Have you ever noticed how some music productions seem to be
trapped in an era, while, even years after they were recorded, others remain fresh and timeless? Due to available recording technology and prevailing production trends, records tend to be branded as coming from a certain era and
even more specifically from a genre popular during that period of time. A few years
pass and these recordings still evoke nostalgia, but no longer sound contemporary or viable. Still, there are some classic hit records from decades past that could probably climb the charts and rule today’s airwaves today as readily as they did back when they first came out.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing when a certain song or artist’s sound represents a precise piece of pop music history. The early Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran records still rock, even though they both made liberal use of the innovation of tape slap strongly identified with the rockabilly of the mid ’50s. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Summertime Blues” are still just as vibrant today as they were when they first quickened teenaged hearts back in the day. (Mind you, they no longer sound nearly as rebellious as they once did; but no one could deny they still capture a sincere, youthful energy and express the emotional commitment that remains the hallmark of all great rock ’n‘ roll.) But, here’s an interesting syndrome that seems to have repeated itself over and over since the Waltz scandalized Europe in Brahms’ time: Music that starts out challenging the gentile sensitivities of mainstream society
often eventually becomes part of that very mainstream. Take metal and punk, for instance. Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel The Noise,” an aggressive barrage of teen revolt in 1984, has in this new millennium become a standard at sports events. The same goes for “Sedated,” by the Ramones. The once-abrasive sounds of Led Zepellin and ACDC are now used to sell Cadillacs on TV. Cadillacs, for crimany sake! No longer do most parents or grandparents run from the room in horror
when distorted guitars blast and bombastic drums pound—or even when Robert
Plant shrieks, “Baby, baby, baby...” in a raspy falsetto that can be heard on neighboring planets.
But, let’s dare to compare the two records I just mentioned (Quiet Riot and The Ramones), because they kind of prove the primary point I’m trying to make here. Certainly “Sedated” predates QR’s Slade cover by six or seven years. Yet, to my ears, the Ramones’ record still sounds fresh and
contemporary, while the QR record is a quaint snapshot of mid-’80s hair-band,
hard rock. The production of “Sedated” has few, if any, evident audio earmarks.
It’s just a good recording of an enthusiastic punk band, making an earnest
musical statement. Therefore, nothing in the sound confines the record to any
particular era or genre. The Quiet Riot recording, although surely
groundbreaking for its day, utilizes every studio trick in the ’80s playbook:
huge, roomy drum ambience and multi-layered vocals, with the entire mix bathed
in the new-fangled digital reverb so popular in that decade. Like a ceramic
pot, dug up on an archeological expedition, the QR recording bears the
unmistakable, identifying markers of a specific epoch. Music historians of the
future will easily be able to identify Riot’s version of “Cum On...” as having
been recorded between 1982 and 1987—post-New Wave, during the massive
resurgence of hair bands, certainly pre-Nirvana.
There are similar comparisons in all genres of pop music. Let’s take country, for instance. Some of the supergroup Alabama’s biggest hits are forever stuck in the late ’80s by their overt and extremely awkward use of electronic, Linn drums. At the same time, Merle Haggard, John Anderson, and
Conway Twitty recordings from the same era remain relatively ageless. When
those records were made, Alabama was considered “cutting edge.” How quickly a
quarter century has turned those once ultra-hip records into quaint curiosities from a bygone age.
Ironically, the band that gave Alabama its template, the Eagles, never succumbed to that kind of trendy production trickery. All of the Eagles’ records remain absolutely timeless in their tasty restraint. No drum sound, guitar effect, or reverb ties their sound to any particular time. That
is even more true of the recordings of Steely Dan. Often dry as a bone, relying only
on pristinely recorded, incredible performances of meticulously constructed songs,
Steely Dan’s records, like The Eagles, will very likely endure and stay fresh
for decades, if not centuries. The same might be said of some of the most
successful singer/songwriters of that same era: Van Morrison, James Taylor, Cat Stevens,
Jackson Browne, and Billy Joel.
With few exceptions, the hit country records of the mid ’90s were slick, kitchen-sink productions, awash in reverb, recalling the pop and rock records of prior decades. Then, along came the Dixie Chicks to smash that mold to smithereens. Like Steely Dan, the Chicks made carefully crafted
records that were dry, in your face, and relied only on great musicianship and
pure personality to put across their smart songs and spunky attitude. Not only
did the three blondes from Texas rocket to superstardom and sell in the
multi-millions, they made records that compare favorably with Steely Dan and
the Eagles, and will likely be equally as enduring. Those cooler-than-cool
ladies even managed to make the banjo hip again. That, in and of itself, was a feat!
A few years back, as I was perusing the bins of a used CD shop, hoping to discover some bargain treasures, I came across Don Henley’s End of The Innocence album. Recalling a record
filled with brilliant songs all captured by spectacular, state-of-the-art
recording, grabbed it greedily. As I cranked up the CD in my car, I realized
that my recollection of the material was certainly spot on. The title track,
along with the poignant, passionate “Heart of the Matter,” were more than worth
the $5.95 I paid for this pre-loved product. The production, however, was
another story altogether. The drum sounds, the reverbs, and the guitar effects
almost made what I had remembered as a sterling example of bar-setting
production into a near parody of a brief period of pop-music history. In spite
of Henley’s exemplary songwriting, the production and mix made the album
difficult to listen to. It’s truly ironic that a leading member of a band that
had accomplished so many evergreen recordings was to fall, in his post-Eagle
years, so deeply under the spell of the temporary fads of the day.
What’s my point? It’s simple. We all want to be hip, with it, cool. We’d like to think that we’re on that proverbial “cutting edge.” We go into the studio, or labor away at home in our home Pro Tools (or Logic, or Nuendo, whatever) facilities to craft productions that reflect the latest
sounds we hear on the radio. However, we should be aware that those sounds were
probably made at least a year ago. And, by the time our new recordings get into
circulation, new trends might very well be emerging. This is just as true with
song demos as it is with master recordings. To a large degree, this awareness
should even apply to our song lyrics. How many excellent country songs have now
been rendered obsolete by a reference to the now antiquated “Code-a-phone?”
While I always encourage writers to use specific images in their lyrics, we’d
all be wise to steer clear of talkin’ ’bout stuff that’s bound to be an
anachronism tomorrow (unless, of course, we’re intentionally recalling a
specific period of time in the past.) A Coke may live on forever; but a Razor
gives way to a Blackberry, which surrenders to an iPhone, and on and on to
whatever hand-held device might be unveiled in the misty vapors of the
When it comes to audio production, there are basically three elements that can potentially stigmatize a recording by trapping it in a specific period of time: (A) ambience (reverbs, room sounds, gated verbs,
slaps, etc.) usually on drums and/or vocals (B) electric guitar effects
(particularly chorusing and/or flanging) and (C) processing on vocals
(vocorder, excessive tuning, filtering, etc.). Sometimes it takes years for a
song to find its way to the marketplace – whether it’s a vehicle for you as an
artist, or a composition pitched to other artists. If your songs and demos are
too specific to today’s trends, there’s a strong likelihood they will not
remain viable for long enough to find a home. My advice to all artists and
songwriters is to be as discrete as possible in how you write your songs and
how you produce them. Give your work a chance to be just as current in ten
years as you intend it to be now. Take some guidance from the Eagles, Steely
Dan, and Dixie Chicks: Try to write and record lasting, enduring music, not
music that is likely to sound out of step and old-fashioned as soon as the
calendar pages turn.
Just some thoughts and advice from an old Song Dog -- still barkin’ after all these years. I wish you every success with your musical aspirations. And keep rockin’!