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.

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Write your own liner notes; put me out of a[nother] job (The Liner Notes Chronicles — Part 3)

A friend of mine, Kajsa Ohman, is working on her new album. Knowing that I’ve written a lot of liner notes, she was nice enough to ask me to write some for her. I wrote back, explaining that my work has been on historical material — reissues and compilations — and that while her album might prove historic, it was all brand new and not really my bailiwick.

She is a terrific writer of prose in addition to songs (some musicians are; many aren’t), so I suggested she write her own. She protested (slightly) that she’d feel uncomfortable writing how great she is.

Here’s a slightly expanded version of my reply. You may find something to think about, or disagree with. In the meantime, I’m anxious to see what she comes up with.

You don’t have to say you’re great — I never do (figuring that anybody who’s bought the album already likes the artist), though I might (but might not) quote somebody else to that effect.

Up to the CD area, liner notes were at least an opportunity to sell an album — can’t tell you how many albums by people I’d never heard of I bought after reading about them on the back of the record jackets as I browsed the store. Other times, the label would slip some prominent disk jockey a few bucks in exchange for his signing a paragraph telling how much he liked the performer.

As time passed, artists gaining more control didn’t understand — or care — and used the space for photos, illegible lyrics, thanking God, whatever. Mary McCaslin, who works something like the same territory as Kajsa, used to supply tunings for her songs. Maybe she still does. Note: if people need to read your lyrics, it’s time for a remix if not a re-recording, this time without the pebbles in your mouth. And of course some lyrics are better if not understood.

The CD format changed the whole deal. You can’t read the inside of the booklet until you’ve removed the shrink-wrap. And because the art director doesn’t have 144 square inches to play with, the type is usually so small that the text is difficult, if not impossible, to read. (Note: use black type on white. Anything else is begging for trouble). And don’t get me started on music downloads Even if art and notes are available online, they probably won’t be, forever.

To you, I’d suggest starting the notes on the back cover, to people can be intrigued by your story of how the album came to being, and continuing it on the inside. If any credits might work as sales tools (i.e., that [nonexistent, in this case] Bruce Springsteen duet). make sure people can see ’em. Also, song titles; especially if people can get an idea what the song’s about from the title. And even more especially if you do a song people can see listed and say “Gee, Kajsa does this song — that sounds interesting.”

Otherwise, write ’em conversationally, as you do the blog. And be sure to (ahem) use spell check.

As the old saying about writing speeches goes, “like a woman’s skirt — long enough to cover the subject, and short enough to be interesting.” And make sure the type is legible. I’d go eight point, minimum.

If I can help along the way, of course I’d be happy to. But if you do them yourself, it’s you who will be eligible for the liner notes Grammy.

The liner note chronicles, continued

Through the years, one of the most fun and (at least intellectually) rewarding things I’ve done professionally is writing liner notes for albums by recording artists ranging from the Jazz Crusaders to the de Castro Sisters; from Pat Boone to the cast of “Bonanza,” and from Mel Blanc to Rick Nelson. I’ve done several dozen of them, for numerous big and small labels, and I can’t think of one I didn’t enjoy researching and writing.

The college I attended (at least the one I claim) is a “great books” school, where students rely entirely on primary sources: you don’t read “about” Euclidean geometry; you read Euclid. In Greek. And so on.

For various reasons, I only lasted two years at St. John’s, but that was enough to instill some values in me; one of which was to go to the source, wherever possible. I’m not distinguishing myself from other liner note writers, most of whom also try to deal with the artists whenever possible (some don’t bother; others, including me in a couple of cases, are warned against dealing with an artist the label doesn’t want to “meddle” in the project). And of course, some of the times, the artist is no longer available to be interviewed by anybody, being dead.

Still, there’s usually somebody available; and in many cases those on the sidelines are at least as informative as the artist.

Songwriters are my favorite; they always have interesting stories, and unless they’re household names (usually as performers), they haven’t been overburdened with interview requests through the years. I’ve also spoken with recording engineers, arrangers, producers, sidemen, label executives, and members of the act’s bands. Anybody with first-hand experience. I may not be the only person who does this, but I like to think of the use of a lot of firsthand quotes as a sort of trademark. Oddly, perhaps, nobody from a label has ever mentioned that; I wonder if they even notice, or care. Also, I will occasionally see where the writer has conducted some firsthand interviews, but uses few if any direct quotes. “What a waste,” I think.

I’ve had some exceptional fortune. When I was writing about Frankie Laine, Clint Eastwood spoke with me about “Rawhide.” I’d been trying to get to Johnny Cash to talk about himself (generally relative to an upcoming personal appearance) for decades without luck; it wasn’t until I was writing about Rick Nelson’s “Restless Kid” that Cash, who wrote the song for “Rio Bravo” (where it wasn’t used), would speak with me.


Other times, I’ve had less luck, Two musicians significantly involved in Frankie Laine’s records went on to long and distinguished careers under their own names. Laine considered them proteges; neither of them wanted to talk about their work with the singer. I went back-and-forth with one’s publicist for several months; I actually spoke with the assistant of the other, who always referred to her boss as “the maestro.” Both were said to have been “on tour,” to places, presumably, without access to telephones.

I’ve had no luck with film directors, either: Blake Edwards through his assistant wasn’t available to talk about the Frankie Laine vehicles he’d directed in the years of his career pre- “Pink Panther’ and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; likewise Taylor Hackford, who early in his career worked on a Rick Nelson documentary. George Sidney, who’d directed three Ann-Margret vehicles including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Viva Las Vegas”, wouldn’t speak to me on the record (he did take my call, then clammed up) until he received permission from the actress.

Speaking of whom:

I’d tried to get Ann-Margret for a year, through her management, who came up with one delay after another. And the day (literally) of my deadline, she came through. I took some quotes and plugged them into what I’d already written. And this was for an Ann-Margret box!

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Another time, I’d spoken with every member of Steppenwolf except keyboardist Goldie McJohn and lead guitarist Michael Monarch, though I’d sent out missives trying to locate Monarch, especially, all over the place for some time. The day after I handed in my copy, the phone rang. “Hi, this is Michael Monarch. I hear you’ve been trying to get hold of me.”

We had to do without his input.