The Liner Notes Chronicles — Part 4

I’ve been involved in putting out a number of records through the years; sometimes I’ve had the responsibility of sequencing them.  That, for the few of you who may not know the term, means putting the songs in a particular order: not what songs are included (that’s another problem), but how the album begins, end, and what the middle sounds like — how it flows.

I never gave sequencing much of a thought until I heard my first Beatles albums (“Meet”/”With”) in their U.S./UK incarnations. Pretty much the same songs, but the UK version flowed so much better. Whether or not anybody agrees with that assessment, it was clear that the order in which songs are arranged on an album can make a great deal of difference.

At least, it’s simply a matter of making sure that (as in a good live set), the audience doesn’t get bored. Not too many fast songs in a row; not too many slow ones (even more than the fast ones); not in the same key, one after another. The listener may not know exactly what’s going on, at least if not looking for it, but it can keep an album (or live set) from bogging down.

Front-loading — putting the “hit” single at the beginning of the album — never made much sense to me as a listener. It makes sense to labels and radio stations both; making sure that the “right” song is right there where it’s easy to find and not miscue.

All the albums I’ve put together have been compilations of previously-released material. My method, such as it is, forks off in two — maybe three — directions. The easiest is chronological. “Greatest hits” album often work best that way, if only because an act develops as years go by, and the sound changes along with it. Audiences (at least those who grew up with the band) probably heard I Want to Hold Your Hand before they heard Strawberry Fields Forever, and hearing the in reverse order would jar on several levels.

Still, on the occasions I have gone chronological, sometimes I’ll change the order slightly in order to keep the flow going. Though on one album I compiled, I used a pretty straight chronological order; the kick-off song was, conveniently, a real ‘rouser. Before the album was released, someone at the label decided to lead instead with the act’s biggest hit, which was lazy and slow. I won’t say it ruined the whole album, but (a) any disc jockey who played it would be some college-radio type who wouldn’t need to be guided to the hit, and (b) it really pissed me off — and though I didn’t say anything about it (nor was I consulted before the switch was made), I never worked for the label again. As the old joke goes: they weren’t paying me enough to treat me like that!

The most fun, for me at least, comes when a little creativity is possible (this is easier, admittedly, when the act’s sound is reasonably consistent).  Then, I try to construct a record as I would a live set: opening and closing with something rousing or otherwise appropriate (A Beatles album might begin with Good Morning, Good Morning and end with Goodnight).

Those are generally the easiest choices; filling in the middle, for me, is more instinctive than intellectual: I put together various sequences until I find one that sounds “right” to me. Admittedly, that’s a matter of taste to some degree, but you can bet that three slow songs one after the other won’t sound “right” to you any more than it will to you — unless the act is one of those who find a groove and stick to it, a choice that in most cases would drive me out of the room.

I mentioned a possible third fork. That’s when you try to tell a story. So far as I can remember, I’ve only tried that once. While I was writing the liner notes to a “Hts” album by the Irish Rovers, bandleader George Millar mentioned in passing that he’d like to see “a real, Irish album.”  Though the Rovers (Canada-based, though originally from Ireland) started doing traditional songs like their countrymen The Clancy Brothers, some of their hits — notably The Unicorn — had nothing to do with folk music (it was composed by Shel Silverstein) or Ireland.

When it came time to actually put together “a real, Irish album,” Millar was unavailable, and the song selection and sequencing were left to me (somebody else had done that on the “Hits” record). As I wasn’t compelled to put The Unicorn, Wasn’t That a Party  or anything else in particular on the record, I assembled their earlier albums, listened to them all, and picked the songs I felt worked best.

As I listened, a story began to develop. Briefly, the album (compiled from several that the band had recorder through the years) begins with a number that (whatever its actual provenance) sounds very old — penny-whistles and percussion predominate — follows through with some traditional and traditional-sounding songs, continue into a sequence dealing with Irish emigration to North America (with one about the Molly Maguires, and builds to a bit, but traditional-sounding conclusion with a cute “encore” at the end. I like it a lot, and it’s still available. I’m very proud of it.



(Today’s) desert Island discs

A music website has been compiling posters’ “desert island” discs — you know, if you were to spend an indefinite amount of time on a desert island, what records would you want, and why. They preferred selections where we could provide the record via YouTube, which leaves out albums. Well, not really — we could always post a track from an album. Some other time, maybe. They were also asking for a personal connection, where possible.

We were asked to make eight selections; then add a book and an “object.” Here’s my entry:

My earliest memories were whatever was on the radio at the time – I vaguely remember The Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene, “Kaw-Liga” by somebody or another who wasn’t Hank Williams, and Les Paul and Mary Ford. But while I liked those records at the time enough to remember them now, I’ll have to say that in retrospect Gordon Jenkins’ orchestrations ruined The Weavers (though he gets a lot of respect for helping them get on what was then a major label); “Kaw-Liga” still is far from my favorite Hank Williams song; and I’m still not all that fond of Mary Ford’s vocals on Les Paul’s records, though I appreciate the craft that went into them.

So the first record – or at least the earliest – I’d take to the desert island is something by Nellie Lutcher. Her version of “Cool Water” was in my grandmother’s collection, though I still have no idea what she was doing with an album (in the old sense of several 78s in a binder) by a black jazz/lounge singer; and why, of all the songs therein, I’d be especially drawn to her rather drowsy version of a song originally sung by the Hollywood cowboy vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers, and written by its Bob Nolan.
As life went on, I became a major fan of the Sons of the Pioneers (particularly their ‘30s and ‘40s stiff, before they sort of went uptown with the – again – orchestrations), and was even privileged to meet Nellie Lutcher. She was to appear at the Cinegrill, a local bôite, and I interviewed her for the newspaper I was writing for at the time (they trusted me to write about pretty much anybody I liked, provided I mix it up and include some popular “names”). If she was taken aback by my story of having been introduced to her through my grandmother’s record collection, she kept it to herself. As nice as she was talented, Nellie later sent me a small cooking grill. I don’t cook outside (living in an apartment) and ethics should have prohibited me from accepting it anyway, but it wasn’t an expensive one (I reasoned), and wouldn’t it be unforgivably rude to refuse such a kind gesture?
All that said, for my desert island stay, I’d prefer something a little slinkier. And after a few weeks of exposure to the island sunshine, I might even qualify as the subject of her lust.

My father (from Nebraska, which is as mid-American as it gets) was an Anglophile; to the point where he subscribed to “The Illustrated London News” and “Punch,” bought me a subscription to “Boy’s Own Paper”, and – to my lasting gratitude – introduced me to the works of authors including A.A. Milne and Geoffrey Williams. He also had a few records by Englishmen in the collection: Flanders & Swann, “Beyond the Fringe,” and – more obscurely – the “Albert” poems of Marriott Edgar, recited by Stanley Holloway. Somewhere along the way, I also became enamored of musical theater.

The first album I remember buying was Tommy Dorsey’s “Hawaiian War Chant,” which launched my lifetime love of big band jazz, despite my mother’s being scandalized by the sarong-clad woman (quite demure, really, and somewhat obscured by red light) on the cover. My second album, as I recall, was Ritchie Valens’ debut; and my third was Gene Vincent’s second, the one with the color photo of Gene and the Band looking especially cool.

There was a lot of variety in Gene’s early albums – I still think he’s severely underrated as a ballad singer – and the band was both hot and “cool” in the sense of cool jazz. I met Gene in 1969 through a mutual friend, and was invited to attend the sessions for the two albums he recorded for the Kama Sutra label in Los Angeles. The first, where Gene was backed by members of the Sir Douglas quintet plus a few ringers, I wrote up as my initial contribution to “Rolling Stone.” Some discographies show me as a background singer, along with the producer’s wife and girlfriend, both of whom were living with him at the time. Trust me: though we were all present, none of us sang on the album. Possibly, the producer listed us on the invoice to the record company, and pocketed the money. Possibly not.
While I like the Kama Sutra albums, particularly the first one, for the desert Island I’m taking an earlier, Capitol cut. Like a lot of rockabillies, Gene had a sentimental streak a mile deep.

Can’t be on a desert island without a Beatles record, right? Well, I can’t. It’d be easy for me to pick one for each: today it’d be “And Your Bird Can Sing” for John; “If I Needed Someone” for George; “I’m Down” for Paul; and, well, “Boys” would be as good as anything for Ringo. But pick one song to stand for all four? That is, as the King of Siam would sing, “a puzzlement.” How about “Rain”? I could spend months, trying to figure how those bass and drum parts were inspired.

Chuck Berry, too: the man who owns as much claim as anybody to have invented rock and roll guitar, and to this day one of the music’s cleverest lyricists. Again, what would I not get tired of hearing? First choice would be the instrumental he released at various points (all different recordings) as “Rockin’ at the Philharmonic,” “One O’Clock Jump” (with the Basie riff somewhere in the background), “Rockin’ at the Fillmore,” and – the definitive version – “Liverpool Drive.” If I were to learn guitar, I’d be tempted to play this to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe on the desert island… (The one here is cut off at the beginning and sounds like a different take than I’m used to, but it’s close enough).

I’ve always enjoyed the Everly Brothers, less so during their brief “psych” period, maybe, but there was always something. Generally speaking, the more “country” the better. But when I first heard this update of an old Perry Como ballad on my car radio, I literally pulled over to the side of the street (Loma Vista; I remember it that well) to find out what the hell the record was, and who was performing it.

Anybody who knows me knows my love for country music; I grew up listening to it and watching a lot of great weekend shows (Town Hall Party, Cal’s Corral, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, the Spade Cooley Show, etc.) on L.A. television. Even I’m surprised at my love for country music of the ‘70s, often polished up as it was. But the writing and singing were never better than during those years I like uptempo stuff as much as anybody, but I also go for ballads that can break your heart. To me, this 1978 single is probably the best record by my favorite female country singer of all time. She wrote it with producer Billy Sherrill and the man she married after her divorce from George Jones.

Finally, the record I sometimes think may be my favorite single of all time, by anybody. Lyrics, melody, vocals…even the typically-thin Motown string arrangement (maybe a little beefier than usual) works here. I could easily listen to it countless times; thanks in part to the way the song and arrangement shift around. In time, I might even learn the dance steps to go with it.

There are a couple of books I try to read every couple of years; both of them stand up to that treatment. “A Confederacy of Dunces” is one of them; richly comic and almost terrifyingly autobiographical – or maybe it just seems that way to me. But the book I’d take is Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man,” which is even funnier than the movie; and also, I would expect, a pretty well researched trip though the latter years of the Old West. Part of the fun is trying to determine whether narrator Jack Crabb is making up or hallucinating his tales of life after being adopted into a Native American tribe and leading up to his participation in the Battle of the Little Big Horn (and beyond), though ultimately it doesn’t matter — of course he’s making it up: [i]it’s a novel[/i]. Many years later, Berger returned to the territory; the sequel – “The Return of Little Big Man – isn’t as well known, but it is pretty much as good as the original. In fact, it’s just about time for me to read them both again.

And an “object”? Sort of depends on what’s already on the island, doesn’t it? Presumably something to play the music is included (as well as a power source), I’d probably turn vegetarian, so no use for fishhooks or fancy cutlery. Will I need a blanket for those cool desert island nights? And I’ve learned not to treat women as objects.

Maybe a deck of cards. Or a computer with WI-fi and a very long extension cord.

Yeah, I’ll take that.