RANDOM RAMBLINGS OF THE MUSICAL MIND

A peak into the mind of John Hampton

ProTools 9 … One step closer to Photoshop for music.

Is our planet getting to be a wacky, whirlwind of a world that we wander in, or WHAT? I mean, everyone is afraid to do anything because no one knows if prices are going up more, or if they are going to come back to Earth. We just can’t get off the breast of Middle-East oil because environmentalists just won’t let us drill anywhere, for fear of wiping out the Flat-tongued Rainbow-Snail Hairless Marmot … though right beneath our feet there’s enough oil to keep the Sheiks from our doorstep for generations! Amidst all this,  technology allows almost anyone to make a record with a couple instruments and a laptop! Like I said, it’s a wacky world we’re wandering.


So it’s all in a big, weird state of flux, or rather flux NOT. But some things are moving forward; DAMN the torpedos. Like music technology, computer technology, ANY technology. And like I’ve said, it’s not a nice, straight line of advancement like it has been since the dawn of time. Instead of people designing “stuff”, people are designing computers that design “stuff”. Some computers are designing other computers that design “stuff” to make computers that design “stuff” better. What used to be a linear progress is becoming asymptotic, or exponential progress. ( Hint: These are words that are getting more and more airplay as time moves on.)

As technology marches blindly on, music technology marches with it. Save for one tiny difference. It seems as if the sonic part of music technology is going backwards as it marches … forward? Honestly! Imagine this: From the 1940s until the late eighties, recording to analog, magnetic tape was … well, it’s how it was done. The most popular means of recording music now is almost like it’s always been, except the advancement of the technology allows for cheaper microphones, less than high-fidelity processing, you know. . . junk. But it is by no means ALL junk. Some things cut through the sea of junk and make it to shore, and we find that it’s a really fantastic breakthrough. Let’s look at the most cutting edge breakthrough of them all: the recording medium. By today’s standards, the first digital (not analog) recording medium  was crap when compared to analog tape pressed onto good, virgin vinyl … at least to my two earholes. Call me nuts. But if I’m nuts, you’ve got to tell Jack White he’s nuts, too … (all if his THIRD MAN Records releases are vinyl.) And Ozzie (?), The Black Keys, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes … about 99% of “ear-havers” on the planet. But not many will argue against the latest version of ProTools, easily the most used recording platform in the world. And now, you may, if you wish, mimic the sound of analog tape on each and every ProTools track!

But why in the world would the most popular digital recording medium in the world go to these kind of lengths to NOT SOUND DIGITAL? WHY? Thirty years of developing digital just to end up where we started? I don’t get it. Unless …

Unless it’s an admission that the pro-vinyl folks are right, and analog tape sounds better than digital no matter how much technology you put behind it. I say … not exactly. At least that’s not the whole story.

If you are a bad musician, and I include a voice as an instrument, you will NEVER be good. Never. Go back to school. But if you are a fair musician, ProTools can make you a better musician. But, go back to school anyway. We are already awash in mediocrity without your adding to the party! But if you are a pretty good musician, hang on to that tuition cash for a minute. Because ProTools MIGHT help you be good. And from good, it’s possible (possible) that you can get to great. Save for one caveat. There could be one teeny-weeny . problem with using it a lot. Live performance. Because ProTools 9 is out, and it’s one step closer to Photoshop for music.

There’s a feature in there (in ProTools) that can make your drummer steadier than he really is. DRAG. CLICK.  The world famous “Auto-Tune®” (now it’s “Melodyne®”) will make your out of tune singing on key. SHIFT DOUBLE-CLICK. Having a bit of trouble deciding when your equametric-paralyzer (tone) is helping,  or your compressor (dynamic range) is hurting? No worries, mate!. It can make those decisions for you.There are lots of presets that were dialed up by the smart guys who know all about it, because most read the old manuals! And lose that cheap guitar sound in a flash because there are plenty of pre-set amplifiers in there, too. From settings The Beatles dialed up, to Carlos Santana, and everything in between! If you keep running out of air because the key of the song never got a second thought, just sing one good chorus, and paste it in to all of the chori! If your drummer can’t get off work, Apple will give you some great drum parts, thanks to Apple Loops®! Yes, it’s a wanna-be’s dream come true. Now you can make a record all by your little lonesome, in your bedroom, after work (when you’re half beat and your girlfriend is getting real bored watching you indulge yourself.)  And when (if) that little jewel is all done,  just show it off on MySpace®, and maybe you can even get iTunes® or  uTones© to sell it. I can see the headlines now: AVERAGE LOCAL MUSICIAN DOES FAIR; SELLS MANY RECORDS ON WEBSITE! Mirabili dictu! Will miracles never cease? (This is one miracle that I often pray … will.)

I mean, why take all the time needed to deliver a touching, inspired, bring-’em-to-the-edge-of-tears-type vocal performance that has the power to change lives, … when you can just slack your way through one half-fast performance, then use the recorder like the coolest video game ever made … for a week? And speaking of inspired, I can tell you for sure that inspiration is hard to pull off even in the best of recording studios, if you have no feedback. How do you do it in your room, at night, after work, with your bored girlfriend trying to watch “Jersey Girls”? Or say that you are Mr. Virtuoso … don’t you need some kind of feedback? The word we are missing here is collaboration. Don’t you need someone to bounce ideas off of, like a band mate, or a producer, or even the engineer … (if you’re wise enough to hire a professional to help) Some sort of collaboration? Remember John and Paul, and then John or Paul? Was each alone really as good as both of them, together, swapping ideas?

Finally, notice that as technology shares in it’s breakthroughs, it begins to grow beyond our wildest dreams. And as the artist isolates more, adrift in that technology, music that warms the soul seems to become quieter, harder to hear.

Maybe it’s disappearing … just as fast as the Flat-tongued Rainbow-Snail Hairless Marmot.

Do Some “Rock Band©”

Oil Spills! Nuclear weapons! A falling economy! Congressmen assaulting the free press! WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO????
I’ve got it. Let’s go do some Rock Band© and forget about all this.
The REAL problem here is … I’m not kidding.
I vaguely remember a time where, if I were feeling a bit overwhelmed by current events, I would walk over to the turntable, pick out THE record that felt like I was feeling, and I would play it, sometimes VERY loudly, and go sit in the chair by the aquarium, and just listen to the music, absorb, sometimes sub-consciously, the situation of the artist, and I would slowly resolve my own conflict of the moment. Those were truly spiritual moments. They grew me, and as the artist grew, I would grow. He got a little of MY money, along with the hundreds of thousands or even MILLIONS of others, and in return he/she could give us, rather let us into his/her world again …. usually about 18 months to two years later.
Of course, Rock Band© can be an extremely powerful tool, too … if you got into actually learning the music and eventually grew as artist yourself. That is a huge thing. And I know MANY younger than I folks who are doing just that. In fact, 3 of my 4 boys LOVE Rock Band©. The other loves animals. But being of the same genetic pile, it seems normal.
Then there are those who want to be a “Rock Star”,  and have developed some really great air guitar moves. Or singing poses. And my favorites are the air drummers. But I am forced to wonder how many of this second type are there out there. And I wonder how many of my own will stick with it for band after band, and grow that way?
One of the hardest parts of being a music nut AND a music producer AND a music recording engineer is that for me, being raised on the Beatles and Bowie and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, … surviving DISCO … then Nirvana, STP …and still loving all of it right up to this moment: for me, it was more fun, more cerebral, more of what my soul needed, before now and as I grew into my thirties and even forties. Hearing U2 tell the world about the problems in Ireland, and hearing about Peter Gabriel’s spooky past, and being able to actually forge a bond with DEVO and The Cars has to have been more rewarding than playing air guitar in my bedroom with a thing that wanted to be my guitar, and hearing songs that wanted to be my songs … it seems like it would all push a little too hard into that world that I wanted no part of: The “Wanna bes”.
But again I am torn by watching my own become enlightened by these forces. What’s a dad to do?
Here’s my perfect scenario:
August, 1981 … I just got my license to do open water S.C.U.B.A. style diving. Shipwrecks! Coral reefs! GREAT
WHITE WHAT?? I’ll settle for Moby Grape. The entire process was a two day, three part checkout by a professional, licensed instructor. 8AM Saturday. Two huge things are happening. The first is my basic diver part. Piece of cake. Toughest thing is the guy rips your face mask off at about 30 feet, and steps away. And the “Emergency Ascent” … A.D.D. moment … did you know that if you exhale all of your air at 30 feet, then swim to the surface holding your breath, when you get to the surface your lungs are again full of air? In fact, if you DO hold your breath, your lungs could explode. YUK! Anyway, the basic dive portion is first . My wife and young, thirteen year old cousin stay at the “Road Apple Inn”  while I go do it. The young girl is GLUED to the television. I move on. Upon my return, they are both glued to the T.V! I look and there on the tube is the second huge thing that is happening today: the very first day of MTV. And over an hour, they keep repeating about seven videos. These were the pioneers who actually spent a LOT of money to make a video for this first day. I guess everyone else thought it would fail. Well, it did not fail.
Present day. An unknown band has written what many believe is a SMASH music hit. Now for the big roll of the dice; what if Rock Band© catches the world on fire for real bands? It’s already happening and the “entertainment dollar” as we call it, is heading very slightly away from CDs and mp3 players along with their associated music downloads, and toward Rock Band©. Green Day MAY be the guys who take it over the top. They, Miley Cyrus, and a handful of others have released their next record as a CD, iTunes© (CD Baby©, Real Music©, etc.) download, AND in Rock Band© format. Could it possibly be August, 1981 all over again? Not many are doing it … YET.
But there is a chance that in the very near future, music lovers will be able to hear AND learn the songs in one system. That could really happen! I personally think it would solve all world problems. Oil spills would dry up. Senators would stop assaulting the free press. a penny would be solid copper and a quarter solid silver. AND … there would be a permanent ban on every nuclear weapon on the planet.
Two MIT grads started Harmonix©, the still privately held company that has brought us Rock Band©.‘The company was built on the premise that the experience of performing music could become accessible to those who would otherwise have trouble learning a traditional instrument.’ *   Music Television is the company that brought us M
TV©.
Humans are the biology that made them both iconic. Ya think?
I could live with my boys playing it all day if it gave them real music.
Next Question …
* “How’horrendous failure’ led to Rock Band©”.  CNNMoney. Retreived 9/3/2009

Dana Rocked This Time Through

The story you are about to hear is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent .

It was at LEAST one million degrees below zero. Eddie (Degarmo) and Dana (Key) were inside a phone booth looking through the yellow pages. Their old, clunker bus had made a really funny (bad funny) noise a few miles back, followed by an ever increasing odor inside the bus that had the smell of burning rubber combined with gasoline and, according to bass player Tommy Cathy, old barbecue Fritos.

Leave it to TC to be familiar with that one. But Eddie and Dana had a look of “Oh Crap! Here goes another coupla grand” on their faces.

Finally, Billy Wayne, the driver, said “Guys, we’re losing power fast. I’m pulling over before this dang thing blows up!”

The snow was everywhere. Dana saw the phone booth a hundred feet or so up the road. In the middle of nowhere, there was a PHONE BOOTH! That was not coincidence. These men had God, with a capital G, on their side. And I can prove it.

Eddie and Dana were on the fringe  in their field. They were going where no man had gone before. First, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to do the first Christian Rock concert in that neck of the woods. AND, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to play THE FIRST CHRISTIAN ROCK CONCERT in that neck of the woods. Almost every church big-wig, from Falwell to Falwell was calling them evil, imposters, scam artists, you name it. But These guys were for real. And this was,  the to borrow from the Blues Brothers, a mission from God.

In the booth, they got one mechanic who could fix their bus, but he was an hour away, and the truck that could tow the bus was another hour away, and they had to be on the stage in five hours. Wondering what to do, Eddie pointed to a phone number scratched onto the frozen aluminum in the booth and said,”Let’s call him”. With absolutely no idea who they were calling, not to mention absolutely nothing to lose, Dana dialed the number. A man picked up with the native “hahloo”, and Dana just started telling the guy the truth: They were broke down outside of Yorkton, going to play a gig tonight in Saskatoon, the guy to fix the bus MIGHT be there in 3 hours, then he had to FIX the bus, and did he know any one, since they had not even a clue as to where they were, ANYONE who could point them to a better direction

There was a long pause.. a really long pause. The stranger asked what number they were at, which, remarkably, was on the phone, and they gave him the number. “I’ll call you right back”.

After about seven minutes, the guy called back and asked where they were. All Dana could say was that they had just passed a silo that had something written on the side, the stranger remarked that they were only about five miles from him and he’ll be there soon. Dana looked at Eddie with an odd look and said” He’s coming here!”.

Thirty minutes later, four pick-up trucks and two cars pull up next to their bus, and the band dudes get off and there’s a big con-fab there on the side of highway X , and when it was all said and done, the four pick ups and two cars were going to take the band AND the gear the 300 miles to Saskatoon. And I promise you that is a true story. The gig was great. It was actually a miracle. PLUS, the kids LOVED Degarmo and Key. In a million light years this could never happen again to anyone.

Dana’s luck ran a little low Sunday, when he died from complications due to a blood clot. But I say a little low because he knew exactly where he was headed this time and he has told me in the past, and we made many records in the past, how at times he was kind of excited about the life after this life.

Although I bawled like a baby at hearing the news, it was more for his unreal family than for him. Dana, you are and always will be sorely missed. And because of you, I am convinced that we will meet again. I love you. Happy Trails, my friend. You really did it this time through.

The Model

It was probably fifteen (really?) years ago when I first encountered the concept of SOUND MODELING. A little thing called POD, weird looking little kidney bean shaped thing. You just plug your guitar into it and what came out the other end was … well, it was up to you. A clean, country music kinda sound, a giant, Jimi Hendryx kinda sound … even the forever HUGE Angus Young AC/DC metal music kinda sound. One small exception. KINDA. That was the rub.

But it was a breakthrough; For the first time ever, someone like me, who barely knew how to get even a good guitar sound could, within a minute, have a good enough guitar sound. Coupled with my “chord only” approach to the guitar, I was NIKKI dang SIXX ! And I used it a lot, when I HAD to have a power chord guitar part. but the band was in Moscow. As bad as I was, I could play on records!  And I DID!

That was a long time ago. In technologicalistic terms, it was an era ago.

Since then, I have seen a little of where it this … science … is today. And, as technology gets sooner or later, it has become relevant. Probably a little TOO relevant. Now I find myself, to my horror, guessing … is it REAL, or is it Photoshop. Or Melodyne, or ProTools, PitchAgent,  … there are literally hundreds of modeling programs out there now. And my head hurts.

But it makes sense, in an odd way. Think RockBand. Now you can be a Beatle. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be a Beatle. But I can’t sing as good as Paul, or John, and I don’t have the charisma that only that particular foursome had. But I bet it won’t be long before there’s a John or a Paul model program.

But what about those magical mystery songs? No WAY I could write a song like “Yesterday”, or conjure up an “Imagine”, or George’s “Something” … even Ringo had a one of a kind way of drumming that no one can reproduce. But …

But nothing. That is my war, and I declare it again every single day.

Take a little program called “Beat Detector“. Sounds fairly innocuous. And I firmly believe these programs have a good use. The ABuse is my problem with them. Beat Detector has the ability to take offbeat, lousy drum playing and put it ON THE BEAT! Whoa. But to this day I insist that if a person was to take John Bonham, the most bestest drummer in … forever, and run the “Beat Detector” over his performance, you no longer have John Bonham playing. Congratulations, Mr. I love to abuse Beat Detective. You just gave rise to any-drummer-USA. HUrah!

I say give it up. We have to stop this tomfoolery of making bad into good and good into great. If that is the final frontier, it’s mediocre to start with. We are casting pearls. And meanwhile, the REAL music and the REAL performance is falling to the rear, trying to catch back up, but refusing to give in to The Model. The tuner. The on the beat-er. That is not what music is supposed to be. It is supposed to be a living, breathing spirit that is intangible and divine. Anyone can put paint on a wrecked car and try to sell it as more than it is, but it is still crap. Now and forever … crap. There is no model on earth that can keep you safe if you are unknowingly driving crap.

Next question …

Jack’s Record Store

I started this all off verbalizing about the Hell Days of Disco music that society barfed up in the late ’70’s and how the advent of a drum machine altered our pop culture almost as much as Sgt. Pepper (well …  a different altered).

In both applications, pop culture made a HARD turn.

But in the bigger picture, you can see that the longer line of pop culture over the last 50 years or so also has a soft bent toward the left. And, as always, the bent is due to technology. The Internet,  the personal computer, iPhone, uPhone, wePhone,  Vodafone, global communications … all of these are bending not just pop culture but Culture culture in a really profound way. Go to any “Made in China” wholesale site and take a look at what’s heading our way. TV watches with TWO cell phones built in, one for home, one for business.!  I remember hearing Ray Kurzweil, one of our most brilliant inventor/philosophers, tell it all once. In Ray’s words, ‘Society has become accustomed to a linear rate of technological change. That has been the norm. BUT technology doesn’t play by the rules. In the world today, where we used to have a man designing a computer or software … just about everything, we instead have computers and robotics doing the designing and the manufacturing. And when number crunching systems are designing and making more number crunching systems, suddenly we have a technological growth that has taken on a more exponential rate of change. In other words, we are no longer changing along a straight line. The line is changing faster every day, taking it from a line to a curve that is going up.’

And he points his finger away from the host and points it up more and more until he is pointing at the ceiling!

WOW! Technology is growing faster than man can keep up with it! One day, 8 bit is the thing. A year later it’s 16 bit. the next MONTH its 32 bit and now, a WEEK later, its headed toward 64 bit! How do we slow this thing down? Or do we?

We can’t. We either hang on for the wild ride or drop off where the landscape looks friendly. I’m getting off, and I notice I have LOTS of company. One person who got off one stop before me is that wacky Jack White. I think Jack, like me, has an almost romantic vision of the whole music buying experience. What fun is a download? CD Artwork … why is that so NOT stimulating? You used to go to a store that sold records, and just hang out, look at a 12 inch by 12 inch cover of a record and by just looking up close at the artwork and the artist, and maybe even reading a few of her/his words, you might walk out with a record you never even meant to buy; the artist sold her/himself with just the cover. You could cruise aisles and rows of bins and bins of various genres and stop, pick one up, look it over, and walk off to look at another one. The record store enabled the buyer to become more intimate with the artist. A truly unique experience that I want to continue, and I think Jack does, too.

At his recent Dead Weather performance, I found him and the totally understated Jack Lawrence (see Raconteurs) out in the hall with Dean (Fertita  … The sexy singer Alison Mosshart was in the dressing room … RATS!) At their show the band was so exciting to watch as well as hear.

But as I meandered the venue, I saw the merchandising “event” from a hundred feet! A beautiful yet tough looking wall of tees and caps and buckles, yada yada, and an extraordinarily fabulous looking table of Jack’s Third Man Records. It was all vinyl, BIG records including White Stripes records and Karen’s records (his wife) and Dead Weather coming soon posters, and then his “Blue Series” records. These looked like the exploratory side of the label, all an identical muted blue cover, with one exception, a green one for BP Fallon. It was a record store on the road!

For myself, and many others, Third Man has re-invented the record store at a fun, in-depth level that is the closest thing I’ve found yet to an actual store. As they build their artist roster, and I’m sure that they’ll start taking other product and bringing it on-board, It will catch on in a big way. And I must also say that working with Jack and his bands has been a reviving high point in my life and I just can’t wait for the call to do another Third Man Record. Jack’s a gas. And his label/store are just what we need.

Next Question ….. ?

An Evening with Chris Bell

As usual, I was late. But this was one band rehearsal I didn’t want to be late for. I FINALLY get to play with Chris Bell.

My brother Randy had called a couple of nights earlier, and said that Jody Stephens, the regular drummer for the Baker Street Regulars was going … I forget …somewhere, and he and Van were wondering if I could play drums with them. I had heard the Regulars at every gig they had done, because ever since the melt down of Big Star, my favourite Memphis band, I had watched them morph* into this current line up of Van Duren on bass, my older Irish twin Randy Hampton on guitar, Chris Bell on another guitar, and Jody Stephens on drums.

THIS was a great  rockband. It was parts of Brit-Pop Big Star blanded with parts of the best Brit-Pop cover band around, with Van’s Paul Mac meets Paul Carrack lead vocals, Jody (a Memphis version of John Bonham), and Randy, who could play about anything on guitar. And throw in Chris’ Yardbirds meets Zeppelin style (I could just say Jimmy Page meets the South…). But Chris introduced an additional recklessness, ala early Todd Rundgren, that one would expect from a talent of high calibre who, like Alex Chilton, kept finding himself being tripped up by life situations that kept that Platinum record and deserved recognition a breath away. Damn. Unbelievably unfair, at least to Chris’ slowly surrendering soul. I wanted to re-kindle his waning spirit. But who was I?

It worked for awhile. Van, Randy and I had been playing since high school. With us three being good friends, alienating Chris was a constant concern. That  could get wrong, so I (and I’m sure all of us) went a little out of our way to make sure Chris was being “musically nurtured”, because I KNEW he could bolt in a heartbeat … and would …at the slightest negative look, word, motion … I was on eggshells at the first rehearsal, but, as always, we all began melding ideas and he was instantly attune to our high regard of him, and returned the thought by showing off with performance he KNEW we would respond to. We kept an eye on each other through every song, as did he and Van, and whenever I played a stupidly great drum fill, he would act like he didn’t notice by looking away. But his facial expression betrayed his seeming lack of validation – he’d be grinning. But when he blew ME away with something, I would yell how awesome it was. That would fuel him more, and the synergy would finally take over and sweep the entire room into a wild-man musical experience. WOW! This was gonna be good. The Regulars ROCKED! (we rocked)

We finally got our first gig (that’s short for engagement, you knuckleheads). One of Chris’ million sisters was getting married and we were going to be the music at the reception. Having met some sisters, this felt more like someone was doing Chris/us a favor, as his whole family seemed to be a bit too conservative to want us. Then again, if we kept to Beatles covers, obscure Rundgren and Badfinger, and threw in Chris’ and Van’s originals, we might just pull it off.

The gig was Saturday night at 8:00, and Randy and Van and I were there an hour early, our usual thing. But no Chris. Hmmmm. We went ahead, setting up personal gear and we always combined efforts to set up the sound, since it was usually big speaker cabinets and about a hundred wires, plus 4 vocal mics. Yeah, I sang back-up with Randy.                                                                       Our genetically tuned harmonics made us ideal for                      ☝                                combining voices.                                                                          Still no Chris.

At 7:45, Van called Chris’ home. No answer. So he must be on his way. Right? Any minute now, I’m sure.

8:00 PM and all is not well. Where is Chris. Being the pros we were, we started playing 3 piece. I gotta admit we were pretty good. No applause, as I figured. That’s when I looked over and saw Chris, finally, at about 8:15 coming in through the well calculated center of the crowd assembled on the dance floor. Chris was indeed fashionably late. Wearing his whiter than white tennis sweater tied around his waist, whiter than white tennis shorts, whiter than white Hanes socks with tennis shoes, and, of course, a white of all whites Polo tennis shirt I expected what ever was resting on his shoulder to be a HEAD Racket. But it was Keith Sykes’ Fender Telecaster! Where was his red Gibson that sounded so great? And what amp was this? A Fender Concert combo, no naugahyde, was in his other hand. Chris had already stolen the show.

We got off the stage, Van was saying something about a technical problem, we’ll be right back. As Van approached Chris, I’m sure to bitch about his timing, Chris had already plugged in the amp, and the guitar into it. Oh hell … he just maxxed out the knobs! In slow motion, as Van’s mouth opened to speak, a sound straight out of Hell came out of the amp. It was the first lick of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” solo. Van kept talking as Chris’ eyes combed the room, surely to see the how many girls were covering their ears. About 60%. Good work, Chris! With Van now talking AT him, Chris decided too much top end, lowered the treble on the amp, and played the lick again, this time with a little more conviction. Which is exactly how Jimmy Page starts the solo on Heartbreaker. Does that mean … Yep. Chris blazed through the rest of the solo, note for note, but he added good where Page went bad. UN-BE-FRIGGIN-LIEVABLE! Van gave up, and as the end of the solo got near, Chris once again peruses the room, which by now had all but cleared out, pushed out by the sheer volume. Finally, when he saw my approving smile, he smiled back. I guess we both had a little anarchist in us. The gig went from there without a hitch, but that solo was forever burned into my synapses. It was as if he was showing everyone how good he could be if he chose to be, so back off. Quite the statement.

After that there was, according to Randy, one more gig with Chris before that band imploded. Jody was just gone, Chris was going into running one of his family’s Danvers burger joints, Randy had finally decided to go back to school, I was becoming interested in recording music and would run into Chris later. Van went looking for a band that would stay together for more than 2 gigs, which meant doing a lot more cover songs, which really was where the money was for the long term musician in Memphis … until you get a record label to come along and give you a chance to break out.

A couple of years later I got a phone call at 7AM from my best-friend-in-the-world-that-still-doesn’t-know-it. In an unusually subdued voice he told me that Chris had been killed in a wreck while he was trying to fight telephone poles. He lost. I had no response except the normal nonsense of wheres, whens, and hows. I was talking to God right after that call, and asked him the question only He could answer, which he didn’t.

Why?

To this day, I can’t think of one person on the PLANET who didn’t like Chris. Almost everyone I know LOVED Chris. I did. He just grows on you. He and his brother David are some of the finest around. And, I guess, that’s why that call that morning just did not register. But, it is registering deeply as I write this. We will ALWAYS love you, CB.

Next Question …

*(morph 3 |mɔ(ə)rf| |mɔːf|verb
change or cause to change smoothly from one image to another by small gradual steps

Tora Tora’s walking shoes take them to “Wild America”

When Brian Huttenhower from A &M Records came into my “office” (a couch in the hallway ) at the studio that day, the last thing I expected was his question. Tora Tora, the  first band we had signed to our production company, was nearing the end of another wearying tour, and, unlike most rock bands’ first tours, it seems to have done amazingly well. Their three certifiable mini-hits, “Walkin’Shoes”, “Phantom Rider”, and “Guilty” had indeed seen the light of day, and there were probably a few more in the hat. They had seen a boatload of cities, and they made me privvy to some road stories about groupies getting the royal treatment back-stage, with one special story about a deli-tray and bonus points for hitting certain body parts; a veritable backpack of backstage stories, which I thought were surely just rumors. Surely.

This degree of success at this early part of the boys’ career is what made Brian’s question such a surprise: “So Hampton, you want to do their next record?” My response was one of curiosity, since I thought their last record sounded great. “Why? Not enough low-end for mainstream rock radio?”

Now HE looked surprised, “No, stupid! (Brian and I were close enough that he knew he could get away with that.) PRODUCE their next record!”. Now I WAS taken aback. I was sure he was talking about my sonic abilities, not my song/concept musings. Hence the bass reference.

Produce them? Where I come from, if a record does as well as this had, it was unusual to change horses midstreamlike this. But then again, Brian wasn’t known for playing it safe. (A.D.D. moment– Brian had come in the studio that day wearing a pair of Nike athletic shoes that were probably called Atomic Air Supremacy Deluxe, Special Edition Quantum Accelerator GOLDS. After staring at them a minute, I looked at Brian and asked, “Brian, exactly what kind of shoes ARE those?” Brian looked at the shoes, which added a full inch plus to his height, then he looked at me, then the shoes again, and responded,”Whaddaya mean?” Eight seconds of dead silence. Then, as serious as cancer he looked up and replied, “Bitchin’!” THAT was classic Brian.

So why me to produce their next record? The first one did O.K. didn’t it?

“It did allright, I just wanted to try something different.” Brian could hear hit songs a mile away. He had signed Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Extreme, Tora Tora, and now Gin Blossoms? Plus he was looking at a couple of other bands. Brian is talented. So talented in fact, that if he wanted me, he had me. “Sure!”

Well, it seems that the band would also glad if I would agree to do it, I found out later. Whatever had led these guys to this decision was one question I didn’t care to ask. They liked me, I liked them … let’s go.

What I liked most about Tora was that right when you thought you were getting any hair-band USA, you got something much deeper, though it wasn’t obvious at first glimpse. They were yet another clash of cultures that yielded a unique artform. This time, it was LA big-hair-big-sound pretentiousness in a real, delta based soul package, complete with mud and mosquitos. “Phantom Rider” had always sounded like a Skynyrd hit, and “Walking Shoes” was a riff-rock powerhouse from the same tree. A story of a man who had been jilted for the last time, so he broke out the walkin’ shoes. If THAT wasn’t a common blues phrase, I nominate it. Along side “I hear my back door slam”, “left home for a brown-eyed man”, “down on the killin’ floor”, and of course “Who Let the Dogs Out”.         (a joke, son)

So this was the key to the band I had decided to keep to the forefront as we made their second record. They wrote, and we hammered the songs out in an unused building a block from the studio. The Pink House we called it. It had been the big, string and horn recording studio owned by a jingle mill named Pepper-Tanner, well known in advertising music. Pepper-Tanner also made a sound effects library, (sorry, another ADD moment) and one infamous entry in this library was a sound-bite entitled “Man shoots pig”.

Over the next few months we recorded, wrote, rehearsed, recorded, wrote, and rehearsed. Suddenly one day I looked up and there were 2 overdubs left until we were done. Everything else on our production chart had been marked through. WOW! Time flies when you are having fun. So, I called Brian and he showed up a couple days later.

In a pecan shell, Brian wanted more. Where we thought it was a ten, Brian wanted eleven. Now I was in a pickle. I had committed to start Gin Blossoms (also for Brian) in about two weeks, but I can never blame a person who wants more, as long as he is paying for it.

So I went to Phoenix to start Gin Blossoms first record, which was later named “New Miserable Experience”, and Brian had a guy come in to cut some more on Tora Tora. I knew it was headed for huge success. But we all failed to foresee the effect that a new type of music that was boiling just under the surface would have on bands such as Tora Tora, who was NOT another any hair-band USA. The danger I saw was that they could possibly be “thrown out with the bath water.” Only time would tell, but my favorite, “Nowhere to Go But Down” was already becoming a favorite with people at the label, which was re-assuring. I didn’t want to leave these children in a lurch, and Brian spoke highly of the incoming guy, but alarms sounded when it got around that his biggest claim to fame was Ratt, so I had a little sit-down with him to get my two cents worth in. And I left it in his “capable hands” as I headed out for Gin Blossom land.

On my return from Phoenix a couple weeks later, I asked my co-producer how it had been going. Turns out he wore a toupee and the guys had been having a ball with him, putting duct tape across the doorway right at head level, just waiting to catch that furry thing in it’s stickum! I laughed until I was aching. They said it was going okay, but he was trying to make them into a Poison meets Motley Crüe meets Slaughter thing, and they’d had been a few “rock moments”, but otherwise, all was well. Good. I had actually missed these guys, and we were becoming good friends.

Next time Brian came in to town, we all sat and listened. Wild America was born. And now, New Miserable Experience was in it’s second trimester. Two radically types of music heading to radioland at about the same time. When I first heard the genius of  Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit’, I began to wonder if the listening/buying public would equally embrace this musical expanse. Ah, just put it out and see what happens. Right?

Next question … yes, you … in the toupee …

Really Big Stardom … Mix it up (or Make it up)

In my front yard is a kidney bean shaped flower bed. At one long end is a large , beautiful Japanese Maple tree and behind it are several Crepe Myrtles. When the Crepe Myrtles are fully loaded with flowers and berries, the branches bow down to the ground, as if to salute the Japanese dignitary before them. In earliest spring, the tulips are the first to greet the new year. Lavender, red , yellow, even an occasional violet one. As they wilt and wither, Easter comes with it’s concert of lilies that greet my neighbors every morning until the first of May. Now the stars of the show begin their rise to regalia. My fabulous “variations of a theme” of midnight blue irises. Indigo fading to a snow white dripping into bright yellow and yellow pistils. Its living proof that there is a God. Meanwhile, the mums have been greening up, ready to take us into summer with a million colors.

Granted… a bed of nothing but the Irises would be striking at first, but with no second place winners, or even a Miss Congeniality, interest would wane pretty quickly.

Even Albert Einstein concluded that if every band in the world was the best reggae band ever, but there were no blues, country; no Enya or Sex Pistols; no Cramps or Soul Men at Stax … or NO “watchin’ the tide roll away”, no Spoon or Green Day or even the friggin’ BAJA MEN (FYI “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) … what kind of world would this be? In that light, music would not bevlaid, to me, anyway.

So let’s do a 180… Daddy Yankee, Three-6 Mafia, Down, and even Pit Bull are all enough proof that music has always been the most interesting when ALL of the flowers are growing in the same bed, absorbing the same dirt, and maybe even borrowing a little pollen from each other.

Simple case in point: There were The Beatles. Totally unique, right? Well … maybe. Early on, they were doing culturally filtered versions of American black music: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley , etc. … which led the AMERICAN music scene to it’s version of the same thing: Rockabilly, a kind of milk toast rock music, which had no real, monetary backbone until Elvis Presley embraced it, sanitizing Rock ‘h’ Roll for the masses. Now the music wasn’t quite as sexually tinted and parents were OK if their kids played it. Heck the parents liked it, too. So, this early American rock music, black roots still loosely intact, caught fire in Europe! And the Brit-Pop, i.e. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Yardbirds, Cream … after hearing the original Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Motown, Stax, and rockabilly, decided to play that style, too! Anyone feel a catch-22 coming?

Enter one Atlantic ocean, which means not distance, but a different culture and relatively far away… When the Brit-Pop slant mixed with the early, American rock music , an entirely NEW sound comes out. I would imagine it comes partly from not knowing or rather from not immersing themselves in the American culture, a totally different frame of mind, They had a Queen; a Monarchy, while we had the Bay of Pigs and Russia putting missiles in CUBA!. Ours was born from the feelings behind the music, where theirs were born from listening to our feelings. Two completely different playing fields.

Even Ringo knew that, like the Big Bang, when two protons collide, they give off unique, never before heard pieces. Here’s a weird one: a Memphis Band, Big Star, was one such band . They were influenced by British pop music, which was influenced by American music, which Big Star was?

Huh?

Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham has an ultimately awesome sound and technique, all the while thinking that he sounded like Stax drummer Al Jackson. So wrong, but beautifully wrong. Record scratching was born from non-technical minds believing that the ever present horn “stabs” that were all over 80’s records did not come from an electrical box that contained a digital “snapshot” of the sound that would come out at the push of a button. It was technically too much to understand for a non-technical musician to understand, so he/she figured if you take a record that had a stab on it somewhere, the sound could be cued up on a record player, so when the “DJ” let go of it, the same sound would play. Ah ha! Mystery revealed.

Nope. The DJ had to cue the record up for the next horn stab, but noticed he could a new revolutionary sound as he pulled the record back for the sound. He heard the beginning of record scratching, a rhythmic instrument played by “scrubbing” the record to and fro under the stylus. Add a little more ingenuity, and you have an insanely complex but ultimately unique, creative new musical instrument that is still extremely popular at clubs world wide.

It started with flowers in every color of the rainbow cross pollening their respective appeal into each other that, to this day, still yields the music that will be the next new thing today and everyday, I hope, until that fat woman sings!

Next question.

The Night Corky Fathered Royalty

You would LOVE Corky Laing. I’m sure. He played with Mountain, a very well respected band from the latest sixties until (?). And he can tell a story. The amazing thing is, after looking around just a little, you realize he’s telling the truth! There’s probably a myriad of reasons why the song Mississippi Queen lists about twelve writers, but it would not exist without the Cork.

Now according to Corky (the man behind the cowbell as well as the rest of the drumzz) , Mountain was playing around in Nantucket, which I guess is a fave Mountain (the band, not a place in Appalachia) haunt, given their subsequent -to- Climbing album entitled Nantucket Sleighride. Any experienced music person will tell you that there exists a very real, almost tangible entity, a sort-of monthly installment plan called “paying your dues”. For some, it’s a severe nightly plan. For the luckier, it’s quarterly. And all of these “dues paying” gigs has it’s own unique and foreseen, yet totally unavoidable “gift” of adversity. That night at fabulous One -Eyed Jack’s, the enemy was shaped exactly like a fuse box containing 3 large objects that looked amazingly like power mains. The type that would get WARM under the weight of the quiescent, everyday bar activity, and HOT when powering two thousand watts of guitar and bass amplification, five thousand watts of “public address”, twenty thousand watts of stage illumination, four and a half watts for the eleventeen stylish box fans … you get it. In short, the camel becomes “straw laden”. The band steps up onto the stage under the not helpful auspices of a few ultraviolet light bulbs. As Lesley West, the robust yet hugely talented (no pun intended) guitarist who was still patiently awaiting his “fifteen minutes”, yelled out “Good evening Boston!” (as in Massachusetts), Corky, looking a bit too suave, whispers loudly, “Lee … Nantucket … we’re in Nanutcket!!” but the good-natured, high on God knows what crowd roared with laughter. No one noticed how the lights had dimmed during Mr. West’s little ha ha. So at the onset of a pre-destined set of events …. 1) the lights going up, 2) West’s welcome-to-hell first power chord, 3) the chord from hell’s accompanying vocal from hell, 4) the first bass note from hell, 5) and, of course, the eleventeenth fan kicking on …

VOOM!! … … … … … total and complete darkness. accompanied by the quietest half of a second EVER not heard in history. Out of the silence grew the beginning of the crowds expected “AAAWWWWWW” …

…and Corky saw them, picking up purses and red “to-go” cups, heading for the door. He had to think fast, and his genius instincts went to work. He HAD to stop them. He had to do SOMETHING. After all, they had paid money to be entertained by Mountain, man … the up and coming, next big thing, rock band.

That’s it! Noise! Bonk Bonk Bonk Bonk … cowbell … bonk bonk bonk bonk bonk bonk

A drunken little hottie who had come up, says Corky, from Mississippi to visit Lesley’s third cousin’s mom’s brother, could NOT have been in there legally, jumps up onto a nearby table, moving her young frame to every bonk. Now we’re entertaining … Corky starts playing a beat, letting the cowbell hold the reins, never un-locking his intent, “bad boy” gaze he had affixed to this fine, young Rebel. Understandably wanting her un-divided attention, he decided, naturally, it was time for a serenade … and straight from the heart Corky delivers a stream of non-consciousness over the bonk. MISISSIPPI QUEEN … he was actually giving the girl a heart-felt soliloquy! Isn’t that sweet!! ….YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN … he continues, thinking only one unpure thought, I’m sure, … having heard  “The Cork” rumors from back then. YEAH MISSISSIPPI QUEENSHE TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING” …

Then, as if it had been rehearsed for weeks, the lights came back up, Lesley and Felix (Pappalardi), who had worked out chords and a super-fast arrangement in the dark, step up and face the now returned and rockin’ out crowd, and Sir West takes control of the singing … roaring over Corky’s hardly less than stellar, yet brazen, attempt. Wait a minute. This is rehearsed, or I’m fabricating; okay, I’ve added a few details that he left out.

WAY DOWN AROUND VICKS-BURG

AROUND LOUISIANA WAYYYYY (he’s STILL lost)

THERE LIVED A CAJUN LADYCALLED THE MISSISSIPPI QUEEN (The river boat?)

YOU KNOW SHE WAS A DANCER …

SHE MOVED BETTER ON WINE , WHILE THE

REST OF THEM DUDES WERE A-GETTIN’ THEIR KICKS

OH I BEG YOUR PARDON I WAS GETTIG MINE …(badda dap! badda dap!)

Aw come on! What were you expecting, Faulkner? It’s ROCK LYRIC not ROCKET SURGERY!!

Ladies and gents, another hit song has landed on the planet!

So how do I know this is true? Because Corky says so … that’s how …..

You never know when, where, how or even why a smash hit song gets born. If there was even a secret recipe, everyone would be doing it. And I sure ain’t doing it. But Corky is.

Next Question

MORE CORKY IN PART II …

Corky And the Cubs and the Pinewood Derby

Welcome to the random ramblings!

HOWDY, y’all! Welcome to Random Ramblings of the Musical Mind. The fuel for this machine is simply 30+ years of immersion in the middle of the music industry… from the Cramps in 1977 all the way through Jack White in the present, 27 Gold/Platinum records, 3 Grammys, who knows how many Grammy nominations, and working with some of the most insanely fascinating personalities in the world…

My Mom said for me to just follow my heart and I did… I decided to learn, live and breathe sonic personality. (I TOTALLY made that up that term!) But seriously, music has and always will be my life.

John Hampton & Isacc Hayes

When I banged on John Fry’s door at Ardent Studios in 1977, I was in my early twenties. I filled the coke machine, mopped bathrooms, threw a rock “star” out on a good and drunk night, recorded Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan, erased some congas that weren’t documented, mixed with Jack White, recorded Lux Interior’s “Cramps”, and have survived a life that fought back at times… but I remember it ALL. And it really IS … ALL too much.

So much, in fact, that I intend to share it with the planet from our beautiful studio in Memphis, Tennessee. If you allow me to ease into this machine, I WILL find all the gears eventually and we will get there. A bit bumpy, maybe, at first, but, as with everything else, it WILL smooth out and BOOK!

Thanx.

John Hampton