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Recording Mythology, Pt. 34 / We Serve At the Pleasure of Music

By the time that I secured a job in my second record store, the proliferation of spandex clad guitar ballerinas, big hair and makeup was enough to make me want to quit. God, I hated the Eighties.

I recall the epitome of it: One night, some friends and I were watching one of Roy Orbison’s last live performances. He was playing with an ensemble which included some other guitarist who looked strangely out of place. While Roy was doing one of his classic tunes, he gives strange dude the nod to take a lead break. What this guy did was deplorable. Rather than being satisfied with sharing the stage with a legend and playing a respectably fitting lead, this clown goes directly to the pedestal of self-worship, both hands dancing like spiders all over the fretboard, showcasing his ego at the expense of the song. I’d have executed him right onstage if I’d been Roy. Classic Eighties Dillweed – to hell with what the song calls for, he’s balls out like there’s no tomorrow with all of his freaking ‘chops’.

And that, in a word, describes the Eighties. Overkill. Luckily, there were folks like Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins, and even Iron Maiden on ‘the other side’ who helped me maintain my sanity. On this side, I finally discovered a true acoustic artist named Michael Hedges, who utilised a unique version of the two-handed technique while maintaining a sense of melody. But as far as electric guitar players went, after Eddie Van Halen, the rest of them were a course in obviating redundancy.

But this article is not about the Eighties.

George Harrison once said that he liked to think of the guitar lead as being a song inside a song. Listen to his tasteful lead on ‘Nowhere Man’. Shortly after Rickenbacher presented him with the second electric 12 string that they made, he prehended the opportunity to serve the song splendidly. I challenge anyone to compose a simpler and better lead for that song. In the same vein, I wasn’t ever crazy about Guns N Roses, but at least Slash kept his hands where they belonged, and he dutifully fulfilled his position with some very carefully composed leads.

Whether composing in the home studio or comping during a live set, the first thing that one should remain aware of is that we serve at the pleasure of music. Once again, this involves not only listening but hearing as well. It is easy to get caught up in the moment from time to time, but it pays to remember that just because ‘some’ is good, ‘more’ isn’t necessarily better. We must become subservient to the tune we are presently performing. The ability to foster this quality is what separates the men from the boys.

If a melody of half notes would better convey the emotion of the piece, we shouldn’t feel obligated to cram a thirty-second note into every available crevice. That’s a lot like exhaling without ever inhaling. The music needs to breathe, and the job of the composer, as well as the performer, is to realise this by considering the pace and the feel of the tune-in-progress. The goal should always be the same: We don’t ever want to embelish the tune to death. I can’t remember who said it (and I paraphrase), but I’ll never forget that ‘the silence between notes is as important as the notes themselves’.

In the professional studio, a producer is always there to make suggestions regarding this ‘compositional aspiration’ in order to keep the overzealous musician in check. In the home studio, where one individual quite possibly wears many (if not all) hats, including that of producer, the same standard must be applied. This requires a great deal of objectivity.

That being said, when cutting a rough draft, everyone is tempted to overplay. Hell, I do it all of the time. The secret, is to begin throwing away unnecessary notes until only those that are absolutely integral are all that remain, especially when this ‘breathing room’ is needed for other instrumentation that we intend to use. If there will be vocals, a good chunk of the frequency spectrum (referred to as the ‘donut hole’) will need to be left vacant for the vocals to sit comfortably in. If the piece that we are composing features the guitar, then by all means, the guitar has to take centre stage. Even then, our choice in notes must be decisive and varied in tempo, much like singing songs without words. This allows each listener to make his or her personal identification to the piece.

The importance of this cannot be over-emphasised. I once had an individual leave a comment regarding one of my instrumentals: “I absolutely loved (this tune). It took me back to when I was a child, playing in my backyard in England.” To me, this is one of the best compliments that an artist can receive.

Sometimes, a song will call for a particular instrument, sometimes not. Many times I have forgone percussion, or even bass. When asked why I didn’t include these items, my response is always the same: “I didn’t hear it”. I have always felt like the tune is the best indicator as to what instrumentation is used. My approach has always been to ‘let the song write itself’.

Recently, when Carole King was presented with a prestigious award for her lifetime achievements in songwriting, I was astonished when, during her reception speech, she casually said, “I have always attempted to get ‘out of the way’ and allow the song to write itself.”

“YES!” I hissed aloud before I could catch myself. That statement immediately formed a sort of spiritual bond between the two of us. Her words made perfect sense to me in a very intimate way. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however; these sort of statements are what I refer to as absolute truths, because they function on a universal level. Much like a Zen koan, the meaning is unclear until you experience it. This experience took me several years to achieve, unfortunately.

It may sound metaphysical, or even goofy, but I feel as if the songs that come to me have already been written, perhaps centuries ago. Some of them sound so old. I think that once you have properly prepared yourself to receive the tunes, they will begin to be presented. As long as you remain receptive, they will continue to come. Sometimes I’ll hear, or even awaken, to a tune playing in my head as if I’ve been listening to it repeatedly all night in my sleep. I never experience ‘writer’s block’, because I do not feel as if I am the writer. When someone asks what a song means, they are often surprised to find that I am as clueless as anyone else. I’ll give an example.

A couple of winters ago, I was vegging out, watching a documentary about horse racing (which I have no particular interest whatsoever in). The subject of the film was the horse ‘Man O War’, which dominated the sport during the WWI era. In a portion of old racing footage, the horses were nearing the sixteenth pole, when Man O War suddenly bolted ahead. The announcer who was calling the race responded by screaming, “…AND HE KISSES THE BOYS GOODBYE!” The line stood out to me, but I didn’t dwell on it.

A couple of days passed and I was walking through the home library when, out of the blue, I sang out “…and sheeee will kiss the boys goodbye” to a very definite and catchy melody. This time however, the line lingered, and turned in my brain. The key emerged with the opening chord. As always is the case, I went into the studio to record what I was hearing. I picked up my son’s Tacoma Olympia, hit record, and began hammering out the basic chords as they ‘developed’.

Over the following week, the individual parts continued to present themselves to me, and I continued to record, but I wasn’t hearing any more lyrics, only individual words, and they were, almost without exception, French terms. I found this slightly disconcerting because I do not speak French. I dutifully wrote the words down in no particular order and continued working on the recording, doing not as I wanted, but as I heard. I finally determined that the music was realised, yet I still had nothing in the way of lyrics. “Something is wanting out,” I thought to myself, “but I simply cannot hear it properly.”

I had attempted to pen the song for over a week now, but had been writing in longhand in my pad thus far. Suddenly there was a flash, and I arose with my list of words and went to the computer. It had become apparent to me several years beforehand that my writing would sometimes take a different tack when I used the typewriter. I turned on the keyboard, opened Wordpad, and stared at the ‘tabula rasa’. Then it came, just like that. I almost couldn’t type fast enough. Within thirty minutes, I had the finished lyrics. The most amazing part of this story, is that the French terms, the meanings of which I had no knowledge, worked perfectly in the song.

“My God,” I thought,” I’m going to have to try and sing this now”. The vocals melody was playing along in my head as I had been writing, but I’d realised that the delivery was going to be in a style which I was unaccustomed to singing. I warmed up, adjusted the compressor, and laid into it. I got what I felt was the spirit of the song in two takes. Not wanting to split hairs and thus risk losing the spontaneity of my performance, I left well enough alone.

Here is a link to the tune.

You can even tell that I utilised the original acoustic tracks, as it takes an entire bar for me to synch up the second acoustic with the first. I learned long ago that my attempts at polishing the life out of my songs usually ended in regret, so I now opt to allow minor mistakes to simply become part of the tune, which in my mind, lends to the overall individuality of the composition.

I am proud to say that this tune is ‘not me’, only me serving at the pleasure of the music.


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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