While I often express a preference for live performance over studio albums, there can be no denying that the overwhelming majority of my music collection comes from efforts made in the recording studio. There is a lot of magic on my media shelves, and I respect each and every moment of it.
There are times when I wonder if the bands realize how amazing their work is. I like to imagine Led Zeppelin sitting in the control room after a recording session, listening back to their efforts. Maybe Robert Plant heard something that made him smile, and he clapped Jimmy Page on the back, exclaiming, “DAMN, we’re good!” It probably never happened that way, but I like to think it did. Maybe John Coltrane listened to his quartet play A Love Supreme, and said to his band, “Gentlemen, I think we have created a classic!” But I doubt it. Based on what I’ve gleaned from the musicians I’ve met and interviewed, they have no real objective grasp of what they have just done until long after the fact. And maybe that’s just as well.
I’ve been asked more than once where/when I would like to go should I ever get access to a time machine. Like many others, I might want to go back to a certain point in history and undo/alter a major event. But more often than not, I find myself wanting to find myself in the recording studio with some of my favorite artists as they laid down the tracks to one of their legendary albums. It will come as no surprise that there are quite a few possible sessions on my list. I tried to narrow it down to a happy few. Here they are, in no particular order.
When you consider that most bands these days take a year or more to record an album (after a year or two break, no less), it seems positively stunning that Miles Davis and his band recorded his landmark album, Kind of Blue, in two days! Even more remarkable, Miles didn’t bring complete songs into the studio with him! He brought in the basic theme statements for each song, and then let John Coltrane (tenor sax), Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto sax), Bill Evans (piano), Wynton Kelly (piano on one track), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums) improvise their solos. And while making solos up on the fly was hardly a new concept for jazz bands, the vast majority of the finished product was captured on the first take! In the dictionary under “musicians” should simply be a photo of these guys at work on this album.
I’m not a Beach Boys fan. Their songs about hot rods and surfing do nothing for me. That being said, I would have loved to have been in the studio with Brian Wilson as he assembled the elements for the album that became Pet Sounds, which is arguably one of the best albums of the 20th century. It would have been beyond fascinating to ask him questions about his thought processes for his songs, which were relentlessly experimental. I have watched documentaries and docs-dramas on this album, but nothing would ever take the place of actually being there, and hearing it all come together. Maybe then I would understand why “God Only Knows” never fails to bring me to tears.
It would be almost obvious to say I would love to go to Abbey Road Studios to hear the Beatles create Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And that would be amazing. But truth be told, the album I wanted to see them create is Revolver. Out of context, this album seems pretty straightforward. But the truth is this album is revolutionary, and the first of its kind. Revolver is the first album the Beatles made after they came off the road. They were free to experiment with endless sonic possibilities, because they didn’t have to worry about trying to reproduce their creations on stage. The results were stunning.
I have frequently told people they should appreciate the studio contributions of the Beatles and their producer, Sir George Martin. For without those efforts, a LOT of what is heard in today’s music would not be. In the PBS documentary, Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music (which I highly recommend), Giles Martin (son of George) eloquently makes my case for me, with evidence to back it up.
Between 1971 and ’76, Stevie Wonder could do no wrong. He fired off an absolutely incredible string of albums, including Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Music of My Mind, and Songs in the Key of Life. But if forced to pick just one album from this era, I would love to observe the construction of Innervisions. The music here is a perfect storm of Wonder’s musical skill, the right technology (including electric pianos and synthesizers), and the social elements that inspired many of the songs. I don’t know whether or not I would have asked a lot of questions here. I think I’d just get out of the way and let the music happen.
If you’ve been reading my page, you are well aware of my love for King Crimson, particularly from the ’80s. It would have been a gas to watch them record Discipline, the first album Robert Fripp (guitar), Adrian Belew (guitar and vocals), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick), and Bill Bruford (drums) recorded together. The band was new, the chemistry was fresh, and ideas were flying around everywhere. How fun it must have been to watch this group come together, firing off some of the wildest sounds on record. This album completely altered the way I saw music. I haven’t looked back since.
I’m a big Radiohead fan. Like many others, the album that brought me into the fold was OK Computer. Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect and admiration for The Bends, the band’s previous album. But this is the album that put them over the proverbial top. OK Computer feels like the soundtrack to a science fiction movie. I can only imagine what that film would look like! It would have been really interesting to watch Thom Yorke and company put this album together. For a band who claimed they hated progressive rock (which they did in the documentary Meeting People is Easy), this is a remarkably prog-oriented album. Perhaps they were being a bit facetious.
Most recently, I would give just about anything to be in the studio with Steven Wilson, particularly while he was recording The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other Stories), which I tend to view as pretty much perfect from front to back. Wilson’s process is the one I would like to study the most. I’d like to observe his process from beginning to end, particularly when it comes to arrangements. He seems to have a gift for giving his musicians just the right amount of musical freedom within the context of a song. Nobody in the band loses himself to the detriment of the whole. That’s not always the easiest thing to do.
I just realized I’ve covered only about a third of my list. Let’s save those for another day. The recording studio is a place of awe and wonder. There are so many records I wish I could have heard as they were being recorded. There’s no way I can cover everything in one fell swoop.
So until next time …