into my glass. All was well with the world. It became one of those magical nights.

With a little shock to the system in between.

 

Postscripts: it should go without saying: do not attempt to service electronic equipment if you don’t know what you’re doing! The capacitors in certain electronic components can retain a possibly lethal charge even after the equipment has been turned off.

The Silver Seven amp was taken back to Lyric, repaired and returned to Sea Cliff, where it worked flawlessly for the rest of the time I worked for TAS. I never found out what that dang resistor did, or if it was the victim of shipping damage or something else.

WKBW Buffalo

Out of radio station CHAM and still living in Canada, I snagged a part-time on-air job for my former program director from Pittsburgh who had moved to Buffalo, at 50,000-watt WKBW-AM 1520. My trip from Canada to Buffalo was 65 miles one way. “KB,” as they called it, had a nighttime signal that went from the Canadian Maritimes to halfway down the East coast (or maybe all the way to Florida – I’m not sure). I know you could get it in Virginia. Answering the phone was amazing…we got calls from Halifax, Philly, etc.

After some time passed I figured I’d just move to Buffalo in case a full time job opened up at KB. The day the movers were in to give me an estimate, I got a call from Montreal and, anticipating a change of plans, asked the movers to quote moving me to both Buffalo and Montreal. I was flown to Montreal for an interview and they offered me evenings (7:00 pm – midnight) which I accepted.

At KB I’d sleep in the ladies’ room since it had a couch. I’d be on sometimes till midnight on Saturday, then on again Sunday at 6:00 am. I wasn’t about to do 130 miles for the quick turn.

KB wasn’t in a good place in town. How bad? I’d run down to the nearby McDonald’s when there was a very very early Sunday morning prerecorded public affairs show on. The manager there wore a gun on his hip. That should tell you something.

WKBW was an institution in Buffalo radio. Later, at ROCK 102, I would help drive a nail in its coffin.

CJFM Montreal

I loved Montreal, fell deeply for it my first day, lived mid-downtown, and in the mid 1970s the media was invited to everything!

I did evenings, then afternoons, and was eventually promoted to off the air after doubling, then tripling the ratings. This made zero sense to me, but I was soon made creative director.

So I created stuff. Contests, promotions, etc. For example, on the hottest day of the summer I staged a snowstorm with tons of shaved ice. The resulting publicity included four newspaper front pages (two French and two English), with a full color front page on one of them. And we got onto national TV twice.

The “snowstorm” on the hottest day of the year.

Montreal was viewed as a special major market by many, and we were mandated by management to have some talk shows, which were hosted by Matthew Cope and Mary Lou Basaraba (now an opera star!). Matthew was diligent and went after anyone and everyone famous. I remember a young Donald Sutherland stopping by and hanging out after his interview. Bing Crosby on the phone singing just a few lines of “White Christmas.” From strippers to celebs, every day had someone on the station who was well known or should have been.

Marty Feldman, Mary Lou Basaraba and Matthew Cope at CJFM.

Donald Sutherland and Matthew Cope at CJFM.

CJFM was the little FM station upstairs from the big English AM station, CJAD. I was eventually promoted to program director and not long after the French-mother-tongue majority finally assumed power in the Canadian province where the station was located. it seemed like they were going to force all sorts of French on English companies, so I started looking for work elsewhere. I could read French signs and so on but could never speak French well enough to criticize what was on the air.

Snapshots:  Heard a funny line: “A social note; don’t use the urinal while wearing open-toed sandals.”

The guy who said that replaced me in the afternoon slot when I was taken off the air. One day he came in so drugged out of his head he couldn’t speak coherently. I called the PD (program director) who was at the bar across the street, and said, “listen to your station.” The PD was a young alcoholic, a great guy, but not a good PD. He asked me to remove the stoned and babbling disc jockey.

I convinced The GM (general manager) to buy a piece of expensive equipment that immediately made us much louder.

His gleeful call the night they turned it on was a high point.

Once, another station broadcasting from the same antenna as we did, from the highest point on Mount Royal, (Montreal – Mount Royal – get it?  A long extinct volcano) was way over their legal power limit, and it knocked our station, which was just down the hill, off of all our radios. I actually went on the air and announced, “If you can hear us, would you please give us a call?” The meters said we were cooking, but we couldn’t hear ourselves.

On my first day at CJFM I saw an old friend in the hallway. “DAVE!” I called out, “this’ll be great, working together!” “Bob, don’t you know? You are replacing me.” Man, mixed emotions there. And we stayed friends! That’s a view of the kind of people who work in radio that continues to this day.

Although…we were invited to the big Montreal company Christmas bash. And our little FM station upstairs completely upstaged the big AM station downstairs, and they didn’t like it. At the time, the mayor was a colorful sort. We hired an impersonator, videotaped him comically mocking many of our staff and theirs, and brought in a big video projector (remember, video tape and projection screens were pro-grade only in 1976 or so) to play the tape at the party.

Plus we had an after-party party in the big suite in the penthouse of the fancy hotel. Much alcohol was consumed. The AM staff attended. One of their newsmen had a fight with their program director. Hair was pulled out. Furniture thrown. Blood on the wall! Maybe not everyone in radio had the sense of camaraderie that others did.

More snowy hijinks at CJFM.

The higher the resolution of an audio system, the more that attention to detail matters. Nowhere was this more evident than in the main audio system at The Absolute Sound. (I worked there as technical director around 1986 – 1994.)

Part of my job at TAS was The Care and Feeding of The System. Harry Pearson, the editor-in-chief, wanted the system to be in top performing shape at all times. I soon found out that the slightest adjustments or changes to it could affect the sound – sometimes significantly. Things that might cause subtle to moderate differences in another audio rig, like swapping interconnects or cables, changing tubes or moving speakers a fraction of an inch, would be intensely magnified in HP’s setup.

Small wonder, considering that it was comprised of ultrahigh-end components like the Infinity IRS V loudspeakers, Goldmund Reference turntable and a parade of premium gear like the Audio Research SP-11 and Convergent Audio Technology SL1 preamplifiers, VTL 500 amplifiers and all manner of cables, tweaks and accessories.

For example, changes in VTA (vertical tracking angle, the angle of the tonearm/stylus to the record surface) could be dramatic on HP’s system. We could readily hear differences in VTA when playing records of different thicknesses. Because we would test different cartridges, I had to regularly change the VTA on whatever tonearm we had in place, which was usually the Goldmund T3F straight-line tracking arm.

The Goldmund Reference turntable with T3F arm.

This was a complex beast which used an electronic servo mechanism to control the motion of the arm across the record. The arm was mounted on a large beam, and in order to adjust VTA, four Allen screws at each corner of the beam had to be loosened, then the entire beam had to be raised or lowered, the screws tightened, and the adjustment validated by listening and then repeating the cumbersome procedure if the sound/adjustment wasn’t right. The height of each corner of the beam had to be the same, to within 0.001 (one-thousandth) of an inch.

On a good day this could take a half-hour. But there were bad days. More than once I slipped and dropped the beam, hearing a nerve-wracking clunk – while forgetting to note the starting measurement. This meant that I had no idea what the original height was, and had to re-set up the arm height from square one. This could take hours.

In order not to accidentally trash the cartridge I had to hold the bottom of the beam with one hand while making adjustments with the other hand, an awkward balancing act at best. And the right side of the very heavy and very immovable turntable was almost against the right listening room wall, leaving little room to access the right side of the arm and work on it. I had to kneel down and twist into unnatural positions to get to it. After hours of such Houdini-like contortions my neck and back would be killing me. After a few years at The Absolute Sound I started seeing a chiropractor.

If only getting phono cartridges optimized in HP’s system was that simple.

Harry’s setup was so sensitive that changes in temperature and humidity could affect the sound. In fact, Harry noted these things in his listening notes and insisted TAS reviewers do the same.

The first time I worked with the Big System, I noticed that a Tensor lamp was sitting next to the turntable. For those who don’t remember, a Tensor lamp was small but had a high-intensity bulb. I asked Harry about it. He said, “it shines on the cartridge in order to keep the cartridge at a constant temperature. That way its performance is more consistent.”

Tensor lamp. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brooklyn Museum.

“Jeez, this system really is sensitive,” I thought. And didn’t think much else about it.

One fine night some time later, after Harry and I had gone out to dinner, we sat down to listen. It was just the two of us, unwinding. We put on a record, then another. Then Harry looked at me with that “something’s not right” expression, something I had become all-too-familiar with after a few months on the job.

“The lamp isn’t on! Turn on the lamp!”

It had been a long and exhausting day, I had had a couple of drinks and we weren’t doing the usual show-off-the-system schtick for visitors, so I hadn’t done my usual careful pre-listening system check and had forgotten to turn on the Tensor lamp.

I got up out of my chair, reached for the switch on the lamp and flicked it on.

BANG!

The sound of a gunshot.

“YAAAHHH!” Both of us recoiled. I instinctively jumped back.

Harry, however, was still sitting in his chair, so he flew back in the chair, which loudly slammed into the back wall. The chair hit the wall with such force that it put a large hole into the sheetrock. He was sitting with the chair leaning at something like a 20 or 30-degree angle, utterly panicked.

Having no idea what had just happened and in a state of sheer terror, I gingerly looked around to see where the gunman was.

There was no one in the house but us.

I have to admit, after I recovered from the initial shock, I had to force myself not to laugh out loud at the sight of Harry, ready to fall back and over out of his chair were it not for the fact that it was wedged into the wall and keeping Harry from falling over onto his keister. You should have seen the expression on his face. It was both scary and hysterical.

I grabbed the back of the chair and shoved him back into a normal seating position.

“WHAT HAPPENED?”

I may not be quoting those words exactly verbatim.

“I don’t know. I don’t know!” There may have been some off-color words in my response as well.

I stood there, completely bewildered. Something must have happened! And if it wasn’t a gunshot, it must have been something else. I looked around the room, and it gradually dawned on me that the sound must have come from the speakers. But what could have caused such a bang? I looked and looked and looked at all the equipment in the room…

The lamp.

The bang had occurred when I flicked the switch to the lamp.

I told Harry that must have been it. But why?

We both figured out at the same time. It must have been because the cartridge in the system, a Spectral, was a low-output moving coil. As such, it needed a phono stage with a lot of gain. When I turned on the Tensor lamp it must have emitted a burst of noise or interference of some kind that was picked up by the extremely sensitive cartridge/interconnects/phono preamp. And amplified by an insane amount of gain. Through a mighty Levinson 23 amp if I recall correctly, and a speaker system that could produce the requisite hellacious volume. Enough to cause a bang loud enough to sound like a gunshot.

I don’t remember if we did any listening the rest of the night or turned the system off and hightailed it out of that room.

For the rest of the time I was at The Absolute Sound and all the times I visited afterwards, the hole in the wall was never fixed. Who knows, it may still be there today, the new owners of the house destined to never know how it got there.

 

Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joost Dicker Hupkes

WBEN-AM and FM (ROCK 102) Buffalo

I had listened to Buffalo radio station ROCK 102 FM while in Hamilton, Ontario, when I was out of work for months after my stint at CHAM in Canada. ROCK 102 FM was fully automated and all screwed up. So was their sister station WBEN-AM, but I didn’t know that as I had never listened to it. The job opening was for the AM station, and at my interview I insisted on working at both stations, and got employed at both of them.

At ROCK 102 I inherited a dumb contest (where listeners would have to visit a list of sponsors to win a prize; clearly too much work for too little), bad new station identification jingles (bastardized versions of the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music”), and highly predictable songs. Nobody changed the pre-recorded tapes, we just wound them back to the beginning and played them over and over.

I like to say I fixed everything in 15 minutes, and I did. Killed the contest, removed the jingles, and assigned the tape rotations to the music director. Fixed. The ratings went up!

My secret was that the essence of ROCK 102 to me was what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a typical radio station with personalities, banter and so on. It was an automated music source, pure and simple, with as little as possible in the way. And the station had a killer signal, penetrating Rochester, Erie, PA and the “Golden Triangle” of Canada including Toronto.

Canada then passed a law mandating that advertising on “border blasters” like our station would no longer be a business tax deduction, and we lost millions. Still, the cost of operation was so low it continued to make lots of money anyway.

ROCK 102 and WBEN helped kill the legendary WKBW, a station in Buffalo that had been around since 1925. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was competition!

Bernadette Peters pays the station a visit.

Regarding WBEN-AM: as I’m writing this for general eyes, I won’t go into all the programming things that were wrong with the station which nevertheless remained popular and legendary, but just to give you a taste: while I was driving to my interview I heard the station play Lisa Minnelli, Burl Ives and Jefferson Starship…all in a row. Talk about disjointed programming. Well, OK, It took much longer than 15 minutes but eventually I fixed it. This involved putting together an almost new DJ lineup. The result was that after some time, we then had the number one AM and the number one FM station in the area. And I then had 25 job offers over five years or so, as it turned out the competition was trying to remove me.

I almost took a job in Portland, Oregon and passed on a good gig in Chicago – the general manager there said that he had interviewed 35 people, flew me in twice to be interviewed by his co-GM and sales manager – and I turned the job down over not coming to terms over a difference of $5,000. I wanted more and he wouldn’t bend. I thought that if he really did interview all those people and got down to one, he ought to bend, and if he wouldn’t, I didn’t want to work for him, because going through all that trouble and then not hiring me was dumb. An interview with a station in Philly was also a close call, especially with it being my home town, but that GM wouldn’t guarantee me a computer, so, no.

Some snapshots:

WBEN had the first computerized snow-closing announcement system in the country, thanks to our brilliant chief engineer, Dave May. He built it and programmed it. He also built what had to be among the first music programming systems, by which I could assure how the songs were mixed, rotated and played on WBEN.

Dave has a great voice and had been on the air, and did our traffic reports from our helicopter – while he learned to fly it by himself!

We had new studios built by the previous owners, which were way over-equipped. Example: the usual radio microphone costs about $450. We had many $3,500 microphones. We had custom quadraphonic equipment installed, just in case quad caught on! We originated broadcasts for the network of stations that broadcast the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres. The studio also sported a major production facility for radio commercials, which I ran from 9 am until 3am or so. By the way, a CBS TV affiliate was located down the hall.

One of four production rooms for commercials.

One day I came back from doing some commercials at a local studio (I was pretty popular) and found two Buffalo Bills players – huge men, a linebacker and a nose tackle, waiting for me – and they were angry. They wanted their pay for their one hour a week show, and they had been stiffed somehow. Everybody told them to see me. I must note that it was surreal. They could literally have swiped me off the planet. The disparity in our sizes was so silly. We got them their money and all was smoothed over. We even did a radio promo that had them fighting about whose name should be mentioned first in the spot.

We had Bills’ coach Chuck Knox on the air once a week for an hour. Mister cliché. Here’s the take-away: no coach will ever disparage his team or any team to the public. Later, post-Chuck, we had Kay Stephenson, then the youngest coach in the NFL. He was horrible, so I gave him a big speech about how I could work with him to coach him into better performances. I went on and on, trying to get his buy-in. His reaction: “If you don’t like me, I’ll quit.” But that wasn’t an option. The Sabres’ head coach Scotty Bowman was also one of our regulars, for an hour a week during the season.

Jeff Kaye, our morning man, and the team of news, weather and traffic held a 20 share of the listening audience of everyone over 12 years old. This was one of the last few giant audiences then claimed by morning radio at the time. When he left us, he left us to be the main voice for the company that produces NFL Films, replacing the late John Facenda, who was a one of a kind, and who I got to do promos for us sometime before his passing! In speaking to Facenda I found out that he lived maybe a mile from where I grew up and I had been by his home hundreds of times on my way home from grade school. He was a true gentleman. Also the voice of god.

And let it be noted that Buffalo always had radio better than its market size would lead one to believe. It might not have been a major market, but I felt we could compete well in a major.

It was fun being down the hall from the TV station. Hey, look! Dan Rather…Jane Fonda…they’d stop by…

It’s the morning after the July 11, 1976 concert in Hyannis Port’s Cape Cod Coliseum. Once again the limousine doesn’t show. Annoyingly, this has become a regular theme on the Kiss Destroyer tour. I’m Kiss’ road manager so I’m the one who has to deal with it.

I’m standing in the empty parking lot of the beachfront hotel as the band starts coming out of their bungalows. They walk over to me and Paul Stanley, the co-lead singer and rhythm guitarist asks me, “Ken, why did this happen again?” Honestly, I didn’t have an answer, but, cancel the morning limo and the promoter saves two hundred bucks, and besides, the show is over and what’s anyone going to do? In the end, the only person irritated is me.

I have to move fast or we’ll miss our plane home. I go to the front desk and they call a couple of cabs for us and we head off the airport. We just make the flight and an hour later we’re landing at LaGuardia. Three limos are waiting to pick us up: one for drummer Peter Criss to take him to his East 30th Street apartment, another for lead guitarist Ace Frehley, who is heading to Tarrytown, NY, and the last one for Paul, me and bassist Gene Simmons, the guy who spits flames and is famous for sticking out his big tongue.

Ah, the glamorous life of a rock and roll road manager.

At this point, the tour is about a quarter of the way though and while my job is on top of the Kiss organization food chain, the pay won’t make me rich and it’s not that much fun either. And the tour is such a big operation that, unlike other road managers, I don’t have control over how the tour runs. When I was the road manager for mid-level rock groups like the Byrds or Jefferson Airplane, I was the go-to guy handling everything – the box office, road crew, travel arrangements, money, salaries, solving problems.

Ken contemplating life on the road.

With Kiss I just deal with the group and their logistics only. The guys in the band are nice enough, but I’m strictly hired help, their hand-holder.

Rehearsals for the Destroyer tour in support of the album of the same name started in the late spring of 1976 at Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, NY, an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. Because of the size of the production we had to rent a whole airplane hangar. It was an impressive sight – a big coliseum-sized stage with full lighting gear inside that humongous building.

With a production of this scale, rehearsing the performance, working out lighting cues and timing the special effects was crucial for both the band and crew. I have to say, the show was pretty amazing, with explosions, smoking guitars and tricks like Gene breathing fire and Peter’s drum kit levitating twenty feet over the stage.

All this required a big crew of 63 techs and roadies. There’s so much equipment that it takes three tractor trailers to lug the gear, lights and sound. The set up is so involved that we needed to more than a day for load-in and setup. As a result, there were never shows on two days in a row, unless they were at the same venue.

In late May the rehearsals end and we load up for the road. That’s a rehearsal in itself. The band and I head back to Manhattan. We’ll fly to the first show in two days.

Here’s a video of Kiss live in 1976:

Before a show, I generally stand on the right side of the stage and watch the audience file in. The most interesting thing at a Kiss show for me is that the first couple of rows were always these ten and twelve-year-old boys in full Kiss costumes and make-up, accompanied by their parents. Who would want to go to a concert with their parents? Then again, they were too young to go alone.

No one outside of the crew has privy to our travel plans (it was in the days before cell phones and news traveling instantly on social media) so for the most part, we’re not stalked, but there were a few times when the fans and groupies found us. There were a lot of groupies.

One night was particularly memorable for me. It was getting close to the 4th of July and in celebration, the audience is joining in throwing firecrackers and M-80s (really big firecrackers that were about the size of a thumb) at the stage. Times were wilder then – it wasn’t even considered wrong or dangerous.

We’re playing Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s the middle of the concert, the part where the drum kit rises twenty feet in the air. An M-80 goes off near the raised drum kit platform – and drummer Peter Criss slumps over.

The crew frantically lowers the drum platform. A uniformed Tennessee state trooper (who is moonlighting as concert security) and I grab Peter before he falls off the drum stool. He’s unconscious as we rush him into the back seat of a limo. I don’t see the limo driver anywhere and there are no keys in the ignition. What am I going to do?

The state trooper dives head first into the front seat and somehow he gets the limo started. He stomps on the gas and we drive out of the coliseum, heading for the nearest hospital.

Suddenly, Peter regains consciousness. “Where am I?” Peter says. I tell him what happened and he says, “I’m fine, let’s go back.” The trooper does a screeching U-turn and we’re heading back to the coliseum, driving back down the ramp to the backstage area.

The dressing room staff is standing there and as they take Peter to the dressing room. I ask, “is the band here?” “No,” the make-up girl says, “They went back to the hotel.”

I turn to the trooper and ask, “Can you drive me there?” “Let’s go!” he says with a big grin on his face.

With the smell of rubber burning and tires smoking the limo slides sideways into the lobby entrance. I run into the lobby – and both of the elevators are on the top floor. With no time to spare I run to the stairs and sprint up the six flights to our floor.

I get to Gene’s room just as he just started undoing his knee pads and leggings. As luck would have it, Ace and Paul are in Gene’s room. I tell them, “Peter’s OK and we have to go back!” My concern was that the audience might have left – and we’d have to forfeit the $35,000 due the band, a huge amount of money in those days.

Gene asks me to help put his leggings back on and, out of breath with my hands shaking, I clip on his knee pads and leg covers. The band and I take the elevator back down and jump in the limo. The trooper, who has been waiting, swiftly drives us back. We rush to the dressing room, checking makeup and costumes, making sure that everyone is ready to go back on.

Everyone set? Yup, so I have Peter go out first. He starts to bang the drums, the lights dim and the place goes crazy, stamping their feet and cheering as the band walks back on stage.

Who would believe it? Fifty-two minutes have passed and not one person has left the coliseum.

What was that I said about the job not being very much fun? This is why I love the road. Now I’m having fun.

Ken then…

…Ken now.

 

Finding myself in Syracuse, New York and out of work once again, I sent resumes out and networked very seriously. I did get a bite via a friend in Minneapolis. A group had purchased an FM station and was looking for a program director to launch the new station. It had no staff or studio – just the station.

The station was WCTS-AM, owned by the Christian Theological Seminary. Colfax, the new company that had bought WCTS, had recently purchased KQQL-FM (KOOL 108, an oldies station) and was looking to expand. As the story goes, they approached the Seminary and suggested they’d like to purchase the FM station, and give them (subject to FCC approval, of course) an AM station in return plus a check for $10,000,000. “Hallelujah! Praise God.” The deal was done.

So Colfax now had this FM station, which had previously featured a religious-programming format. Colfax then shut down the station while they researched the competition, did some upgrades, built studios and hired a program director to assemble a staff and give it direction. Several radio industry consultants assured success, but agreed it would face a highly competitive format war.

A format was chosen, as the two stations currently doing that format in the Minneapolis area were thought to be weak. A marketing person was asked to come up with ideas for the new property.  Apparently an entire book of ideas was presented, none of which would have worked – yet one slogan was brilliant and would subsequently be adopted.

Back in Syracuse, I had to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), which I happily did, before they would tell me the new name of the station, as well as its format and slogan. When I found out the new name, I laughed and laughed, and actually had to put the phone down to gather my wits.

The new station would be called BOB. The slogan would be “Turn Your Knob to BOB.” The format would be New Country.

Searching for the call letters WBOB-FM, they were found to be owned by a disgruntled ex-wife, who had won the station and call letters in a divorce settlement and was happy to part with them for cash.

A studio was built in the KQQL space, and I set about finding personalities, building the music-playback algorithms and so on. Six weeks later, we launched with a million-dollar marketing budget – heavy TV, prime “super” billboards (the really large ones) and more.

The WBOB-FM studio. When Bob spoke, people listened!

To make a long story short, one of our competitors dropped out of the race, and we subsequently beat the big country powerhouse station in the area.

But, change was in the air. Colfax had expanded across the country (bankrolled by a pair of industrialist billionaire brothers), radio was a hot commodity in the mid ‘90s, and they sold the company for a hefty profit. Our subsequent owners sold their company after a short time too. Our third owners already owned our competition – the station we had beaten – and after their research, decided to keep that one in the country format. In doing their market research and seeing the high – 80% – consumer awareness for Howard Stern, the new owners decided to kill BOB, put syndicated Howard on in the morning and play what they called “real rock” the rest of the day.

The company asked me to stay. I was given a choice: be the programming director for the rock station, or KQQL, the oldies station. I chose the oldies.

Later, that company was sold to Clear Channel, which eventually became iHeartMedia. The rock station failed, and the former BOB/rock station was now smooth jazz. I was then given responsibility for that station in addition to KQQL.

One day, at an industry gala awards ceremony for which we were nominated for something or other, the president of Clear Channel came up to our table and without thinking, signaled I should “speak with my manager” as I had been a topic of conversation at their budget meetings. The handwriting was on the wall. Back home I confronted my boss and he told me they were “absorbing” my jobs. I had a no-cut contract so I was paid until it expired.

My wife grew up outside of Buffalo and had endured the snow of Syracuse, then Minneapolis, and wanted out of winter. We decided to move to Austin, Texas and had a home built.

My radio programming days were over.

Snapshots:

Upcoming country artists would sometimes visit my office and sing a few songs from their new albums. As an audiophile, this was good ear training for the intimate sound of live, un-amplified music. (Eventually the station built a dedicated performance space.)

Despite the fact that some of the artists had real talent, few made it to a national level of fame or success.

Talent doesn’t guarantee success. I believe the truth is that there’s a simple three-part map to success:  talent, tenacity, luck.

I really enjoyed meeting so many artists, greatly respected their work ethic and wish that they all could have found fame, but only a few ever do.

Here she comes again! Dolly Parton and our man.

Next issue – Bob ends his radio career, begins another and has some thoughts on the state of commercial radio today. – Ed.]

When I was Harry Pearson’s setup man at The Absolute Sound, equipment would break down all the time. I’m not talking about a tube going bad every once in a while, or things caused by accident, like when Harry dropped a remote control into a glass of wine and demanded I fix it. (I actually tried. Fuhgeddaboudit.) I’m talking about equipment breaking down and misbehaving constantly, maddeningly, all the freakin’ time.

The equipment failures were too frequent to be the result of chance, and they often happened without discernible reason. I got to the point where I could come up with only one explanation: Harry’s house was haunted.

The house where Harry Pearson lived. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Antony-22.

Let me give you a few examples.

Mike Wesley (sadly, now deceased) of Madrigal Audio Laboratories told me he was sending down a pair of Jadis JA 200 monoblock amplifiers for review. Harry and I couldn’t wait. We’d heard and loved previous Jadis gear and the JA 200 was a 160 watt-per-channel statement piece, with four chassis, 10 power tubes per side and metalwork of gleaming chrome and gold.

They arrived, all 275-plus pounds of them. I unpacked and assembled them, taking care not to smudge the finish, making sure the tubes were in the proper sockets and finally turning the amps on. The tubes lit up.

Nothing. No sound. Dead.

I checked all the connections. It couldn’t be the amps, I thought, and re-checked everything. Finally, I swapped the JA 200s out of the system. The previous amps worked fine. I then schlepped the JA 200s and connected them to the second system. No sound.

I called Mike Wesley and explained the situation. “That’s impossible,” he said. “We tested the amps before we shipped them.” He then suggested all the usual diagnostics, all of which I did. I turned the amps on again. Nothing. Silence.

We figured something must have happened in shipping. I sent the amps back to Madrigal and got a call a few days later. “The amps are fine,” Wesley said. “Are you sure you had them hooked up right?” “Yes.” Got the amps back about a week later and plugged them in with great anticipation.

No sound. Called Wesley again. “This can’t be! They were working perfectly! Send the amps back again and this time I’ll check them and drive them back myself.” About two weeks later Wesley showed up, amps in tow.

This time he set them up. He turned them on. They worked.

“So, they were broken when you got them back,” I said. “No, they were fine.” “Then why weren’t they working before?” “I don’t know.” I’m sure he thought the reason was that I was the world’s most inept setup man.

(I should mention that Harry’s house had been re-wired with a top-of-the-line electrical system with dedicated lines, hospital-grade outlets, robust grounding and yadda yadda. AC power was never an issue.)

Another time I went to get the system ready for action. I grabbed the AudioQuest electronic stylus cleaner and went to clean the stylus on the Spectral cartridge. (Spectral – how appropriate.) Except the cantilever wasn’t there.

What the…I figured Harry must have been playing the records the night before and snapped it off. It couldn’t have fallen far, right? I looked and looked and looked for it and the cantilever was nowhere to be found.

I confronted Harry. “You broke the cantilever off the Spectral, didn’t you?” He looked at me like I had three heads. “What are you talking about? I didn’t play the system last night.” “So, what, did it just disappear?” Harry asked. Well, apparently.

I used to have to replace the EMIM and EMIT midrange drivers in the Infinity IRS V speaker system all the time. I know what you’re thinking and to be fair, there were nights when we played the IRS Vs really loud. But most of the time we didn’t listen all that loudly, and honestly, there was absolutely no rhyme or reason as to when the drivers would crap out. It got to the point where I’d check each driver before every listening session.

I’d call Kathy at Infinity to get replacement EMIMs and EMITs. One day she told me, “What are you guys doing over there?” When I’d tell her we hadn’t been playing the system that loud I could feel the disbelief 2,800 miles away. But, better that than blaming it on ghosts, I figured. “Arnie (Nudell, then-Infinity president) says he’s not going to give you any more drivers,” Kathy said. I relayed that to Harry, who roared, “Well you can tell Arnie to go f**k himself!” Yeah, right. Luckily I’d built up a stash and I was able to weasel a few more from Infinity over time.

We received a Vibraplane turntable base. You inflated it with air, by means of a valve, and the air provided isolation. Steve Klein, the guy behind manufacturer Sounds of Silence, initially visited to set it up. I asked, “How often do you have to level it? Does it lose air over time?” He said, no, it should be very stable. Naturally it worked perfectly when he was there. (And had an extremely beneficial effect on the sound.}

You know where this is going. Soon after Steve left, I started having to add air infrequently, then regularly, then every day. Steve was adamant that I didn’t know how to use the unit properly (I did, but hey, water under the bridge) and that it worked fine everywhere else. In fact, I’ve spoken to other Vibraplane users who have confirmed this. More ghosts in the Sea Cliff machine.

The spirits didn’t just hover over the audio gear. I got to be very good friends with Harry’s alarm system repair guy – because he was at the house all the time. The alarm was constantly malfunctioning and going off at random times. At one point the technician even replaced the entire system – and it would still go off unpredictably. The tech said the house must be haunted and I was beginning to believe him.

I’m not even mentioning things like interconnects shorting out, bad tubes, CD player transports getting stuck or other malfunctions. Another strange happenstance: one time I was playing a set of large speakers (the Duntech Sovereigns or something of that magnitude; where’s Prevagen when you need it?). A pair of Thiel 3.6 speakers were about 20 feet across the room, and they were playing. I mean, actual music was playing out of them – but they weren’t hooked up to anything. Probably the result of sympathetic vibration, but having had previous strange encounters, it surprised the wits out of me. And I’ve heard nothing like it since.

One more example. We requested a Conrad-Johnson amplifier for review; pretty sure it was a Premier Twelve XS (or the Premier Eight XS; this was in the early 1990s). It had manual power tube bias adjustment pots, adjusted by turning them with a plastic screwdriver until an LED indicator turned off. Then wait and do it again 30 minutes later after the amp had settled in. When the late, great Carnell “Gatt” Gatling had delivered the amp, he and I adjusted the bias in about two minutes.

After he left, I could never get the bias lights to stay stable. They would constantly be lighting up even when the amp was idling. I made the inevitable phone call to Gatt, who sent me a bunch of replacement tubes to swap – and gave me the “there’s nothing wrong with the unit!” speech.

This speech, along with the emphatically stated, “it can’t possibly be broken. We’ve never had one break at a customer or dealer!” talk was one I heard over and over again while at The Absolute Sound.

Gatt came by to visit a few more times as he and Harry had developed a strong friendship. Each time he was there the amp behaved perfectly. But not for me. One morning I went to get the system ready and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the bias lights to go off. I tried and tried. Finally, something snapped inside me. I locked myself in the downstairs bathroom and was close to tears in frustration. I felt like things had completely slipped out of control. I left TAS shortly after.

Harry’s belief was that the occurrences were the result of ley lines. These lines supposedly indicate the location of “earth energies” and, the idea goes, carry magnetic fields or even psychic powers. Harry told me the house was right on top of a ley line, and that was why strange stuff happened there. Let’s just say this is not commonly-accepted science.

I like to think of myself as grounded in reality, but also think there’s more to reality than humans will ever know. Was Harry’s house really haunted? Well, unless I was the victim of monumental bad luck or a serious statistical anomaly, I sure felt that way a lot of the time.

This case of The X-Files remains open.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/Linforth from Pixabay.

Toward the end of my tenure in radio, which happened around 2004, automation came into widespread use – and helped ruin radio.

Originally the idea behind using automation was called “hub and spoke.” The plan was to use technology to put the best “hub” talent onto the air in “spoke” markets, replacing local people. Computerization allowed the computers to play the music, commercials and so on, which was supposed to free up the on-air talent from essentially being file clerks, and get to spend more time planning what they were about to say on the air.

It didn’t work that way.

It allowed the “hub” talent to pre-record their shows, which could then be inserted into the “spoke” stations via computer. Record and insert. This could, and did, happen across markets. Soon, locals were fired and replaced by someone on the wide area network. The replacements would be paid a fraction of the former full timer’s salary. (Example, A $30,000 a year plus benefits employee expense would be reduced to $5,000 with no benefits.) Local talent was lost for all but the very best remote-location DJs who actually prepared and studied for the markets they would do voice tracks for.

Air personalities were told that if they talked more than eight seconds, they’d lose audience. Yet the stations would play as many as eight minutes of commercials in a row, usually 30-second ads. When the music stopped twice an hour, there could be 12, 14, or 16 commercials in a row. Hypocrisy. Then some stations would play long sweeps of music at prime times, only to have to make up for the lost spots in the following hours, so there would be even more commercials then.

People always ask why radio plays the same songs over and over, when there are so many other songs they could play. The answer is simply that when people tune in, they want to hear their favorites. We spent a lot of money to find out what those songs were, then tried to mix them so they’d repeat in a way to “stretch plays out” – for example, if played in the morning, the songs would be then played in the evening, then the afternoon, before returning to being played yet again in the morning.

Every station that tried to add songs beyond the favorites lost ratings.

You might think people want variety, but if that leads to unfamiliar music, or polarized songs, it doesn’t.

Think of radio station playlists this way. You go to a concert for a group you like. Steely Dan? Don’t you want to hear “Hey Nineteen?” “Gaslighting Abbie,” maybe not so much.

When life intrudes, people’s interest in music is displaced. The music they grew up with becomes a marker back to those good old days. New music doesn’t have that magnetism, even if it’s good. Radio is about instant gratification, or the listener will move on. So you can’t count on listeners paying attention deeply enough to get into a song they don’t know.

Programmers know how long a station’s core audience listens – and at what times. Those heavy listeners comprise 80 percent of the station’s audience at any minute. You can then calculate how many times to play a current song (or power library cut) to hit the largest percentage of your daily/weekly audience.

We had research groups of likely listeners who would rate each song. Some songs would turn out to be “universals,” liked by everyone. Some would be peculiar to a certain age group or sex within the target audience. We could also get the song-by-song playlists of virtually any other station to see if they had discovered some songs we hadn’t tested.

Hit songs are like endorphins.

Oldies, for seniors or older folks mostly, are like a serious dose of endorphins for them.

Christmas music: big squirt of endorphins. When stations go all-Christmas they can triple their audience. Think of what that music takes you back to…presents, family, happy happy.

Since the early 2000s, corporate control has increased. Local program directors now have little power compared to my days when my on-air freedom was virtually unlimited. Corporate “initiatives” rule the formats now. Vice presidents of formats (and yes, there are VPs for each format) force obedience. Freed from previous government regulations, the large companies bought so many stations on shaky financial terms that debt became a major factor. Bankruptcies ensued. Then competition for advertising from digital media like streaming and internet radio sucked even more blood from radio.

These days I find it hard to listen to radio because as a former program director, I know what’s wrong, and a lot is wrong. I can’t listen as an audiophile because most stations hammer their audio with multiband automatic gain controls, limiters, compressors and clippers. Theory says listeners prefer the louder sound. Perhaps not the loudest distortion. And as popular music is compressed to death to start with, the audio largely sucks.

Today, corporate radio is pretty much a morning show followed by a jukebox. iHeartMedia recently completed another round of layoffs and is building a number of “AI-enabled Centers of Excellence.”

I went into a station multi-station cluster on a weekend some years back. There were six stations broadcasting. And not a soul in the building.

Since 1976 I have been doing voiceover work – acting or announcing in commercials, being the “voice” of TV stations, radio stations, and a variety of other types of work. In subsequent articles I will touch on that.

1. Go to YouTube. Watch video for “Delete Forever.” Grimes’ multihued but definitely orange-ish hair is parted in the middle, with huge balls of pigtails on either side. Consider these globes to be planets. When in doubt, consider any shape in a Grimes video a planet: Earth or elsewhere, as we are surely not alone in the universe. The “Delete Forever” music is engaging and smells like tomorrow: heavy beats, acoustic guitar, even what sounds like mandolin. This is not the Montreal rave scene she started her career with in 2011, but it does feel like an organic evolution.

2. Read Pitchfork review of Miss Anthropocene in which writer Anupa Mistry describes it as “her first album as a bona fide pop star.” Discuss this notion with your class of Writing About Music students and ask if anyone thought of Grimes as any kind of pop star. No hands go up, although a few were slightly familiar with the name. None confused her with the UK grime music, electronic dance music with hip-hop, though there is probable cause to detect some alliance between Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, and the musical style. Not much, but some.

3. That would seem to be a recurring non-motif in the music of Grimes, which is that there are many points of inflection but no commitment to any one style. People who live in boxes find this troubling; those who like to color outside the lines, who drew purple cows in grade school art class and didn’t see anything wrong with that, find Grimes appealing.

4. Grimes is not without roots in a fixed time and place. Listen to or especially watch her 2012 video for “Oblivion” at the start of her career, then listen to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” You can get here from there.

5. She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, and she looks to the future, though surviving to live in any kind of future is a serious concern. The title “Miss Anthropocene” names her as a woman, perhaps The Woman, of her time: We are living in the Anthropocene age, “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Underlying her approach to art is the sensible notion that unlike the environmentally aware musicians of a previous generation, who gave benefit concerts for whales, African famine, against nuclear power and for farmers, the species under direct attack is us. Our home planet has too many pressure faults, and we have to fix it now. That much of the world’s leadership is in denial about this was anticipated in the 1930s, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first Superman If you remember the plot basics, scientist Jor-El predicts doom for his imploding planet, while planet Krypton’s ruling class and science skeptic doom-deniers say nonsense. He builds a rocket to get his infant Kal-el to Earth just before Krypton explodes, as Jor-El predicted. The kid lands in Kansas and becomes Clark Kent.

6. Now watch the video to “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” Asteroids and huge chunks of the third stone from the Sun are flying off into space. An avatar of a woman with a sword or similar is engaged in a battle with a raptor. There’s a definite erotic charge as the woman with the sword gets close to the raptor’s mouth, parry and thrust, in and out, approach and withdraw. By the end of the six minute mini-movie you’ll wonder of there is some sort of copulation/capitulation. Are she and the raptor enemies or dueling and flirting, for sport, engaged in a friendly sex game as we await the same fate of flying dinosaurs: extinction.

 

7. In an interview, Grimes tells The Face that she has created an avatar called WarNymph. The avatar has allowed her to keep working through her pregnancy. Vogue magazine shows her pregnant, complete with self-written diagrams written on her bulging belly. The father is Tesla man and successful civilian rocketeer Elon Musk. Las Vegas bookmakers say that the chance of their child being named James or Jane, or John or Susan, are a bazillion kazillion Krypton dollars to one. Grimes worries that her online fan base has already mentioned a few of the unusual names that mom and dad had considered.

8. Go back and listen to some tracks from Grimes’ last album, Art Angels from 2015. The cover features two animated characters: a cute anime character and a larger three-eyed creature, conventionally “alien,” with tears of blood coming through the eyes. Whoever she is, she has her eyes on the prize. It’s a really impressive album of sophisticated synth pop, though strangely, Grimes now regrets it. In April 2019, she told Stereogum, which had named it its No. 1 album of 2015, “a piece of crap…a stain.” What she meant was, it was a pop record, which I think means she was experimenting with pop, and it came off more pop than experiment: “a genre exercise,” as she puts it. Note that “genre exercise” is a phrase used almost exclusively by rock and pop critics, when a band explores a singular style, or reverts to an earlier one: the Rolling Stones blues album Blue and Lonesome could be “a genre exercise”; the Byrds’ country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo was not a genre exercise, since it solidified a new genre: country-rock. I nevertheless see Art Angels as a “seminal album” (Quotes or air quotes mine to indicate that this too is a pop critic cliché best avoided). What I want to say is that it is a transitional album, still anchored in dance pop but displaying her powerful multi-octave range, contrasts not often heard in clubs: check out “California” with heavy bass and drums and ethereality, and a sort of rebellious vision, as if Mariah Carey had Laurie Anderson’s irony and IQ. But maybe calling a song “California” is too obvious for Grimes. And “Kill v. Maim” has a relentless intensity that may be, in retrospect, a genre-exercise in 1990s Madonna. The video, as always, is great, created by Grimes and her talented brother Mac Boucher. It takes place in the ruins of an abandoned or just filthy subway station, with plenty of women menacing women wearing fishnet everywhere. (Grimes is wearing a VERSACE sweatshirt). Our current pandemic fears are anticipated by many wearing protective medical masks, and at the end of this otherwise typical zombie apocalypse are the words: YOU DIED.

9. Back to the new album. Among other necessary songs are “My Name is Dark,” an electro-rocking “Sympathy for the Devil” featuring computer swooshes rather than electric guitars, and “4 AEM,” an elegant hymn to loneliness and desire.

10. To the degree that the “Delete Forever” video reminds you of Katy Perry, be aware that Grimes is conscious of the thin line between imitation and the sui generis for which she strives. She is in on the joke.

 

11. There are two video versions of “Idoru,” the “slightly longer version” (almost seven minutes) and the “slightly shorter version” at 5 minutes 19 seconds. The videos have an Asian motif long loved by Grimes (see “Realiti” from 2015). “Idoru” is a Japanese word that resembles “idol,” but it refers to a specifically Japanese kind of teen idol. According to the Rice University neologisms database, an Idoru is a “young pampered female Japanese pop icon,” especially a manufactured one. In other words, an idoru is sort of like a solo woman artist version of the boy bands so popular in Japan and Korea, although young girl and mixed groups are becoming increasingly popular in K-pop. It is also noteworthy that Idoru is also the name of the second book of novelist William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy “Bridge Trilogy.”

 

12. All resemblances to Gibson’s book are intentional. In the video (maybe just the shorter version) Grimes is seen holding a copy, that is dedicated to her (“Claire”). One of the characters in Gibson’s book is a virtual reality superstar idolized in Japan named Rei Toei. Oh, and both Gibson and Grimes live in Vancouver.

13. In the “Idoru” video flower petals (cherry blossoms? Or giant pollen clusters) drift down. Grimes is wearing a vintage wedding dress, wielding a sword with a white flag attached. Her plentiful make up is applied asymmetrically: big ball of rouge on one cheek, smaller, off-color rouge on the other. Her fingernails are like talons. The pigtails she wears are rooted so high on her head that she is essentially bald at the top of her head. During the video, according to the online webzine Fact, there are also scenes from a 1990s anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, as well as references to a futuristic dystopian videogame, NieR: Automata.

14. The melody is gorgeous; the lyrics, sincerely moving. The singing, magnificent. She has a warmth that is lacking in say, Bjork, whose art pop is a natural point of reference. (Except those who find Bjork tedious might revel in Grimes.) Her musical ambitions and abilities are more Lady Gaga than Lana Del Rey, more cyberpunk Streisand than android Mariah Carey. With her musical, video and VR skills, and a limitless budget for her imagination, there’s no stopping her. My old school fortune teller sees her headlining the Super Bowl halftime show in 2025, if not sooner, in person, in 3D, or as her own hologram that will appear directly in your living room.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Caitlyn Ridenour.

I never thought I’d have to write a piece like this. Well, none of us can keep our heads in the sand, comforting as that may be at times.

This also may seem like a trivial consideration compared to what’s happening to the world at large, but on the other hand, the subject is a microcosm of the bigger picture. How is the coronavirus going to impact the world of audio? Specifically, audio shows?

I’m no epidemiologist, so whatever is expressed here should be viewed as something resembling (hopefully) reasoned speculation and philosophizing.

On the other hand, we have plenty of facts to deal with. The Munich High End show has been canceled. AXPONA has been postponed until August. The people behind Montreal Audiofest have announced they’ll make a decision whether to postpone or cancel by the end of the month, but the show will not be happening this March. A state of national emergency has been declared in the US.

Certainly, cancelling or postponing these shows is prudent. For decades people in the audio and music industries have been joking about the “CES Flu” and “NAMMthrax.” These jokes wouldn’t be made if they weren’t based in reality. And in fact every year some attendees get sick after these shows (including me, and a number of industry friends, after CES 2020). But with the specter of coronavirus in the air the risk factor is obviously much higher.

Not to downplay this very serious consideration, but there are other challenges involved in putting on and attending audio shows. It’s often difficult for the exhibitors to get good sound, let alone show off their gear at its best. The rooms may be deficient acoustically, with some speakers being too large for the space they’re in. The combination of equipment may not be synergistic. (I’ve mentioned this before – sometimes manufacturers co-exhibit to save money, and may not even have tried their equipment in combination before. It’s a big gamble.) The AC power might be sub-optimal.

It costs a lot of money for exhibitors to ship their gear, travel, staff their rooms and deal with other expenses, and many shows aren’t free for attendees either. Sometimes the rooms get so crowded that show-goers can’t get a good listening seat, or even get into a room. Hotel logistics can be challenging, with big distances between rooms, or rooms too close together and intruding on each other sonically, to say nothing of crowded (or broken) elevators or lack of parking in some venues.

So, why bother? Because we need these shows. And they offer a number of tremendous advantages. Nowhere else can attendees, journalists and reviewers get to see and hear hundreds of audio components under one roof. Of every variety – analog, digital, tubes, solid state, affordable setups, cost-no-object ultimate-statement systems and literally everything in between. Show-goers have the opportunity to meet the designers and the people behind the products. We in the industry have a chance to meet our friends in the industry and kibitz with them – in fact, for many of us these shows are the only times we get to see our friends in the business.

A less uplifting reality is that, with the diminishing amount of specialty audio dealers, audio shows are becoming the only place where someone can personally experience a large amount of audio gear at a single location. (See our Issue 105 Industry Viewpoint: Are Audio Dealers in Trouble?) If this trend continues, audio shows will continue to grow in importance.

But there’s another, perhaps more fundamental consideration. As editor of Copper, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is: is writing about music and audio trivial considering we’re in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic right now?

Part of me thinks, yes, compared to the very serious issues we’re now facing.

But the bigger part thinks, no, absolutely not.

Music is vitally important. It’s a fundamental aspect of humanity. Look at the evidence that history provides – or sit down and listen to a favorite song. We need music. And I think we need it more when times are tough than when we’re cruising along. Music provides joy, solace, pleasure, excitement, an emotional connection with our lives and those of others.

Therefore, so do audio systems. And the better the system, the better the music can be heard, and its emotional meaning conveyed. (The fact that music can be listened to at home, and can be a great comfort or even a welcome distraction for those who may be isolated during the current outbreak, hasn’t been lost on some of us.)

Since I’m not a doctor or a soothsayer, I can’t predict when the current crisis will peak and then diminish. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that it will, and when it does, we’ll be out and about again, if perhaps a little more apprehensively than before. Humans are resilient. Normalcy will return, if perhaps a little more tempered than before. When it does, so will the audio shows, and we’ll need them more than ever.

Rich Isaacs had a great idea in Issue 107 of Copper (“Complete Recovery: Unusual Takes on Others’ Songs”). It made me realize that I have many cover versions among my collection of albums and 12-inch singles that are cool, curious, noteworthy or sometimes, just a lot of fun.  As with Mr. Isaacs’ picks, mine tend to be quite a change-up from the originals. An interesting point – I often heard the cover versions first, long before discovering the originals, so to me, the originals sometimes seem like the cover versions. Here are some of my own favorites I have returned to, time and again:

BR5-49 – “Real Wild Child” aka “Wild One” (original artist: Johnny O’Keefe)

Australian rocker Johnny O’Keefe wrote and recorded this tune in 1958 as “Wild One.” Decades later, two different cover versions (among many) stood out. Iggy Pop’s is perhaps the best-known cover version out there and changes it up with a dose of punk attitude. Not to be outdone, in 1998 the legendary Nashville retro-country band BR5-49 recorded it on their Big Backyard Beat Show album in yet another totally different, countrified arrangement. Not surprising, however, as BR5-49 at that time had hundreds of cover tunes in their repertoire, from their many long nights playing at Robert’s Western World in the Lower Broadway district of Nashville. While no longer a performing unit, co-leaders Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett work on other musical projects these days. Multi-instrumentalist Don Herron has toured with Bob Dylan and others. And “Smilin’” Jay McDowell is now a curator at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

 

Isaac Hayes – “Don’t Let Go” (Roy Hamilton)

In the late 1970s, Isaac Hayes had a minor career reboot with a handful of new albums when he moved to the Polydor label. There are many highlights during this era (including some downtempo tunes that would give smooth soul crooner Barry White a run for his money), but my up-tempo favorite is his complete 1979 retooling of the jaunty Roy Hamilton hit “Don’t Let Go” as a dance floor workout. The Isaac Hayes version is a full-on remake complete with snappy horn and string arrangements for flavor, and a pulsating four-to-the-floor beat.

 

Jools Holland – “Mess Around” (Ray Charles)

A few decades ago, prior to being an original member of Squeeze and hosting the popular Later…with Jools Holland music program in the UK, Jools Holland was a young lad banging out boogie woogie on the ivories and recording a fantastic little EP called Boogie Woogie ’78. Assisted by Squeeze guitarist Glen Tilbrook, Jools gives his take on a tune that Ray Charles performed early in his career, penned by none other than A. Nugetre (the infamous pseudonym of Ahmet Ertegun). A rollicking good time! Squeeze (with Holland on keys) would also perform this tune in concert (appearing on the deluxe 2-CD version of their Argybargy album).

 

Oingo Boingo – “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks)

Van Halen waxed a very respectable version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” a highlight of their brilliant debut album, giving it a solid boost of hard rock goodness. Danny Elfman and his merry band of mystic knights in Oingo Boingo twisted this tune around completely in 1981, delivering a horn-powered new wave rocker that closed side one of their first full-length A&M album, Only A Lad. Their version features Steve Bartek’s blistering guitar fills, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez’s thundering drum kit, and the horn section punctuating the lines behind Elfman’s vocal hiccups. With Boingo mothballed permanently, Elfman enjoys a career as a prolific film score composer, with Bartek as his orchestrator.

 

Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – “A Taste of Honey” (Bobby Scott)

This tune started out as a tune written to accompany a Broadway play of the same title in 1960.  Originally a shmaltzy waltz, Herbie changed it up, propelling legendary session musicians the Wrecking Crew with his four-beat shuffle arrangement that turned the tune around into something new, becoming a major breakthrough in his long career. Originally the B-side of a rocked-out version of “The Third Man Theme” (which would appear on a later album), “A Taste of Honey” got all the attention and became a hit record that peaked at #7 on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy in 1965 for Record of the Year. And besides that, it also appeared on the album with one of the most infamous album covers of the 1960s. It seemed that everyone’s dad owned a copy of Whipped Cream & Other Delights. Yours truly grew up with this album in the house, not quite understanding the sultry look and whipped cream (actually shaving cream) that model Dolores Erickson sported so well on the cover; at the ripe old age of three, that’s understandable!

 

The Mavericks – “Hungry Heart” (Bruce Springsteen)

Imagine a jangly rock tune redone in a lazy shuffle with a taste of twangy Duane Eddy-inspired guitar and percolating brass on the back beat, anchored by Raul Malo’s crystal clear vocal, and you’ve got the Mavericks’ twist on this familiar tune. As with many Mavericks tunes, one can’t pin a specific genre on their music, a mix of styles combining their early roots in country with rock, Tejano, pop and Cuban influences. The album this tune is from, Play the Hits, is an all-covers album from 2019 showcasing songs that influenced them throughout their careers, and each one is a treat – one of my musical highlights from last year.

 

Matt Bianco – “Yeh Yeh” (Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames)

Popular in the UK, I didn’t hear about the band Matt Bianco until after I had discovered Basia’s first two albums. In 1984 she and pianist/collaborator Danny White had performed on the Matt Bianco album Whose Side Are You On? (with the notable hit “Get Out of Your Lazy Bed” and the Basia feature “Half A Minute”) prior to both leaving the group and starting Basia’s solo recording career. After that album, Mark Reilly (Matt Bianco’s leader) restructured the group with the addition of Mark Fisher, and this configuration’s first hit single was “Yeh Yeh,” a rhythmic pop update of Georgie Fame’s smooth, swinging organ-driven original. Why “Matt Bianco?” The band, being fans of spy film scores and TV themes, wanted a name reminiscent of a spy or secret agent. Danny White is the brother of smooth jazz guitarist Peter White, who made a name for himself recording and touring with Al Stewart, as well as performing with Basia on record and in concert.

 

Devo – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones)

Perhaps the most upended tune in this entire list must be this version of a Rolling Stones classic that Mark Mothersbaugh and crew whipped (sorry) into a strangely and uniquely Devo-ish arrangement that makes it practically a new tune. New Wave was all the rage in my high school days, and this 1978 track was one of many tunes that shook our basement parties into a pogo-ing frenzy. I still have that loud neon green t-shirt somewhere, I’m sure. (Important safety tip—the pogo is very hard on calf muscles.) Like Danny Elfman, Mothersbaugh has gone on to score many films and television shows.

 

Pseudo Echo – “Funkytown” (Lipps, Inc.)

Australian synth-rockers Pseudo Echo gave a very 1980s take on this 1979 chart-topping funk/disco classic. The band managed to nudge their version up to No. 6 on the Billboard charts, whereas the Lipps, Inc. version spent four weeks at No. 1. Interesting side note – Lipps, Inc.’s lead vocalist Cynthia Johnson previously sang in a group called Flyte Tyme, which featured future members of The Time (Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir were all Flyte Time alums). Pseudo Echo’s run of hits ended in the 1980s, but they are still recording and performing sporadically despite a fluctuating line-up throughout the years.

 

The Cramps – “She Said” (Hasil Adkins)

The Cramps were no strangers to obscure 45s as a source of inspiration, and this one is no exception. This time, they reached way back into obscurity with their rough updating of Hasil Adkins’ eccentric “She Said,” perhaps just a little more coherently than Adkins’ original. What better way to end this list than with “a dying can of that commodity meat,” and a tune that mostly likely nobody else has ever covered.

Hum has no place in an audio system. It’s often caused by improper grounding. When I worked at The Absolute Sound from around the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, eliminating unwanted hum was a constant struggle. (Well, one of many constant struggles but I digress…)

Since the TAS systems were (mixed metaphor alert) audio magnifying glasses, such noise could be anywhere from annoying to maddening. And with editor in chief Harry Pearson in the listening chair I had to do everything I could to make sure it wasn’t present. Anything and everything…

A major cause of ground hum is a ground loop. This can occur when an audio system is connected to ground at more than one point, such as when the various components in a system have their AC power cords plugged into outlets in multiple locations. It can also happen because the components have their grounds connected via their audio interconnects; for example, the interconnects between a preamp and power amp.

So, when I would get ground hum, the first thing I would try to do was to break the ground loop. Sometimes I got lucky and could just happily plug everything in…preamps, phono stages, monoblock amps, turntables, CD players, at times electrostatic speakers all at once…and the system would be noise-free. Other times…hum hum hum, aarrgghh!

Here’s the disclaimer portion of the program: I am not a licensed electrician. I’m NOT recommending ANY of these procedures and will not be held responsible if you try any of them.

My standard first step for eliminating hum would be to use a “cheater plug,” one of those 3-prong to 2-prong adapters. Back in the day we thought nothing of it; today, as Wikipedia so eloquently states, “this practice has been condemned as disregarding electrical safety.” In fact, they’re illegal in Canada and other areas.

Your cheatin’ part: the author’s stash of 3-prong to 2-prong adapters.

You’re supposed to use a cheater plug as an adapter for plugging three-prong AC plugs into old “grandfathered” two-prong outlets. You’re supposed to connect the grounding tab of the cheater to an electrical ground, such as the screw that connects the wall plate to the outlet. But I wanted to break ground loops! So, I never did that. In fact, sometimes I’d use multiple cheater plugs, since some audiophile sages had decreed that a system would sound its best if it was only grounded via one 3-prong AC cord, with all other cords floated.

Not only that, but received wisdom at the time was that you should try the cheater plug oriented both right side up and upside down to see which way sounded better.

I would start by taking a voltmeter and touching one probe to the chassis of a component, or a grounding post on, say, a preamp and sticking the other probe into the grounding hole of the wall outlet. I’d have to poke around to make contact with the metal in the hole. (Somehow, I never got shocked.) Then I’d note the AC volts reading on the meter. It would usually be close to either 120 or zero volts. If the latter, fine. If the former, flip the plug! Sometimes I’d have to go into plumbers-butt contortions to hold both probes and look at the meter.

I would then flip each plug for each component and listen to see if the sound improved. (Hours of agony but I had to maintain what we strived to create as the Best System on Earth.) Sometimes it did. So, the cheater plug would stay upside down.

I had a bunch of cheater plugs, including the now-discontinued type with a grounding wire rather than a metal tab for even more hazardous adventure. But, some of them had a bigger prong on one side to assure they’d be properly oriented when plugged in the “right” way. If I had to use them upside down I’d file the bigger prong down. Safety second!

Some audiophile power cords are big and heavy. And if you used a cheater plug with them, they’d tend to want to fall out of the outlet. As a result, before every listening session I’d check to see if the cords were loose. Yes, there was a time when I actually did this.

Ground loop diagram. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Chetvomo.

But sometimes even all of that didn’t work.

And I had to get the systems up and running for El Exigente. So, more rule breaking.

This usually involved taking lengths of wire and connecting them to the metal parts of the different audio components in a system, sometimes running them in what I pathetically hoped would be a “star” grounding configuration, where all the grounds in a system went to a central point (hence the “star” appellation), sometimes festively stringing wires between them in daisy chains. Or, running wires from the components to the ground screw or grounding hole on a wall outlet, usually by shoving one end of the wire into the hole. (Wish I had pictures!)

Sometimes I’d have to wedge the wires between, say, a top cover and a chassis. Fun when taking apart a $5,000 preamp. I can proudly boast that I resisted the temptation to scrape paint and anodizing off a component in order to make a good electrical connection. More than once, a faceplate would provide the best ground so I’d tape a wire to it. (I was careful to use only scotch tape, since I didn’t want to return a component to a manufacturer and have them wonder why it had tape marks on the faceplate. Unlike the time we returned a speaker with hand truck marks across the front, but that’s another story.)

Turntables could be especially problematic. Many times I had to ground the turntable to something other than the grounding screw on the preamp – you know, what you’re supposed to do. Sometimes I could eliminate the hum by not connecting a grounding wire, or connecting two wires to two different places. A few times I tried floating the entire system – in other words, not connecting anything to the third prongs in the wall outlets. This worked at times but even my younger and dumber former self would never leave a system like this.

It was all strictly trial and error – turn everything on and start poking around until the hum went away.

But there were a couple of times when I had to go from desperation to the Bizarro World. (Also known as Htrae, which is “Earth,” another term for “ground,” spelled backwards.)

One hot summer day I was trying all my tricks and nothing was working. I figured, screw it, maybe Harry won’t notice the hum and went to put a CD into the Spectral CD player in the system at the time.

The hum disappeared. Whaaa? I stepped back to look at the system and the hum returned. Haaaah? Sighing, I pushed the button to eject the CD and the hum disappeared. What the #*$%!?

Then I realized that when I had my hand on the CD player the hum stopped.

I was eliminating the hum by touching the CD player.

I called Harry down for our listening/testing session. I told him what was going on. He asked, “are you actually going to kneel there and keep your hand on top of the CD player the whole time we listen?” Having just gone through hours of troubleshooting while he was impatiently waiting, my answer was yes.

I learned something that day – if you hold your hand on a CD player for more than 10 minutes without daring to lift it off, it gets really uncomfortable. And since it was a hot day, after a while my hand started to sweat. As it did, the hum went down from faint to nonexistent. I became a better conductor as my hand got sweatier!

Then there was another time and another setup where I simply could not get the hum out of the turntable no matter what I tried. I built a spider-on-LSD web of wires connecting all the components. I disconnected every ground wire. I prayed to every deity I could think of. Finally, in a fit of anger I flung the turntable’s ground wire onto the carpeted floor.

The hum disappeared.

You’ve got to be kidding me. This isn’t possible.

I lifted the wire from the floor. The hum returned. I put the wire back onto the thick red carpet. (Harry was stylin’ in those days!) The hum disappeared. Carpet is supposed to be non-conductive.

I’m losing my mind. But in the interest of science, I started poking the end of the wire at various locations on the carpet. After a couple of minutes I found the spot where the hum was reduced the most.

Well, since I wanted to be professional about it, I soldered an alligator clip onto the end of the wire and clipped it to the carpet. Then I called Harry down to listen.

Of course, the first thing he spotted was the wire attached to the carpet. “What the heck is that?” I explained that it was the only way I could get the hum out of the system. I wish I’d had a camera to capture his look of utter disbelief. “Look, I’ll show you,” I said, and removed the clip…hummmm…

Partly to ensure that I wasn’t going mad, I conducted this demonstration for a number of guests over the next few weeks. They were as incredulous as I was. To this day, I have no explanation.

 

Postscript:

Today, I find grounding to be less of an issue, maybe because audio components are better. And I didn’t know what isolation transformers were (well duhhhh, but in my defense there weren’t many back then, and who knows what effect they might have had on the sound). Also, Harry was skeptical of power conditioners, which might have helped, and I don’t know if any power regenerators or battery-power systems existed at the time.

It’s New Year’s Eve in the mid-seventies. It’s after the gig, not yet midnight, and I’m driving the group back to the hotel in a Hertz rental car. The Dayton airport Hyatt isn’t the most upscale hotel, but it’s not a dive either. Besides, the band has a flight to Baltimore tomorrow, January 1, so it is convenient.

The band are the British rockers Wishbone Ash and so far the tour is going well. They are headliners playing coliseums and the band is tight, and they are really cooking. Their albums are big sellers: Wishbone Ash, released in 1970. Then came Pilgrimage (1971), followed by Argus (1972), Wishbone Four (1973), There’s the Rub (1974) and New England in 1976. They are noted for their use of twin lead guitars playing in harmony (like Dickey and Duane in the Allman Brothers) with a mixture of hard rock, blues and other influences to create a unique progressive rock sound. Iron Maiden, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy and Metallica have cited Wishbone Ash as an influence.

Wishbone Ash in 1976. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The other band on the tour, Wishbone’s opening act, is Eric Burdon and War. War is a mostly black fusion funk group with a smooth rhythmic sound. The only other white guy in the group besides Burdon is harmonica player Lee Oskar, and he’s not American, he’s from Europe. Lee’s wailing harmonica playing and especially his soloing fits beautifully with War’s funk/rock/Latin sound. Another unusual addition to War is the conga/percussion player, an older guy, Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen. He had played and toured with Lenny Bruce. For Lenny, Papa Dee was punctuation, Bada Boom.

This is before War had their own breakout hit records and went out on their own without Burdon. When War did go on tour as headliners. They had a string of hit singles and successful albums, with hits like “Cisco Kid,” “Low Rider,” “Me and Baby Brother,” “Why Can’t We be Friends” and the smash, “The World Is a Ghetto.”

After dropping my coat on the bed and hiding nearly $8,000 in cash in my room, I hit the hotel’s hallway looking for the party. Everyone, including road crew from both bands, has rooms on the first floor. For this night I booked 17 rooms and because of that bulk booking, I was able to negotiate the free use of a meeting room for our New Year’s Eve party.

I walk into the meeting room. Eric is there and he kind of knows me from six years earlier when we were neighbors in Laurel Canyon. Back then Eric was always on tour with the Animals and I hardly ever saw him. The Animals (later, Eric Burdon and the Animals) were part of the 1960s British Invasion and they had hits, boy did they have hits. “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Help Me Girl,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (written by Randy Newman and much superior to Three Dog Night’s later version), San Franciscan Nights,” “Sky Pilot” “When I Was Young” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and those are just some of them.

Eric Burdon in 1973.

 

As I enter the big meeting room Eric walks over to me and, while wishing me a Happy New Year, hands me a Quaalude. Eric Burdon and War had joined the tour as Wishbone’s opening act just after Christmas, and what a week it’s been. Just one example:

A few days previously we were playing Dothan, Alabama. The morning after the gig both groups are at the Dothan airport. All of us are walking across the tarmac to the Piedmont Airlines plane. As we’re walking to the boarding steps we pass two Alabama state troopers leaning against their patrol car. They’re both big men, six foot six and around 250 pounds, in their twenties and athletically built, probably former college ballplayers.

As we walk by them one of them says, “nice show last night, Eric!” Then he shouts out a slur against some of the band members. Eric gives them the finger and says “screw you.” Although both the troopers laughed, I won’t lie; considering the time and the place I was more than a little unnerved by this.

Everyone boards the plane and Eric is wired up from this exchange. It doesn’t help that he is so drunk and belligerent that he won’t take his seat. The pilot calls the tower, the tower calls the cops and don’t you know it, those same two state troopers board the plane. One cop grabs Eric by his armpits and the other grabs his legs behind his knees, and the two of them carry Eric cussing and fussing off the plane, which takes off without him.

Forward to 7:30 that night and I’m backstage at the Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both bands have done their sound checks and Eric is still nowhere in sight. (Remember, this was in the days before cell phones.) This is a real problem.

Eric and the band are due on stage at 8:00 sharp to open the show. They get 50 minutes including encore. After that, there are 10 minutes to get the opener’s equipment off stage. Then Wishbone Ash hits the stage at 9:00 and plays for 90 minutes. Their set is followed by three encores, finishing up just before 11:00.

They have to be done before 11:00 because all arenas in America are union halls. If they play one second past 11:00 it’s overtime, and that becomes an unexpected cost to the promoter. In fact, it would cost the promoter a lot of money. If that happens, word gets around to other promoters, and it affects a band’s bookings. Bands are warned about that, so it rarely happens.

Where the f**k is Eric? I’m worried, and I’m not ready to even consider that War could play without Eric. Would that even work? (Within a year I got my answer, but at the time, Eric was the star of the show.) I do not have a good Plan B.

Not sure of my options, I open my briefcase and pull out my Rand McNally map. I see that Dothan, Alabama is 660 miles south of Cincinnati. I don’t know how Eric is getting to Cincinnati or if it’s even possible. For all, I know his butt could be sitting in jail.

At 7:55 a station wagon speeds down the Coliseum’s loading ramp and screeches to a stop just thirty feet from the stage. Behind the wheel is Eric’s road manager, Big Jim Grant.

Eric is inside lying flat on his back. He pushes himself up to a sitting position, and, holding on to the door, climbs out the back of the station wagon. He’s still drunk as a lord. Eric steadies himself against the side of the vehicle and then lurches over to the stage steps, holding onto the handrail. War comes filing out of their dressing room and joins him. Together they climb up the stairs onto the stage.

Eric says “Hello!” to the audience and vaguely mumbles that he had a big adventure getting to Cincinnati. They launch into “Spill the Wine.” They hit it full tilt. They’re kicking ass! This is the same guy who could barely get out of a car five minutes ago. They follow it by “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” The place is going nuts. It’s one of those fantastic rock and roll moments.

Spying Big Jim Grant across the room, I walk over. Smiling, the big guy turns towards me and I ask, “how the hell did you make it to Cincinnati on time?”

He tells me that the troopers didn’t arrest Eric. In fact, once they got him back to the terminal, they laughed, helped him stand up and told him he was free to go. “They even gave me directions,” said Jim.

It seems they were at the concert the night before, moonlighting in uniform as concert security. They really liked Eric’s music and thought he was cool. So, they cut him some slack even though he was roaring drunk at 7:15 in the morning. But, hey he’s a legend and English and most important, he is a Rock Star.

Barreling out of the airport, Jim took local roads north to Birmingham, then got on the interstate I-65 north to Louisville ,switching to I-71 Northeast straight into Cincinnati. Hauling ass and stopping just once just south of the Tennessee state line to get gas, pee, grab a bite to go and oh yeah, buy a bottle of Southern Comfort. Eric, Jim says, is all stretched out laying there like he’s dead in a poor man’s hearse. Well, actually he’s drinking and falling asleep, then waking up and drinking again. Jim says this cycle happened at least three times.

Feeling the pressure of getting to the gig with the clock ticking it must have been some sight. Big Jim speeding through the Deep South with a drunk Englishman lying semi-conscious in the back of a rented Avis station wagon. Insanity. By the grace of the rock and roll gods, they somehow breezed through.

By today’s standards our behavior would not cut it, but back then it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. The causality rate was high, but that was the life we embraced. Like soldiers in combat, no matter what the obstacle, we get the job done.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA.

The audio industry lost one of its greatest with the passing of Stereophile Deputy Editor Art Dudley on April 14, 2020 from metastatic cancer. I’m having a tough time writing this because I got to know him well over the decades and because he was one of the finest people I’ve ever met.

Art was an exceptional writer. His reviews were thoughtful, insightful, laced with humor and attitude and could have been written by no one else. (He once said that too many audio reviews read like they were generated by a software program; just insert the model number, specs and price and presto, instant audio review. You could never accuse Art of that.)

He was opinionated. He thought New York State wines were lousy, and liked low-watt tube amps, vintage Altec loudspeakers, and rebuilding old Garrard idler-wheel turntables, among many other things. He did not suffer fools all that gladly, but was also self-deprecating, often hilariously so. In the March 2020 Stereophile he wrote: “…domestic audio has attracted an almost incalculable number of iconoclasts, heretics, mavericks, nonconformists, lone wolves, enfants terrible, and hidebound kooks. Because the above are among my favorite people, I don’t have much of a problem with that state of affairs.”

He prized audio components that were beautifully crafted and could convey the life, drive and humanity of the music, and was unimpressed by those that couldn’t. In the middle of one review a few years ago, where he was exasperated with the component’s performance, he simply concluded a paragraph with, “Jesus wept.”

Art was an accomplished guitar player, as I found out when I got to play with him at a party at fellow Stereophile writer and friend Bob Reina’s summer house in Mattituck, NY. (The late Reina has never gotten the tribute he deserves and that will be remedied in a future issue.) Like anything Art did, he would talk about guitars, bluegrass and other loves with enthusiasm and the often obsessive detail so characteristic of people who are really into it. He wrote wonderful pieces for Fretboard Journal.

Gigging with the Mountebank Brothers. Photo courtesy of Tripp Swart/Facebook.

Art Dudley started in audio in 1985 as managing editor of The Absolute Sound, where I first had contact with him as I was trying to worm my way onto the staff. I sent him “audition” pieces and once, a photograph of two vintage 1965 and 1967 Fender Stratocasters I had owned. That got a response from him! We got to know each other and I was struck by his honesty, straightforwardness and intelligence. After Art quit TAS to start the excellent audio magazine Listener, when I asked him why he left, he said with typical candor, “because I got tired of the bullsh*t.” (That was around the time I started at TAS. But Art wasn’t about to sugar-coat anything for me.)

Art eventually sold Listener to Belvoir Publications, who sadly closed the magazine’s doors in 2002. He also wrote for Hi-Fi Heretic and Sounds Like… (ah, memories…) and in 2003, began writing for Stereophile, becoming one of its most beloved contributors and eventually, its Deputy Editor.

I ran into him dozens of times at shows and industry events. He was always well dressed, always wearing a sports jacket even if said jacket was a year or ten out of style. (But that’s kind of a thing in the industry anyway. Victor Goldstein and some others excepted!) Since Art was something of a celebrity in said industry he would always be accosted by people at shows, many times by audiophiles asking for advice. Art would always spend time with them and be kind and gracious, even if he was clearly late for an appointment or if the person he was talking to was obnoxious. I know he loathed being asked things like, “what’s the best speaker for under $1,000?” But he always answered with a smile, even though I knew that for him it was the equivalent of plantar fasciitis.

A few other examples of the kind of guy he was: when I once told him I had friends in upstate New York and visited them regularly, he told me he lived on the way and that I’d be welcome to stop by his house any time and even jam with his band if they were playing a gig. Every time I’d run into him at a show I’d say I’d come visit him, never did, and it got to the point where, on one of the last times that I saw him I sheepishly greeted him with, “I know, I know, I’m going to stop saying I’m going to come visit because I never do it.” He smiled and said something like, “no problem; I know we’re all busy but any time you want to visit our door is open.”

About 20 years ago I was looking for a vintage-correct pickguard for my 1969 Telecaster (the original having been lost to the ravages of rock and roll). I responded to an ad in Vintage Guitar magazine. The guy who answered the phone was feeling me out. When we got to the point where we were discussing payment terms he said, “you sound like a decent and trustworthy guy; just send me a check. Where do you live?” When I told him on Long Island, he said, “wait a minute…your voice sounds familiar…Frank?” Then it hit me. “Art? Oh man, how have you been? It’s been years!” We then spent the next few minutes apologizing, embarrassed and laughing that that neither one of us realized who the other was at first. We both knew that a 1969 Telecaster pickguard should have a mother-of-pearl-looking backing – but didn’t recognize each other’s voices.

We loved to talk about music, especially since we shared many contrarian opinions about what was good and bad. (I wish I had tapes of our conversations where we would skewer some of the typical audiophile show demo tracks.) Art knew I was a serious Blue Öyster Cult fan and when I ran into him a couple of New York shows ago, he brought up the fact that the band’s Secret Treaties album was his favorite. We then proceeded to have a song-by-song rave session about the album right in the middle of the hallway, to the bemusement of those around us and ignoring everything else we were supposed to be doing. Art’s favorite song on the album was “ME 262.” (Yep, the same guy who loved Mahler and Monroe dug the Öyster Boys’ hard rock.) A couple of years later he told me he finally got to see BÖC live, that they had played it and that he was thrilled. From now on I’ll never be able to play the song without thinking of you, Art.

I think Art would appreciate this last anecdote.

On April 14 I got my copy of Stereophile in the mail. As usual, I immediately opened to Art’s column. (No offense, Michael, Kal, Jason and the rest of you!) I read it, laughed yet again about something he wrote, and then to finish my lunch break looked at Facebook. The first thing I saw was Art’s obituary. Right after I finished reading his words and smiling at them, I saw the news about his passing.

I’d like to think that he was up there somewhere smiling at the bittersweet irony.

We will miss you Art. More than I can express here.

From Art’s Facebook page.

Header image of Art Dudley courtesy of Stereophile.

Way back in 1976 I was on the air in Montreal radio. I got a call out of the blue from a man who wanted to meet regarding using my voice for his project. The project was for a new Canadian men’s magazine like Hustler. He was a photographer of…those…shots in Penthouse.

The idea was to make a classy men’s magazine which would have the same content inside but with different covers for the different cities where it would be published. The voiceover job would be to record updates of things happening in each city on each representative phone number, which would be promoted in the magazines.

I wasn’t ever sure why I was hired. Yes, I did get to see some never-published pictures. For each photograph printed, there were many others that weren’t.

I would simply record my voiceovers on answering machines, which would just play my recorded material when people called. Each recording was about two to three minutes long and if I stumbled, had to be redone from the beginning.  Good training to get it right the first time!

After that I was hired to be the English announcer for a TV spot which was originally done in French. In those years, the population of Montreal was about 65 percent mother-tongue French. They played me the other announcer. I didn’t remotely come close. They politely asked me to leave.

Rejection is a constant theme in the wonderful world of voiceovers. Getting the gig is the job. Doing the gig is relatively easy in comparison.

I had about six years of personality radio under my belt, so I wasn’t a novice. One day while I was working at CJFM another of the on-air personalities told me I was doing commercials all wrong, using too much emphasis on too many words. He was a sought-after voice talent, so I took his advice to heart. It helped, going forward. We had also hired a well-regarded newsman from our AM sister station to introduce a special we were producing and would eventually air in whole or part in 30 countries. Watching him work, he first sat in the chair before the microphone, visibly slumped, and took several deep breaths before starting. Fully relaxed himself. Then, magic.

Recording a voiceover. Photo courtesy of Audio-Technica.

Voice work is about control of your voice, your mind, your ego, your body. It’s both physical and mental.

Shortly after that I moved to become program director of WBEN-AM/FM in Buffalo. The AM station was very much full service, the FM station automated Top 40. Both stations were big and successful, and I had three production people working for me full time as there were that many commercials to do. I recorded overnight PSAs (public service announcements) for the FM station, I imaged the AM (“Imaging” means building the image of something through the script and delivery), doing all the promos, and ad agencies also regularly called to hire me to do spots for them.

The TV station in our building, which at one time was owned by the same company that owned the radio station but had gone off on its own, hired me to be its voice too. I even recorded a promo for a theater chain that ran before the movies were shown.

My voice was everywhere. It was surreal.  This amount of work was also a great training ground. I did thousands of commercials – sometimes as an announcer, sometimes as an actor. Our two copywriters at the station wrote some very creative and funny material and those multi-character spots were fun to do. I learned timing and acting. I also learned how to use subtlety in delivering the performance of a script.

One of the best directors I’ve run across in years of voice acting knew how to best handle talent to coax the best “read” out of them. After every take, he’d exclaim, “GREAT, Doc!“ (He called me “Doc” – he may have called everybody “Doc.” ) “Now let’s get another one. This time…” Every take got a seemingly sincere response which always started, “GREAT!” His secret was in lowering stress, increasing confidence of the voice actor – in this case, me. Performers seek praise. Be effusive when you hire one. You’ll get a better read.

Onward to San Diego

I was doing a multi-voice spot. Mother, daughter, announcer (me). Mother played by a woman from LA circles.

She had been a network voice for ABC I think. This was to be an interesting gig as the “daughter” wasn’t a professional…but the ad agency thought she’d be great. She choked.

(Can’t say I blame her – there were three people in the voice over booth with her, another group from the ad agency on the other side of the glass, and the producer in the room as well.) The session devolved to “say it like this” line-by-line readings. But the woman from LA – wow! She nailed her part. Then the director asked if she could do it but sound five years older! And she did and honestly, you could hear her aging. I can’t explain it. Then he asked if she could go five more years, and she did!

Making it look easy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/SAMHSA.

 

The Flying Burrito, Brothers!

I had done my read for whatever the product was. Usually you read and go, but I was friends with the studio owner and stayed behind. The script called for the sound of a thrown burrito splatting its target. That’s not in any sound effect libraries. I suggested twirling a microphone cable above the microphone for the throw, then, believe it or not, the sound of a half open magazine flopping closed for the splatter. IT WORKED.

Many years later, in a session in LA that was done for a bank, we did take one, then got some directions, then take two. The client darn near shouted to me, “How did you do that?” I said, “That’s what you said you wanted.” He was really happy. So was I. If you hire someone for voice work, don’t be shy – if you can be clear, I bet he or she can do what you want.

Doing a voiceover tag (the information at the end of a commercial). It’s not as simple as it may seem. The reason being, the context prior to the tag will determine which approach works best. For example, if the commercial has a sensitive tone, you wouldn’t want the tag to sound “announcerish.” Isn‘t the tag a call to action usually? It can be a very important part of the commercial.

The Eight-Syllable “No!”

His name was Leonard. I would often try to hang around after my part was done if they were recording voices separately, to hear how my reads would work together with the other actors.  Once, Leonard spoke and, in character, delivered a nuanced eight-syllable “No” that spanned a range of emotions. It wasn’t long after that I saw him play the judge in a network law drama. Wow. TALENT. Nice man, too.

Men Dancing

I was hired to be an imaging voice of a radio station in Ottawa. They flew me up and we went right to the studio to begin what turned out to be three says worth of script. The engineer turned on the microphone. Behind the glass with him stood the manager, the manager’s manager and the consultant. As I warmed up, I was just speaking normally. The manager (who hired me) told me to go for it, and I did. Those guys were all dancing around with joy. Honest. I’ve only caused people to dance once that I know of.

Before He Even Spoke He Got the Gig

I’m sure of it.

We had the same agent. The spot was a two-voicer, and this was a cattle call audition. While waiting my turn, I heard many actors do the lines. I was the announcer. The other role was a man who was upset. When Brian inhaled, it sounded like he was upset before he even spoke. And yes, he did get the gig.

Voiceover artist Guy Harris. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Nobby74.

 

The Docs Argued

I was called in to do a narration for some fab new medical device. On the phone, listening to the session, were the doctors who invented it. And while the clock ran, on this union voice gig, and the studio charges increased, they were arguing about the script.

What Do I Have in Common with Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty?

I was lucky enough to be recorded in the same room (which looked untouched) as the musicians who played on that soundtrack. Very cool.

I Got Paid to Count to 50

On the video, hands were counting out dollar bills. It was for a bank or credit union. After the agency finished the spot, they decided it might sound better if a voice in the background started and ended the count. I was well paid. They never used the count.

Soap

The job was for narrating infomercials about health plans. Two voices, a man and woman. I did a whole series of these, and the producer cast soap opera actresses as the women. Since I don’t watch those shows, I have no idea who they were. I enjoy the variety of situations that come with being a voice actor.

I’ve done voiceovers for jeans in Norway, an airport in South Africa, candy in the Middle East. How does it happen? Voices tell and sell.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/SAMHSA.

Audio system setup is, I feel, as much an art as a science. I suppose one school of thought would insist that there’s only one way to get it “right,” like blueprinting a racing car engine, where every single part is dialed in to the exact manufacturing tolerances specified by the blueprints in order to yield optimum performance.

But, and especially since listening to our stereos is so often a solitary pursuit, I’m going to go with the perhaps unorthodox idea that the system is right when it sounds right to you.

But how do you know when your system is “right,” especially if you have limited experience in audio setup and your gear has limitations? What works for me is this: I have to get the setup wrong before I know I’ve gotten it right.

I can’t tell if, say, speaker placement or VTA or the spot where my listening chair is located is correct unless I can hear when things are clearly wrong first. Maybe wildly wrong.

Zen and the Art of Speaker Placement

In my opinion, speaker placement is by far the most important part of audio system setup. Pardon my Captain Obviousness but if you don’t get this right, your system will never sound its best.

But, and Dr. Floyd Toole and Dr. Sean Olive and other extremely well-respected speaker designers may yell at me for this (or maybe agree), I’m going to throw this out there. Perhaps there’s no such thing as perfect speaker placement. That’s because speaker placement involves compromises between bass response, soundstaging and stereo imaging, interactions with your room, listening position and those pesky real-world considerations like the size of your room, and its furnishings. The placement where you get the best bass may not be the best for soundstage, and so on.

I start with the speakers roughly where I think they should be and then move them far enough apart until I hear a “hole in the middle,” where the speakers sound like two separate sound sources rather than creating a seamless spread. Then I move them to where I think they’re right. Then I move them even closer together to where they start to lose the stereo effect. Then, apart again to where they should be.

In fact, this is the general principle in “getting it wrong”: by trial and error, find out the wrong placements, or settings, or other relevant parameters, note them, and use them as guideposts to avoid.

On to optimizing the bass response, which I do by moving the speakers closer together or further out from the wall. Thing is, this can affect soundstaging and imaging – and the placement where you get the best bass may not yield the best soundstage. Unless you’re blessed with a perfect room, you will likely have to compromise. Then, experiment with toe-in (the angle the speakers are pointed at the listening position).

I’ve seen some setup guides that insist that the speakers must be toed-in towards the listener. I’ve seen others equally insistent the speakers must be aimed straight out, with no toe-in. Which is right? You decide!

When I first started at The Absolute Sound, I made it a point to visit as many reviewers’ houses as possible to check out their setups. It was more a learning process for me than The Editor on High coming to bless their systems. One reviewer had those big MartinLogan CLS electrostatic loudspeakers – and they were toed out! When I asked him about this he said he’d spent a year setting up his speakers and, trust him, this was the optimum positioning. Getting it wrong to get it right.

Pay attention to tilt angle, the angle of the speakers from vertical. Most of the time you’ll be good with the speakers at vertical (or at their pre-set tilted position, like the Magnepan .7)…but try tilting them back and see what happens. Sometimes it improves image focus and tonal balance. Although, there are limits to wrongness…I’ve never heard a system sound better with the speakers angled forward. (And would you want to sit and listen with a pair of Infinity IRS V or Magico M6s leaning down towards you?) Finally, experiment with the position of your listening chair or couch. It matters. A lot. (I get really good bass response in the bathroom but I don’t do a lot of listening there.)

The game has changed somewhat with the advent of DSP (digital signal processing) as applied to loudspeakers. DSP can correct for in-room frequency response anomalies (like areas of bass cancellation and reinforcement) and other issues. But as of now most people don’t have speakers with DSP.

So if there’s no absolute “right” when it comes to speaker placement (and again, I might get savaged for this but I’m going to posit it anyway) how do you know when they’re optimized? When the tonal balance is right and the speakers disappear, and the sound is well-balanced, seamless and involving. It is a balancing act.

VTA Vertigo

Those of you with exclusively digital front ends can skip this part – or read it and be glad you don’t have to go through these gyrations. In most cases, with tonearm/cartridge setup, getting the VTA (vertical tracking angle) and relatedly, SRA (stylus rake angle, or angle of the stylus to the record) right is absolutely critical. Too high, and the sound is too bright and thin; too low and it’s too bassy and indistinct. When it’s right, everything snaps into focus, and not just the tonal balance.

This doesn’t look quite right to me…photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JC Haywire.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few with measuring instruments or have a dealer or friend who can provide expert setup, you’re going to have to do this by eye and ear. And dang, an optimum (generally recommended) SRA of 92 degrees can be hard to see, although if your vision is good enough you can see it with the naked eye. (I’m legally blind without glasses and ripe for cataract surgery but I can still see deviations from a perpendicular 90-degree SRA.) Conventional wisdom says start with the cartridge exactly parallel to the record and then go up and down, and/or follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. I do it by listening at vertical at first, and then going way up and down from parallel and hearing what it sounds like. Like, stupidly off. Then gradually narrowing in and “seesawing” until I hit the right spot.

Here’s an example. The cartridge I use in my main system now, a Grado, sounds best at about 2 degrees below parallel. 2 degrees looks like the back is way too far down, and ordinarily you might not even be inclined to go there. But there’s no question this is the absolute, unquestionable right spot in my system. Don’t have a protractor? You can print one out from the internet. And your ears are accurate evaluation tools.

Same deal for tracking force. Cartridge manufacturers typically have recommended stylus force settings. So how the heck are you supposed to know the optimum setting in your rig? Right, go back and forth from too much to too little, wrong to wrong to…ahhhhh. Even setting the anti-skating can be a “thing.” Conventional wisdom says set it to match the tracking force – but there are those who say no anti-skating is the best. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Sensing a theme here?

Of course, you’ve now set the VTA/SRA right for that particular record. Since different records have different thicknesses, the VTA/SRA will be wrong for some of them. And if you have multiple copies of a record you like to use for setting VTA, use the same particular record every time! Different pressings can sound different – just ask Tom Port of Better Records or anyone who’s been doing this for a while. (Noooo…how much is that Qobuz subscription?)

Good and Bad Vibes

After the fundamentals of a system are taken care of, including cable selection (I’ll get to that) the next step is to typically tweak the system or better performance through the use of vibration isolation or dampening devices, such as speaker spikes and cones or elastomer discs that go under equipment. The idea is to eliminate unwanted vibrations that can “blur” or defocus the sound, either by routing the vibrations away from the components (spikes and cones) or dissipating them (dampening devices).

Walker Audio Valid Points Resonance Control System Super Tuning Kit.

However, there are those including the late Art Dudley who opined that such devices robbed audio systems of their “life” and excitement and that it might be wrong to use them. So…will your system sound more accurate due to vibration control, or will it sound more pleasingly colored without such products, or is vibration control taking all the “color” and liveliness out of your rig, or does any of this make a darn bit of difference? You be the judge.

For the record, I’ve tried any manner of these devices and other tweaks, and they’ve worked, sometimes dramatically. Other times, as in the famous episode of The Twilight Zone: “No change! No change at all!”

Miscellaneous Madness

I’ve found that speaker cables and interconnects can make a difference in sound quality, especially in a high-resolution audio system. (The reasons why, or why not, are the subject of another article. And for the record, cable manufacturer Audience is one of my clients.) Conventional wisdom opines that cables should add no character of their own and just happily pass audio signals along. Also, that the best results are obtained with sticking to one manufacturer’s brands for the entire system. The reality is that cables can add a sonic signature, interacting differently with different combinations of components and speakers.

But I confess – I’ve mixed and matched cable brands within a system, mostly to use them as “tone controls” to roll off or brighten up a system. I’ve even taken the devil-may-care risk of installing cables in the wrong direction! This can be an endless rabbit hole. Just look at the color of my hair.

As I mentioned in Issue 108, “Confessions of a Setup Man: You’re Grounded!” I’ve tried system grounding techniques that were conventionally wrong. And I’m not recommending any of them. But, they worked. Hey, I’ve been doing this for so long I have nothing to hide when it comes to my audio system setup experiences.

In wiring up a system, correct system polarity should be observed. (See J.I. Agnew’s article on observing correct polarity in vinyl mastering in this issue.) That is, the speaker terminals should always go positive to positive, negative to negative, or else bass and imaging will suffer. (Unless your preamp inverts polarity, like my Audible Illusions Modulus 3. Then you have to flop the speaker connections at one end only.) However, some records have their polarity reversed, perhaps the most famous example being XTC’s Skylarking. At first, people wondered why it sounded so awful. The mistake (in the mastering of the record) was later discovered and corrected in subsequent pressings. Sometimes wrong is just wrong.

XTC, Skylarking. The original is a classic example of polarity reversal.

To further complicate matters, many multitrack recordings were done with the recording mics having different polarities from each other. Some preamps have a handy polarity reversal switch for just this reason. Either that, or you can do what the late Enid Lumley, still the undisputed queen of audio tweaks, used to do – note the polarity of each record in your collection and flip the speaker terminals accordingly.

There are still some things I haven’t tried, like deliberately selectively torquing speaker mounting screws (an idea that popped into my head the last time I tightened them), or putting toilet paper over tweeters to tame their highs. Oh wait. I’ve done that. More than once. I even experimented with the number of sheets. Yes, I know, my speakers aren’t the only things in my household with screws loose.

I keep an open mind. Because when you get your system right, everything locks in and it transforms from a mere collection of appliances to a magical time travel machine that puts the performers into the room with you and blurs the line between reproduction and reality.

To paraphrase Luther Ingram: if loving that is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I sank into the plush soft leather seat and snapped on my seat belt. My surroundings were the inside of the private jet owned by WEA (Warner Music Group, at the time known as Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) We were flying west from New York to Los Angeles. The flight was full, all twelve seats occupied. The other passengers were music business executives and rock stars. I was (maybe) a junior executive, an assistant A&R man for Elektra Records. My boss was Steve Harris, Elektra Records A&R man.

I was heading west to join The New Seekers, a British vocal group formed after the breakup of the original Seekers, doing their first American promotional tour to back up their 1971 single “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” That smash hit later became a Coke ad, as those of us as a certain age might remember. In hindsight, I’d say The New Seekers were possibly the inspiration for ABBA. Who came later and were much more successful. ABBA had better songs. Today was a travel day and I’d meet up with them tomorrow.

The New Seekers, 1970. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We landed at Santa Monica Airport and there were a bunch of limos waiting for us. I was ushered into a limo along with Harry Nilsson. The driver asked where we were going and both of us gave our addresses. Knowing my way around LA, I realized that Harry was going to Beverly Hills, and as luck would have it, on the way to Harry’s house we had to pass within half a mile of my apartment, which was located in West Hollywood on San Vicente Blvd.

I said to the driver, “drop me off first,” and Harry says “no, me first.” I said to Harry, “why not drop me off first; it’s just slightly out of the way.”Again, he said no. I didn’t understand, it didn’t seem to make sense, so I asked, “why?” He looks me in the eye and says, “because I’m Harry Nilsson!” And that was that. We were silent for the rest of the ride.

After Harry was dropped off the limo takes me to my apartment. It is just 500 feet down the hill from the Whisky A Go Go which is located on Sunset Blvd.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mike Dillon.

That night I walk up the hill to the Whiskey. It’s a music biz event for an A&M Records act, Split Enz. They were touring in support of their new hit “I See Red.” Once in the Whiskey I sit with some A&M record company guys and watch the set. About forty-five minutes into the set this drunk behind me starts talking loudly and making noise. I try to ignore him, but he gets louder. Finally, I turn around to shush him and to my surprise, it is Joe Cocker. A very drunk Joe Cocker. He is smiling and trying to stand up and do a toast or something to the boys on stage. Finally, someone next to him quiets him down.

I should mention that Split Enz is a New Zealand rock band fronted by the Finn brothers, Neil, and Tim. Their biggest hit was “I Got You.” A few years later Neil started Crowded House, which Tim later joined; they also had a mega-hit with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” (Recently Neil joined Fleetwood Mac, replacing the departing Lindsey Buckingham.)

After the set, we all went upstairs to the dressing rooms. There were about forty people milling around and partying. The group included Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, a very pregnant Donna Summer, Bette Midler, and The Exorcist actress Linda Blair. The Finn brothers and band, some of The New Seekers, but no Joe Cocker. I guess Joe couldn’t navigate it up the stairs.

I walk up to Harry and John and say hello. Harry looks at me and says, “you get home OK?” Before I can answer he turns away from me towards John. (Years later I ran into Harry while he was recording Nilsson Schmilsson and he greeted me like an old friend and invited me into the control room to watch and listen to some of that day’s recording session.)

Nilsson Schmilsson master tape.

I walk over to a group standing with Linda Blair. I mention that I understood she came from Connecticut. “Yes, she said, but now I live here in LA.” We chatted for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “how did they spin your head around in The Exorcist? That was amazing!” She looked at me as if I was the stupidest person in the world and hissed at me, “that was a puppet!” Red-faced, I turned away from the group. Truth be known I never did see the movie, but I saw that scene a few times and took it at face value.

Not to be discouraged I walked over to the Finn brothers and Bette Midler. I knew the Finn boys, but not Bette. This time I listened more than I talked. They were telling music biz stories and it was interesting. After a few minutes, Nathan, (Split Enz’s manager) walked over to us. He was looking very annoyed and told the boys that he wanted a band meeting, Now!

Split Enz in all their sartorial splendor.

That left Bette and me standing there, and she said to me, “Oh God, I remember those kinds of meetings.” I knew what she meant. I had read about her first manager and how he yelled and bullied her, basically intimidating her and trying to control her. She was signed to him for a few years till she found lawyers that were able to work out a settlement and break the management contract. “I hear you,” I replied as I knew Nathen was a mean-tempered controlling son of a gun. Bette was fun, unassuming, and very real with no drama. I instantly liked her; I think everyone did.

About forty minutes later the band (Split Enz) came out of the meeting looking a bit drained. Nathan was pissed off that the Finns had changed the setlist and added a new song without checking with him. But even before Split Enz, the brothers had made an impact on the music scene in Australia, having moved there from New Zealand in the mid-1970s. They were successful, eventually becoming one of the biggest groups in Australia. They knew what they wanted to do and had good instincts. Nathan was also Australian and felt easily threatened; he wanted total control of the band’s activities. His alliance with management company Champion Entertainment, run by music biz heavyweight Tommy Mottola gave him influence with the band and that connection helped in getting Split Enz a label deal and their first tour. However, as their careers flourished, especially in the States, Nathan’s grip on them loosened. (Tommy managed Hall and Oates at the time, among others; this is before he became the CEO of Sony Music and married Mariah Carey.)

The next morning, I had to fly to New Orleans with The New Seekers, and Split Enz had to fly up to Seattle. We were all leaving around the same time so Neil asked if I could shepherd both bands to LAX the next day. Sounded like a plan so I had another drink, said good night to everyone and walked down the hill to my apartment.

The morning after, I gathered up The New Seekers and Split Enz, got them checked out of the Continental Hyatt House (known as the Riot House because all the big touring rock bands stayed there and acted like Big Touring Rock Bands; it was a truly wild scene). I loaded them into their cars with me taking the lead car with Neil, Tim, Lyn, and Eve (The New Seekers girls).

The Divine Miss M. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Rob Bogaerts/Anefo.

We were driving south on Robertson toward the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10 West) when I had stopped at the light at the freeway entrance. I’m looking over my seat speaking with Lyn when I was startled by a pounding on the hood of the car. I face front and it is Bette! She is standing right in the middle of the road. She’s dressed really casual in a peasant blouse and jeans. Her car is stopped at the light alongside us and her driver’s side door wide open. She is smiling and bobbing up and down while pounding on the hood of our car (you cannot make this stuff up). Never mind that she’s stopped her car in the middle of the road with cars all around us. What an amazing coincidence. The traffic light changes to green and Bette jumps back into her car, waves at us again, and drives south on Robertson to go do whatever she was in the middle of doing, while we turn on to I-10W heading for the airport and another rock and roll adventure.

Header image of Los Angeles courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Pintaric.

“Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan’s newly released song, is long. It is 17 minutes and change, about as long as “Desolation Row” and “Like a Rolling Stone” combined.

It is Bob’s longest single studio recording, coming in about 23 seconds longer than the entertaining Dylan dream that was “Highlands” from 1999’s Time Out of Mind. I’ll always have a fondness for “Highlands,” for its scene in a coffee shop, where the waitress bets Dylan that he doesn’t read women writers. As a retort, Dylan rhymes “wrong” and “Erica Jong.”

“Murder Most Foul,” released on March 27, 2020, is not a new song or recording, but is said to have been written and recorded around the time of “Tempest,” which would place it in 2012. Dylan’s office, which has always been as accommodating as Bob will allow, could not add anything to the notice on the home page of the official BobDylan.com.

On the right side of the home page is an emblematic photo of President John F. Kennedy, as seen in pride and sorrow as part of the interior decorating scheme of a vast number of American, especially Irish-American, homes, ever since his election, and his death. Inscribed at the bottom of the photo, in a kind of gothic typeface, is the song’s title. On the left, Dylan offers three brief sentences of introduction.

“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.

This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.

Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

Musically, it is sparse, slow, just a few piano notes and a violin or viola or similar string instrument, with a few faint drum rolls later on. A funeral procession.

The song operates on two parallel themes. Full of rage and anger, the essential theme is the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963. It is very serious, thrusting in its accusations, skepticism and sarcasm that give life to the only serious conspiracy theory that deserves its oxygen: the notion that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the sole assassin, perhaps not even the assassin. In this theory, Oswald was the “patsy” (or as Dylan free associates, “the Patsy Cline”), the fall guy for a conspiracy of many moving parts, a crazy scheme, really, to kill the president, and which all came together hellaciously well. “They blew off his head while he was still in the car/Shot down like a dog in broad daylight/Twas a matter of timing, and the timing was right.”

The plot, according to the majority of the American public that still believe in the conspiracy, involved so many unsavory members of American institutions­­­­—the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the Mafia, a militia of anti-Castro Cuban emigrés, the Teamsters—that the only option has been to cover up the truth for the last 57 years. “What is the truth, where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know,” Dylan sings.

Oswald, for those arriving at this movie late, was shot to death at point blank range by small time Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby on live TV in the middle of Dallas police headquarters while being transferred to another part of the building two days after the assassination. Ruby died of cancer in jail in 1967, insisting until the end that he killed Oswald out of patriotic rage.

The lyrics, as published on bobdylan.com, are in four numbered sections of varying lengths. The first three mix details about the assassination, and the Sixties pop culture explosion that would follow his death, in the form of imagined thoughts and visions of a dying Kennedy. Some are in the form of telephoned requests to disc jockey Wolfman Jack, a New York hustler (real name Bob Smith), who pursued the big bucks through the big beat with a big howl and 250,000 watt (five times the FCC limit for American stations) XERF, its transmitter based in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio in southwest Texas. Wolfman played R&B for teenagers on a signal that could be heard across North America, and on a clear night, around the globe, while also selling mail order products, including live chickens.

Wolfman Jack is introduced as the vehicle for JFK’s life-ebbing hallucinations at the end of the first section: In the last four standalone lines of section one, Dylan calls JFK’s murder the “Greatest magic trick ever under the sun, perfectly executed, skillfully done. Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman howl.” Comparing the assassination to a magic trick may be one reason why, near the end of the song, there is a vision of “Houdini spinning around in his grave”: As if history’s most renowned magician and legendary escape artist never matched the trick Kennedy’s killers pulled off.

Pop culture geeks will be able to get happily lost in the many musical references criss-crossing Kennedy assassination minutiae. Section two introduces the Beatles, name drops Woodstock, Altamont, the Aquarian age, as Kennedy’s limousine races for Parkland Hospital. Section three begins: “Tommy can you hear me, I’m the acid queen…Ridin’ I the back seat, next to my wife/Heading straight on into the afterlife.”

There are images of surgeons trying to save Kennedy’s life, removing his brain, and of the only known real time images of the assassination, known as the Zapruder film. “It’s vile and deceitful–it’s cruel and it’s mean,” Dylan sings, with palpable disgust.

It is a lamentation in the literal sense, an expression of grief, in the Biblical sense. In the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations is a series of poems or songs of deep sorrow attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, decrying the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the beginning the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. The Book of Lamentations is read, and sung, on the saddest day of the year for observant Jews: Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av on the Hebrew calendar, which remembers the destruction of both Jewish temples. (Some believe that Jeremiah wrote the Lamentations before the destruction of the first temple, but its destruction was his prophecy.)

The original Lamentations consisted of four chapters, which is perhaps why “Murder Most Foul” has chapters numbered one through four. (A fifth was written later.) The depravity and idol worship, the moral decline of his people that tormented Jeremiah, are echoed by some of what Dylan writes, at the beginning of his chapter four: “What’s New Pussycat…what’d I say/I said the soul of a nation has been torn away/It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay/And that it’s 36 hours past Judgment Day.”

From that point, the rest of chapter four is the longest, at about 80 lines, about three times longer than the other chapters. That also suggests Jeremiah, whose chapters one, two and four contain 22 lines; chapter three, 66 lines. Dylan is not writing with quill and parchment here. Almost all of it seems to be riffing out the rhymes for the sake of rhymes, shouting out song titles, movies, plays, artists. It reminds me of the annual Christmas poem “Greetings, Friends!” in The New Yorker (written for many years by Roger Angell, more recently Ian Frazier), which offers holiday gifts and wishes to friends and the famous using jocular rhymes, such as this one by Frazier from December 23, 2019:

“[For] Michael McFaul, Billie Eilish—
Socks by the carload, highly stylish.”

Dylan implores the Wolfman:

“Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play ‘Blue Sky,’ play Dickie Betts.”

He also sings: “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey/’Take it to the Limit’ and let it go by.” Dylan’s invocation of the Eagles could start another conspiracy theory: is it praising, or rhyming lazy? But we don’t want to go there.

Dylan released a second song, “I Contain Multitudes” on April 17. Its title comes from one of Walt Whitman’s, from “Song of Myself, 51”: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then I contradict myself/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

He has always embraced his own contradictions, and this rueful song, lightly flavored with pedal steel, Dylan states some of them proudly. “I sing the Songs of Experience, like William Blake/I have no apologies to make.” He acknowledges his dark side, as boastful as any rapper: “I carry four pistols and two sharp knives.” It’s almost like Dylan’s “My Way”; although his singing is understated, the lyrics bite with a rapper’s ferocity. “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones/And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones,” he sings. Come on, Kanye, step up, Drake: This Bob’s for you.

 

All Dylan lyrics © 2020 by Rider Music.

Whitman, “Song of Myself,” public domain.

“Greetings, Friends!” © The New Yorker magazine.

Bob Dylan photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Alberto Cabello.

Kraftwerk’s influence on today’s pop music is so pervasive, the band is so historically important, and so much has been written about them already that doing an introduction here almost seems clichéd. But for those who haven’t been plugged in: they more or less invented electronic pop music.

As such, they’ve had an incalculable influence on contemporary pop, with their pioneering use of synthesizers, hypnotic metronomic electronic beats, vocoders (those “robot” vocals of which Auto-Tune might be considered a direct descendant), repetition, sampling, minimalism and electronic sound processing. Not to mention their retro-futuristic visual aesthetic and unified gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) presentation. The sound quality of their albums is uniformly stunning. No other electronic band is as elegant as Kraftwerk.

Every, and I mean every techno, house, dance, club music etc. artist owes their existence to Kraftwerk as do bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Daft Punk and countless others – a fact most of them have readily admitted. Two Kraftwerk songs alone, “Numbers” and “Trans Europe Express,” set the rhythmic template for much of hip-hop. (The 1982 hip-hop smash “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force stole from both, which was later resolved in a settlement.) Their all-electronic sound was radical, literally unheard of in the 1970s in an era when guitars and strutting rock stars dominated rock music.

I thought I’d make this look at Kraftwerk a little more on the personal side. And of course it’s tempered by the loss of founding member Florian Schneider on April 21, who as the band’s “sound fetishist” must at this point be considered one of the most influential pop musicians of all time.

The band is one of my favorites, but that wasn’t always the case. I first heard their unlikely hit “Autobahn” on the radio when it came out in 1974 and thought it was a pleasant-enough almost-novelty song. I remember hearing it in some store in the Smith Haven Mall.

 

In 1975 I read an interview by Lester Bangs in Creem where Kraftwerk founding (and sole original) member Ralf Hütter said he thought Blue Öyster Cult was “funny.” What? How dare him! At the time I revered BÖC in the way only an adolescent rock-star-worshipping male can. (Of course, Hütter was, in a large respect, right, both bands having a distinct tongue-in-cheek aspect to their respective oeuvres.)

Kraftwerk wasn’t on my radar again until the late 1970s when I was at a Halloween party mostly attended by a bunch of computer nerds and their wives and significant others. I was in a bad mood…unemployed, wearing a crappy thrown-together costume, girlfriend-less…when some boring, repetitive music started playing on a crappy stereo. One of the nerds started going on and on about how great this band Kraftwerk was. “The music sounds simple, but it changes over time. Listen to how good those synthesizers sound.” (This on an AM-radio-quality stereo.) “It’s genius!” Already predisposed to dislike them, the album playing, The Man-Machine, didn’t do anything to convince me otherwise.

But…fast forward to 1981. A bunch of friends were driving to a show at the Left Bank, a New Wave club in Mount Vernon, New York. We were listening to WNEW-FM and all of a sudden this incredible electro-pop song came on the radio, filled with bloops and bleeps and otherworldly synth sounds, driven by an irresistible mechano-beat. As the song faded out I yelled out, “Quiet! I have to hear who this is!” The announcer stated, “That was the new single ‘Pocket Calculator’ by Kraftwerk.” Kraftwerk? That band I turned my nose up at? Wait a minute! I bought the single (a Japanese import 45) immediately thereafter.

 

Maybe a year later I was at a party. I had been…partying. Around 1 or 2 am I was ready to go to sleep and not about to drive home. A woman friend who lived in the house offered to let me crash on her bed with her. As I was lying there about to drift off in an altered state, she said, “let’s listen to some music to go to sleep to.” (Put your imaginations to rest – nothing untoward happened.) She put on Computer World, the album with “Pocket Calculator.” The first hypnotic synth sounds percolated out of the speakers. I was riveted. It sounded like something from an alien race from another galaxy. That night I finally, really “got” Kraftwerk. What are these sounds? What is this music?

I soon went on a quest to buy every Kraftwerk album in both English and German-language versions. The more I’ve listened, the more I’ve grown to like, then appreciate, then be continually amazed by this band.

Here’s a brief tour of their albums. (We’ll skip the early compilation albums Exceller 8 and Electro Kinetik.) I prefer the German-language versions; they sound more, well, Kraftwerkian to me.

Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf and Florian (Ralf und Florian) (1970 – 1973)

These first three proto-Kraftwerk albums are considered “archaeology” by Hütter, and the first two, with their wandering jams and use of guitars, bass, acoustic drums and other conventional instruments bear little resemblance to the band’s future sound. In some parts and more so with Ralf and Florian, though, in tracks like “Kristallo” (“Crystals”) and “Tansmusik,” (“Dance Music”) we start to hear elements of the band’s later work – drum machines and heavier use of electronic keyboards, though pre-synthesizer. And the album contains one of their most beautiful if incongruous songs: “Ananas Symphonie” (“Pineapple Symphony”), featuring almost 14 minutes of…lap steel guitar.

Autobahn (1974)

The international pop smash breakthrough. The album-side-long title track is one of the most perfectly-realized pieces of program music ever conceived – it really does sound like a drive down the motorway with its loping beat, hypnotic “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn” vocal chant, Minimoog, ARP Odyssey and EMA Synthi AKS synthesizers mimicking the sounds of cars and trucks, and the use of repeating melodies and phrases, which would later become cemented as Kraftwerk hallmarks. This was the last Kraftwerk album to feature electric guitar, violin, flute and other “standard” instruments.

It’s also a sonic blockbuster, one of the first to appear on The Absolute Sound Super Disc list (and still there). On a good pressing or mastering, the bass is subterranean, the soundscape vast. There’s even a section where Kraftwerk tunes in the car radio to listen to themselves, and on a top-notch system, it sounds like you’re in a car listening to a car radio while driving with the sounds of the Autobahn surrounding you. The rest of Autobahn is also sublime.

Radio-Activity (Radio-Aktivität) (1975)

This album about radio waves and radioactivity might be the strangest-sounding of the lineup. It’s the first album to feature the “classic” lineup of Hütter, Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, the latter two on electronic percussion. There are only a few conventional “songs,” interspersed with odd blips, vocoded spoken intervals and other sonic weirdness. Oh, but those songs – “Radioactivity” is an ominous Vako Orchestron-driven warning about the potential dangers of nuclear power. “Airwaves” was the hit that wasn’t, maybe because of its simplistic lyrics, another future Kraftwerk hallmark. And the closer, “Ohm Sweet Ohm” is a gorgeous way to fade out the album.

 

Trans-Europe Express (Trans-Europa Express) (1977)

If Autobahn was a breakthrough, this was a landmark, chosen by many as Kraftwerk’s best. The influence of the title track cannot be overstated. The group took major strides in refining their sparse, yet multifaceted sonic and rhythmic approach (the title track was about a train, after all). The use of the sequencer appeared as a key propulsive and melodic instrument. This album, perhaps Kraftwerk’s “friendliest” and most accessible, has it all – sonic innovation and incredible sound quality, warm, inviting melodies (“Europe Endless,” “Showroom Dummies”), more than a touch of that sly humor (although “The Hall of Mirrors” is starkly foreboding), and it’s simultaneously nostalgic and light years ahead of its time.

 

The Man-Machine (Die Mensch-Maschine) (1978)

Perhaps no album has ever been so appropriately titled. This really does sound like an inevitable collaboration of man and machine. One enhances the other. Here, the band took another evolution into their hallmark mechanistic sound and to becoming even more firmly and unmistakably Kraftwerkian. The song titles: “The Robots,” “Spacelab,” “The Man-Machine” tell the tale, the latter putting the concept of “cybernetic” into perfectly-realized musical form. And the album yielded a bona-fide hit, “The Model,” maybe the closest Kraftwerk would come to conventional pop music. The sound is demonstration-quality rich, warm, extended, textured and compelling.

 

Computer World (Computerwelt) (1981)

39 years later, the album still sounds vastly ahead of its time. Where do I begin? If The Man-Machine was a major evolution, Computer World is a quantum sonic and musical leap of an almost incomprehensible nature – were it not for the fact that it’s right here for all to listen to. The sounds are otherworldly, fantastic in the literal sense, mind-blowing. The music and melodies span from regal (“Computer World”) to playful (“Pocket Calculator,” “Numbers”) to wistful (“Computer Love”) to almost too much for feeble human minds to comprehend (“Home Computer”). Their use of the sequencer as a rhythmically compelling element can only be described as remarkable.

While others pick Trans-Europe Express as Kraftwerk’s best, for me, Computer World is their towering masterwork. And the sound quality is out of this world, a vast, expansive soundscape from the ever-morphing bass to the alien-machine rhythmic clacks. Deceptively simple at first, but the more you listen, the more little sonic details you hear. And yes, the album is as predictive of today’s world as everyone says it is, right down to the idea of computer dating years before others could even frame the concept.

 

Electric Café (later renamed Techno Pop with revised track listing) (1986)

Perhaps Kraftwerk knew that after the astonishing advancement of Computer World the only other possible course was a musically minimalist detour. Much has been made of the fact that Ralf Hütter was involved in a serious cycling accident at the time, and the fact that the rest of the pop music world from the Human League to Heaven 17 to Donna Summer was catching up to them sonically. In any case, after Computer World, Electric Café was seen as a regression, and I was disappointed with it at first, having expected a continuation of the astonishing sounds of the former.

Yet in the ensuing decades I’ve come to embrace it and really dig it, especially the side-long opening suite of “Boing Boom Tschak,” “Techno Pop” and the now-classic “Musique Non-Stop.” (I could live without the “scrolling through the presets” parts of “Techno Pop,” but even Kraftwerk revised that down the road.) It draws you through an unhurried musical progression. The sound is more polished-metal, starker (the use of digital instruments like Yamaha FM-synthesis hardware, the LinnDrum, and the E-Mu Emulator II sampler contribute). And “Sex Object,” especially in its original German “Sex Objekt,” surely must have been tongue-in-cheek, an odd mix of aloof vocal delivery, sinister aura and Ralf’s “who, me?” vulnerability. Or maybe you’ll just think it’s silly. The re-issued Techno Pop offers a slightly revised track complement, with a remixed “The Telephone Call” and the added “House Phone.” The closing “Electric Café” gives us a few minutes of those Kraftwerkian bloops and bleeps and hints at what the rest of the album might have been had they gone that route – and where the band was headed.

 

The Mix (1991)

This remix album of previous Kraftwerk classics either feels unnecessary, considering the musical and sonic perfection of the previous albums, or prescient, considering that these retooled arrangements formed the basis for their live performances following. (I vote for the latter, seeing The Mix as a sort of alternate-reality Kraftwerk album.) Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür had left, to be replaced by Fritz Hilpert (still with the band today) and Fernando Abrantes. Not strictly a greatest hits album (“The Model” isn’t here), it features revamped versions of classic tracks like “The Robots,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “Computer Love,” an amped-up version of “Radioactivity,” and “Autobahn.” Like every Kraftwerk album, the audio quality is superb, with a myriad of new digitally-precise sounds, beats and musical ideas spread out on an expansive sound field.

 

Tour de France Soundtracks (2003, later retitled Tour de France)

After more than a decade of wondering whether Kraftwerk would ever release another album came Tour de France Soundtracks. Of course the expectation level could not have been higher. It was supposed to have coincided with the 100th anniversary of the bike race but did not make the date. And the album is a worthy addition to the canon, with the extended “Prologue” and “Tour de France Étape 1, 2 and 3” suite offering an irresistible mix of the new sounds I was hoping for on “Electric Café” and a rhythmic drive perhaps unequalled by any previous albums, and with Kraftwerk that’s saying something. There’s a remake of the title track, which for inexplicable reasons had never appeared on an album before, which I wouldn’t call better or worse, just different. “La Forme” is Kraftwerk at their most majestic, and “Chrono” and “Titanium” have that otherworldly sound that no other band will ever produce.

 

Minimum-Maximum (2005, available in English and German)

Finally, an official Kraftwerk live album, available in DVD video as well as audio formats. A double, so it’s fairly comprehensive with 22 tracks including most of the “hits.” As anyone who’s seen the band knows (I’ve been lucky enough to have seen them eight times including one of the legendary MoMA Kraftwerk-practically-in-your-living-room performances, courtesy of winning a Volkswagen contest), Kraftwerk is continually updating and tweaking their sounds, so these are fresh takes on the classics. Need I even mention that the sound quality is exceptional. Oddly, the surround sound is in DTS 5.1 only – I’m guessing that at the time, Dolby Digital wasn’t good enough for the sonic perfectionists from Düsseldorf.

 

If you want to add just one Kraftwerk album to your collection you would not go wrong with this. Also, Florian Schneider left the band after this album, making Minimum-Maximum the only release where you’ll get to see and hear him “live.”

The Catalogue (Der Katalog) (2009)

This limited-edition box set included the first “officially recognized” eight albums from Autobahn onward, remastered on CD. As Hütter noted a few years earlier, the original tapes needed digital transferring, remastering and restoration. They are presented here with album cover and other artwork that is mostly different from the originals; not surprisingly, more simplified and minimal. The sound quality is as good as CD gets and arguably improved in some cases, maybe not in others, although good original vinyl pressings are also superb. I’m not going to dwell on it here because this set has become out-of-print unobtanium (and mine’s not for sale) – at the moment there’s a copy on eBay and the seller’s asking $1,409.16!

3-D The Catalogue (3-D Der Katalog) (2017)

Another Kraftwerkian move – follow a live album with…another live album, 12 years later. But what a live album – it’s available in Blu-ray (video and audio), hi-res download and other formats, and the unabbreviated versions encompass full concert recordings of all eight previous studio albums from Autobahn onward. There’s even a surprisingly effective “Headphone Surround 3-D” disc of selected cuts. The Blu-ray packaging is sumptuous and includes a 228-page book.

 

Since, as noted, Kraftwerk continually re-works their sound, these arrangements have an up-to-the-second modernistic feel about them. This album also features the current lineup of Ralf Hütter, long-time members Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz, and Falk Grieffenhagen. Some of the songs are shorter than the original versions, but this is, after all, the way they were presented in concert.

While the sound is utterly stunning (and one of the most convincing cases for surround sound music listening you’ll ever hear, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a Dolby Atmos system), at times – in my opinion and YMMV – I feel like the bass on some tracks is too strong, a trend that seems to permeate much of modern music these days. And since this isn’t an attempt to reproduce “real” sounds, it’s strictly a matter of taste. Yet the sound is nothing less than incredible, coming from everywhere and anywhere, the sound space ever-changing and morphing. Oh yeah – if you happen to have a 3-D TV or video setup, you can enjoy the same 3-D visuals as a live concert. In fact, at least one review feels that this is the best Kraftwerk disc to have. I say listen to them all.

 

Header image: Kraftwerk promotional photo.

Calvary Episcopal Church was founded in 1836 and is part of the Parish of Calvary – St. George’s in New York City. A fixture in the Gramercy Park area for nearly 185 years, it is not only a landmark historic site of New York City but is also the acknowledged birthplace and American headquarters for the Oxford Group, which would later evolve into Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 1936, Calvary Church ordered a new pipe organ from the Aeolian-Skinner Company of Boston to replace their 1907 Skinner pipe organ, itself a rebuild of an earlier version of the Roosevelt organ originally built in 1886. The Aeolian-Skinner Opus 945 pipe organ retained 15 stops from the original Roosevelt model, which are still functional today. However, the organ itself has been deteriorating over the last 84 years, the result of age, neglect, poorly-executed repairs bordering on incompetence, fires, and damage from construction workers doing restoration work on the church building.

Here is a profile of the Calvary Church Aeolian-Skinner Opus 945: http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/CalvaryEpis.html

Since that time, Calvary-St.-George’s music director, choirmaster and organist, the internationally acclaimed baritone Kamel Boutros, has been on a quest to update the organ to become functional in the 21st century. However, the challenge has been to do the work on a shoestring budget, given that the estimate to restore the organ currently stands in excess of 3 million dollars.

Kamel Boutros.

Copper Issue 61 covered the innovative workarounds devised by Kamel, which included solutions for mechanical keyboard latencies, damaged pipes, non-working stops, and temperature sensitive pipe tuning fluctuations.

Never satisfied in his quest, Kamel has continued refining the process, with the ultimate goal being able to have a full orchestra in combination with the ancient pipe organ at his fingertip command. The changes he has made since Copper Issue 61 cover both digital and analog modifications and improvements.

Creating an Actual/Virtual Cyborg Hybrid Organ:

The three most glaring playing challenges with Calvary’s Aeolian-Skinner organ are:

Taking advantage of the inherent natural acoustic delay and reverberation from Calvary’s 40-foot-high steeple and with the organ pipes mounted 20 feet above the pews along the altar perimeter and in the church’s rear near the entrance, Kamel had previously solved the problem by using the organ’s circa 1980s Peterson MIDI interface, which is limited solely to MIDI out on Channel 1 and only transmits note on/off data.

The deployment of the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ and its Notre Dame de Metz sample was Kamel’s initial solution, as the virtual organ had no latency and could thus provide the attack for the notes as the Skinner organ’s tones fleshed out the body of the notes. The Hauptwerk software also resolved the tuning fluctuation problems as the precise digital tuning could adjust to match the pipes for any particular climate condition. The software’s high cost (about $1,000) also is due to its unique capability to drive the actual organ pipes via MIDI. Finally, the software provided the missing Gallery, Great and Choir manuals/stop colors that the Skinner organ could not produce in its current state of disrepair.

Hauptwerk controls.

While Kamel had solved the most pressing mechanical issues, the Notre Dame sample was recorded in a space considerably larger than that of Calvary Church. Additionally, Notre Dame’s organ is a much more elaborately-featured instrument than the Aeolian-Skinner. Choosing uniformity and authenticity of sound over a more luxurious, albeit less than ideal accommodation, Kamel has since opted to switch the Hauptwerk software license to the CCARB, which is a sample of the pristine Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1141 pipe organ recorded at Christ Church Cathedral Arboretum in Garden Grove, CA.

Better matching between the virtual and actual Aeolian-Skinner organ sounds and controls was the first goal in Kamel’s plan to bring the Calvary organ back to fully functional status. Even if it was a “cyborg” hybrid, Kamel’s desire was to next incorporate the bass pedal sounds and other stops, along with other MIDI controlled sounds.

Kamel’s four-keyboard manual signal chain first runs from the Calvary Skinner organ, locked to a MIDI clock while the MIDI out is split between a Hewlett-Packard 2420 PC running Hauptwerk’s CCARB, and a MacBook running Spitfire Audio Eric Whitacre choir, Symphonic Strings, Hans Zimmer percussion and Logic Pro X software. His display monitors are all touch sensitive.

Where it all comes together.

These MIDI signals are connected through a Korg Nanocontrol Studio MIDI controller and an Akai APC40 Ableton controller.

As Calvary’s Skinner organ bass pedal foot pistons were never retrofitted with MIDI capability, he has added a Behringer FCB 1010 MIDI controller (with custom mounting frame designed by church elder Jeremy Coleman) and a Studiologic MP113 velocity-sensitive bass pedal unit. The Behringer controller’s MIDI signal is separately fed to a Focusrite Scarlett interface and then to the CCARB software.

With Calvary’s Swell manual only 25% functional and the Gallery, Great and Choir manuals even less so, the CCARB software is crucial at the note origination level for fleshing out the missing overtones and recreating vital fundamental tones in the organ music repertoire.

Additionally, while all the basic Skinner stops in Calvary’s organ still function, Kamel cannot add any additional colors to the sound due to the pipe disrepair, so the CCARB is crucial for supplying 32-foot, 16-foot, 8-foot and 4-foot octave tones as needed.

Some of the original pipes.

To quickly switch between Logic commands and the variety of presets that may be utilized between the various Spitfire orchestral and choir sounds, Kamel has a pair of mini keyboards mounted above the organ manuals: an Akai LPK 25 and an iRig keys. A 61 full-sized-key Korg synthesizer sits next to Kamel’s personal Yamaha concert grand piano, which acts as a backup MIDI controller in the event that the Calvary organ suffers a mechanical or electronic mishap.

The Yamaha concert grand piano.

Expanding the Sound Cloud:

Kamel Boutros has said that a true church pipe organ, in his estimation, reverberates throughout the entire church, and should take advantage of the echoes and reverberations inherent in stone and wood structures. Its power should range from the low notes shaking the floor to the higher registers surrounding congregants in a cloud of sound. Ideally, the sound should be “rounder and bigger” rather than “louder.”

Somewhat counterintuitively, sets of matching speaker arrays and similar platforms often sound too directional and pristine, thus bestowing an artificiality to virtual instruments in a church space, especially with virtual organs playing with actual ones. This is also a major point of difference between re-creating the sound of a Hammond Organ’s Leslie rotating speaker vs. a pipe organ. The church pipes are designed to resonate and project within a particular church space, thus dictating their elevated placement within the church structure. The Leslie speaker, while possessing a rotating horn driver, is still focused from a specific sound source and is designed for projecting that sound regardless of the surrounding space. The Hammond’s relative portability compared with the fixed installation of a pipe organ in a traditional stone and wood church was a key selling point in its marketing to houses of worship located in non-traditional structures, such as auditoriums, gymnasiums, warehouses, etc.

In order to mesh the virtual sounds with Calvary’s organ pipes, an assortment of both PA and hi-fi speakers have been strategically placed throughout the nearly 200-year-old church, which is roughly 90 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 40 feet high at the steeple.

As Calvary’s wooden 32-foot pipes are still in disuse due to fire damage, Kamel has a pair of Mackie subwoofers – one placed in front of the organ near the altar for the low end and subsonic frequencies, and the other near the side pews under the choir loft.

A small powered 8-inch Behringer PA speaker, discreetly hidden behind the pipes mounted 20 feet directly above the organ, provides high frequencies to the congregation’s right.

Directly opposite is the elevated choir loft, where two additional small Behringer speakers and a Peavey 12-inch wedge monitor resonate behind another array of pipes.

A pair of large JBL EON Series PA speakers are in the gallery, mounted about 25 feet high and situated over the entrance. A pair of 60 lb. 3-way Thiel CS2 home audio speakers from the 1980s are currently augmenting the JBLs, but may be relocated in the near future for better sound dispersion.

About 10 feet from the entrance is the FOH (front of house) Behringer X-32 mixing console and a rack for power amps, supplemental outboard gear, and a PC computer running Audacity software, which is used to record services.

The Behringer X-32 front of house mixing console.

The unorthodox placement and choice of loudspeakers effectively blend with the metal pipes in a seamless cloud of sound that challenges a listener to differentiate between the actual and the virtual.

Taking the model a step further, Kamel can now augment the live church choir with the Spitfire Whitacre choir software and also add an orchestral range of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments to the organ, creating a sound that would have been just as captivating over a century ago as it is today.

Conclusion:

With the rapidly diminishing number of organ parts manufacturers and qualified technicians, the costs to maintain or refurbish pipe organs have climbed astronomically. The 3 million dollar estimate to restore Calvary’s Aeolian-Skinner organ is on the low end compared to the average rate churches are facing globally.

While not a trained technician, Kamel Boutros’ love for the organ, a sound which held him spellbound as a child growing up in Cairo, Egypt, has out of necessity spurred him to educate himself in organ construction and design. This knowledge, combined with his studies in computer DAW and other music production technologies and an inventor’s imagination, has enabled him to keep his cherished organ sound relevant and expandable on a more humble church budget –  a point of which other churches striving to keep their pipe organs in their music programs should take note.

The heat is coming on and the pipes are clanking. It is a comforting sound. Across the street is Carnegie Hall. You can see the entrance by looking through the dirty windows. Because it is winter there is no sunshine, only shadows in the canyons of West 57th Street. To add to the grimness there is the noise of crosstown traffic.

February 1981. The meeting is with Ed Kleinman in his small office that is Fast Forward management. The job, tour manager of the Stranglers for their UK tour supporting the album The Gospel According to the Meninblack. The Stranglers are one of the more successful British punk rock/new wave bands of the era and had already had success with singles like “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes.” (After this tour they would score major hits with “Golden Brown,” “Always the Sun” and others.)

The Gospel According to the Meninblack album cover.

The tour is booked and advance ticket sales are robust. The pay and per diem are good, and Ed seems all right. Besides, I thought, this has the potential for an interesting experience. What could go wrong?

I accepted the job, and, in a few weeks’ time I was at JFK boarding Pan Am’s evening Flight 100 to Heathrow airport (LHR). The flight landed in the UK just after sunrise and returned to JFK that same afternoon. The British affectionately called the flight “The Pond Hopper.” The New York-London rotation, Flights 100/101.

This was back when flying was fun. it was the best Pan American has to offer in terms of the aircraft and the service. Because of this the giants of industry, government and entertainment were regular customers. (The Beatles took Flight 101 on their first trip to the States in February 1964.)

It is March in the UK and the weather is cold, damp, and mostly cloudy. That is their normal weather for most of the year. In New York City we get that weather sometimes, but England owns the patent on this climate. It is the time of Margaret and Ronald and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. This is before the Falklands War.

We are currently on tour in England and we’re up North. It’s our day off. Some of the group and road crew are hanging in one of the hotel rooms. Nice hotel, big rooms. We have plenty to party with.

Me? I am the only “Septic,” or as it’s said, “Septic Tank.” That is Cockney rhyming slang (Yank = Septic Tank). The rest of the band and crew are from London and the West Country. It is not often that we all get the same day off and are staying at the same hotel. It is nice to just hang with the lads.

I had just hired a new lorry (truck) driver. Our regular driver had become unreliable because he got strung out on Harry, so I had to sack him. That is the thing in rock and roll. You can do whatever drug or drink you would like, as much as you want and whenever you want and most people in the business will look the other way, but the tour and your job come first. If you don’t show up, on time, with your sh*t together, then you are gone.

So, this new guy, Ian, had just separated from the British Army and he was glad to be out. He was stationed in Belfast and in his words it was “disturbing duty” and involved harassing young Irish men. Ian became disillusioned and left. Now he was our driver.

Ian and I have an understanding. We are both military veterans who became disillusioned with our mission. That is why I hired him and now he loves this rock and roll lifestyle. Plus, he has that Army can-do mentality. He gets the job done.

At present we have a road crew of eight and the Stranglers are four, add myself and that makes thirteen. The merchandising group is run by Stranglers’ founder Jet Black’s brother and they travel separately, but I collect their cash along with the box office receipts each night. Sometimes I’m carrying in excess of ten thousand pounds, in which case I bank transfer those monies to band’s bank account in London. That seems to work out to three mornings a week, more or less.

My job of tour manager is much like a crisis manager. I move the business almost daily, two separate entities, the band and their equipment and crew (they’re on different schedules. I hire and fire, collect the monies, sometimes in percentages such as 80/20 (80 percent for the band), but usually, it is a guarantee against a percentage {whichever is greater}. I pay salaries, petrol, and hotels. Schedule all travel. Then do all the accounting (expenses and all cash income). I run every aspect of the company on the road. There is a lot that can go wrong, and things do, but you keep the show going. A bad decision can cost serious money, not to mention the reputation of the band or me. The job pays well and is exciting, engaging, and personally rewarding, not to mention there are some way cool perks. If one is not up to it, it becomes apparent quite soon.

I am acutely aware that carrying a briefcase full of cash makes me a target and that is where Ian and Russell (Ian’s assistant) come in. Being truck drivers means that during the show itself their truck will be parked. Thusly freeing up the boys to do what I call casual security. The British concert scene was much more prone to dust-ups than its American counterpart. My boys, just like me, had all-access backstage passes and could roam the concert hall at will. Their job was first, to keep an eye on me, second the band and crew and finally our equipment.

I need to move around fast and not with an entourage, so they watch over me from a distance. In fact, no one would associate them as being my minders. That is till trouble begins, and then they descend like birds of prey, instantly. Mostly this protocol was unnecessary, but one night in Manchester they more than earned their worth.

Three skinheads jumped me coming out of the promoter’s box office. “You! Septic tank,” the middle one growled at me while grabbing the front of my shirt. He pulled me to him, and head-butted me right in my forehead. Blindsided and suckered I stumbled back on rubbery legs. As I fell into the wall the one on my left punched me right in my jaw and I saw stars, a big white flash and I went down landing hard on my left shoulder. The third one grabbed my briefcase, ripping it from my hand.

He turned to run and was one step away before he was cross-blocked into the wall by Ian. His mates were just behind him when Russell grabbed the slowest one by his arm and spun him around headfirst into the wall. The one left standing was stupefied and backed up a step. Ian grabbed my case from the skinhead on the floor. Russell pushed the one left standing and he staggered backwards down the hallway. Ian grabbed me by my upper arm and helped me up while Russell gave the skinhead on the ground a vicious kick, knocking out a couple of teeth. The skinheads had enough of the fight and scrambled away.

My face hurt and I had the beginning of a big welt on my jaw. “I need some ice,” I said to the boys – and they laughed. “Ken, man, this is England, even the beer is warm! No ice here, mate!” We all cracked up laughing. All in a day’s work.

Next day, we had a gig in Newcastle, (the home of Newcastle Brown Ale). There, drinkers call it “Newkie Brown.” The week before, the Stranglers’ management office had received a letter saying that one of the band’s devoted fans had been paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident and would never walk again. In the letter the fan’s brother asked, “could the band please visit him in hospital?” Management forwarded the letter to me and I showed it to the band. They agreed.

Unannounced, we walked into his hospital room, and the guy could not believe it. It was a special moment. He broke down in tears, sobbing really. His life was over, he said, as he would never walk again. Jet then pointed out to him that if he did not matter, then the band would not have come. Of course he was important, and this was not the end for him, but a new chapter.

The guy’s load seemed to lift and after thirty minutes or so the band said goodbye and this guy had an ear to ear grin, with his spirits by now much improved. This was a “secret mission,” so please, no press coverage on this, J.J. (Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bass player) and Jet Black (the drummer) told me as we left even though it would have cast the band in a flattering light.

Next day we drive south to Nottingham. Normally we play the Apollo and Odeon theater chains. These are mid-sized (3,000 capacity or so) concert halls sprinkled around the UK, but today we were playing a big club for about two and a half thousand people.

That night, backstage I gather the band up and get them up on stage. I head back toward the dressing room and I spy this good-looking lassie smiling at me. Her eyes are sparkling. “I’m Debbie,” she says; “can we talk privately?” “Sure, come into the dressing room.”

I close the dressing room door and she steps up close to me. In less than five minutes she is done with me. I have business to attend to, so I head over to the box office to pick up tonight’s gig money. After counting out the band’s fee I then walk over to merchandising to collect their nights’ proceeds and pick up a silver raven pin (see picture) for Debbie.

After the gig, I load the remaining booze and beer from the dressing room in the boot of our rental car. I grab a couple of band members along with Debbie and we drive back to our hotel.

Next morning after breakfast, I load up both our cars with the band members and head south. Tomorrow night, it is the Hammersmith Odeon, London, sold out.

Rock and roll life has its moments.

 

The Stranglers band image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stranglers France Service.

I knew I was all in with the new Fiona Apple album was when I had my “Shameika” moment.

“Shameika” is the first single and second song on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her first since 2012 and only the second since her reigning masterpiece, Extraordinary Machine. The song appears to be about a friend who made junior high more tolerable for the narrator. Shameika may have been a cool girl, a tough girl, whose encouragement made the bullying suffered by the narrator a little more tolerable. The chorus, when it kicks in, is this repeated four times:

Shameika said I had potential

Shameika said I had potential…

After this chorus the sound explodes in a squall, the percussive white-out of a sudden windy winter snow storm. The chorus stuck in my head, until I was giddy. Singing the line to myself boosted my confidence the way Shameika boosted Apple’s—assuming it is autobiographical.

Adapting the words to myself, I went on Twitter in the midst of coronavirus stasis, to declare: “I’m having a great day. Shameika says I have potential.” I wanted to get a can of spray paint and vandalize the smoke shop wall with the slogan: “Shameika says I have potential,” and wishing I had the artistic savvy to graffiti tag an “F” and a cool picture of an apple.

When was the last time I felt like that about a song? I don’t dare to think, or compare, but it was a while ago. I’ve been Social Security-eligible for a few years.

Fiona Apple has been making music professionally since the mid 1990s. She doesn’t make a lot of records. She seems to have been a sensitive girl and young woman, with her share of bad breaks and break ups, a sexual assault survivor. What I’ve read of her songwriting process, she is someone who has jotted down the words of every feeling since she was 12 (born in 1977, she is now 42) with access to those words when they appear right for a song. She has the gift to take all of life’s slights, large and small, and spin them into musical gold: the minutiae of memory transformed into universal truths.

I approached Fetch the Bolt Cutters gingerly, because of the rapturous immediate greeting it received: a rare 10 (out of 10) from Pitchfork, an A from Christgau’s Consumer Guide, out of 5 form Laura Barton of The Guardian, who called it a “glorious eruption.” Released in mid-April, it was already being hailed as the best album of 2020, no matter what might follow. I knew from experience that whomever violated the orthodoxy, would be seen as a negative noisemaker. Whoever led the backlash to the bandwagon would be decried as a monomaniacal hack or social media provocateur with less credibility than a Twitter sexbot.

That ain’t me babe. Apple plays piano and sings with conservatory skill. She has always had a distinctive approach to piano, both fluid and percussive, especially percussive. Her voice is beautiful, and she could be a master of many styles: blues, show tunes, pop, R&R, rap, rock and roll any old way you choose it. She’ll show you some of that stuff: “Ladies,” the second sweepstakes winner, begins like a laconic Beyoncé song before mutating, as they always do, into a quintessential Fiona Apple song. She addresses her audience directly: “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies…” She repeats this word 16 times, in 16 ways. You can imagine her in concert, speaking this introduction, starting a story to her core audience of … ladies of all ages: single woman, married women, teenagers, teens and their moms (a bonding experience like no other, I would guess), and the boys and men who try to love them. She’d talk about the troubles she’s seen, places she’s been, men who’ve been mean…but she knows how to be mean back. “Ladies” is as far a song of women’s solidarity can possibly go: she forgives and friends the woman who cheated with her man.

Some of the songs in this meticulously sequenced album stick together like best friends. It can’t be an accident that “Heavy Balloon,” a song about depression, which will always submit to gravity, is followed by “Cosmonauts,” about a relationship that defies gravity (yet also yields to it). She’s got gravitas.

In some songs it seems Apple always has her eye on the exit from situations that make her uncomfortable. Fetching the bolt cutters is one way to cut through whatever chains she’s feeling. But the bold “Under the Table,” takes us to an insufferable dinner party, in which she lacerates the preposterously pretentious mutton-heads holding forth. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up,” she sings with emphatic insistence. The language is completely unadorned, as it is in these discussions when one has had too much to drink, and the urge to start or escalate an argument becomes irresistible. Some consider this song the sound of women’s empowerment: Drink your wine and speak your mind. That it may be, but it’s also a testament to the joys of uninhibited loutishness, which has always been a male prerogative in rock. Either way Apple wins.

She also turns a sexist stereotype around in the song, “Rack of His,” a play on a slang term for a woman’s breasts. “Rack of His” indeed makes fun of a certain male appendage: the guitar. Did you ever know a guitar player with one guitar? Of course not, they all proudly display their racks: “Look at that row of guitar necks/lined up like eager fillies/outstretched like legs of Rockettes.” In this love gone wrong story, six strings and a bunch of frets got in the way.

Though guitarist and visual artist David Garza is a key member of the band, you don’t hear a lot of guitar in the foreground: It’s piano and percussion of all kinds, mostly played by Apple and her drummer/co-producer Amy Aileen Wood, who is also a recording engineer.

It is not unusual for Apple to co-produce with her drummer. Her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel… was co-produced with drummer Charley Drayton, a charter member of Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos. For one track, “Valentine,” Drayton and Apple loved the sound of breaking glass so much that they recorded the sounds of a bottle recycling factory. The full name of that 2012 album is: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and oh, to have been a fly on the wall when she broke that news to the Epic Records marketing and album promotion staff.

So along with diction that can be cozy and warm or chilling and precise, there is the lovely racket of things being banged on. The song somewhat randomly titled “Newspaper” is just voice and “timpani, electronic drums, percussion,” for Apple, and drums by drummer Wood. Some songs sound like house parties where everyone is invited to bang on something: a can, a pair of sticks, spoon, bells and chimes, the clickety-clack of a joyous racket. There is also a song called “Drumset,” which is not an ode to the kit but the emptiness left by the one who used to play them.

As a gender-bending genre-bender (in “Shameika,” she is called “a good man in a storm”), there is no easy way to classify Apple. Writer Roy Trakin recently compared her to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, so yeah, she’s that kind of rock. Left of center, idiosyncratic, with a blues flavor not rooted in anyone’s delta. You can’t cover Captain Beefheart (at least not well), but you can cover Waits, and dozens have, voluminously. I thought no one could cover Apple’s tunes until this record, which has some songs that could flow from the gutsy throat of a Bettye LaVette or Mavis Staples. These voices of experience would be necessary to really summon the ferocity of anger in “For Her,” which shakes a tree of bitter fruit: “Good morning,” starts the soulful howl in the chorus, “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” The clattering vocal and rhythm sound like a field recording of a women’s prison chain gang. Fetch the bolt cutters.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sachyn Mital.

© 2023 PS Audio, Inc.

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