The process that the big band era had used had worked wonders for artists like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, but it was what this same process did after the tidal wave of rock and roll swept the country that really interests the Spacebomb Records team.
Four weeks ago, I wrote a little bit about what it was like to make records in the first half of the 20th century — a process that the folks over here in the Spacebomb Records offices put a lot of value on. But let’s face it, we do not live in the first half of the 20th century and sometimes marrying yourself to customs and fads from years past is really unoriginal. The last thing Spacebomb wants to be is a bunch of re-creationist Luddites. Fortunately for us, the customs of the first half of the century didnt stop there but continued on developing throughout the next 25 years before a massive sea change befell the industry.
The process that the big band era had used (the predominant pop-music until rock and roll hit in the early 50’s), relying on a high level of musicianship, a significant amount of arranging forethought, precise large ensemble play, and recording within strict time limits and technological boundaries, had worked wonders for artists like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. But it was what this same process did after the tidal wave of rock and roll swept the country that really interests the Spacebomb offices. The music had changed in many ways: ensemble size, sectional roles were different, the electric guitar was being introduced, the rhythms were different but the process that we admire so much was able to weather these stylistic changes admirably.
Not only was rock and roll changing the face of American pop music in the fifties but recording technology was changing as well. Instead of two tracks, you now had four and in a decade would have eight (and so on and so on until the digital revolution allows us to have infinite tracks…unhealthy if you ask me). That means that instead of setting up two microphones in a room you could now set up four and then eight and so on and so on. And additionally, a man by the name of Les Paul invented what we call overdubbing. This means that you can record something, and then record over it later and hear both things back at once. This seems so simple now but back then it was a riot. All these things gave the young men who found themselves at the dawn of the recording industry many more options than they had ten years previously and subsequently changed the music forever. Records used to be a reflection of a band’s live performance, a way to translate the live concert into your living room. Now, live performance is generally a reflection of a studio recording, and going to a concert is a way of taking your living room listening euphoria into a larger forum. The studio was no longer something that tried to translate sound transparently to our ears, it was actively interfering, experimenting, changing that sound and became a lens that colored sound in beautiful, new and exciting ways. All that to say! The music was changing, the technology was changing but the basic process was staying the same.
In L.A., a young man named Phil Spector was creating his “Wall of Sound” with a group of musicians that became known as “The Wrecking Crew” (so named because the older musicians thought they were wrecking music). Spector was producing hits left and right (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Unchained Melody“) and would go on to produce the Beatles’ Let it Be album as well as George Harrison’s chart topping solo record All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Imagine. His sound was massive, doubling everything, often had 3 basses, two drummers and strings, choir, and horns. He ambitiously stretched the studio to its breaking point, using all the physical space that a studio would allow and all the tricks that a studio could perform. His sound was more or less a reconstituted large ensemble sound from the thirties but with the added sonic trends of his time and the advancement of technology on his side. A few years later, after sitting in on countless Spector sessions, a kid named Brian Wilson would use all the tricks he had learned from Phil to record his pop masterpiece, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. (See: BehindTheSounds on YouTube)
In Detroit, The Motown Sound was capturing the imagination of America. Taking Black soul music and consciously sweetening it to the tastes of the white female teenager (who was and still is the primary musical consumer) Motown was a hit-making machine. Using a band that became known as the Funk Brothers, Motown musicians were punching the clock every day and night making some of the most memorable songs this country has produced. The Temptations, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight etc etc, the list goes on and on. All those songs have, more or less, the same musicians, the same arrangers, the same group of songwriters. And notably, they are almost all from Detroit. A truly regional label with a true regional sound.
Stax records, like Motown, began as a small regional enterprise. Using local boys Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr. — a group of young men who come to be known as Booker T. and the MG’s — Stax recorded absolutely iconic southern soul music. Their own roster included the legendary Otis Redding but really began to blossom when the folks at Atlantic Records began sending artist after artist (Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave) down South to record using the inimitable Stax sound. They ingrained record after record in our consciousness all using the same studio, the same band, the same set of songwriters and a process dating back to 50 years, to the pre-dawn of the recording industry.
All these folks kept their feet planted squarely in the middle of American musical song, embraced the changing culture and technology that the post war years were bringing and pushed us forward with their imagination and courage. All that while making records in primarily the same way as their heroes and teachers, the men that inhabited recording studios in the first generation of recorded sound. Spacebomb has a different culture to embrace and different technological problems to navigate, but standing on the shoulders of our heroes and teachers we hope to use our imagination to make music unlike any other, still standing squarely in the tradition of American musical song.
In the years that followed the heyday of house bands and regional sounds, a very interesting change swept the industry pushing to the side many of the values that Spacebomb holds dear (though not all). Change is wonderful, often reorganizing things in a fresh and satisfying way. The music industry has changed mightily in the last 50 years and it this last conversation that might be the most interesting, and relevant to us all. Part 3 of “History of a Process” will appear in newstands in two weeks.
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club” – Jack London
Spacebomb presents KingBoomy and Trio of Justice at Balliceaux on Wednesday, April 13, at 10pm. Free, 21+. Balliceaux is located at 203 N. Lombardy St. in Richmond, VA. Visit balliceauxrva.com for more info.
Visit Spacebomb online at spacebombrecords.com