strangely, today, I find myself working on audio mixes, not that that in itself is strange, but in this case, it’s audio mixes of live performances of a song that I never, ever dreamed that I would perform in any context, anywhere – but there it is: my second attempt, too – I’d tried it out originally, during the recording session of 20150222, but couldn’t get a take that I was happy with, so I let it go for a while – until april 19th, to be exact – when I sat down specifically to record a little-known, rare Van Der Graaf Generator b-side entitled “W”.
I had only just re-discovered this track, when I was working on other acoustic Hammill songs, it suddenly struck me during the February sessions, I should see if I can capture one of my strange renderings of this song – so I did try. And while some of the takes were close, none were good enough to properly do justice to this rather unusual song.
hence – trying again later, which in this case, is a dedicated session to “W” – twelve takes in all, about an hour and ten minutes of session time, doing live take after take, working out the arrangement, working on the vocal – and just trying to get to a version that would indeed, do justice to the song, at least, as well as I can with my strangely gentle, twangy California accent – hardly the accent to tackle the Peter Hammill canon, but – that’s what I do – I spent many years, learning many, many Hammill and Van Der Graaf songs, and now, I find, I’d like to record them – all of them, although the amount of relearning needed my be prohibitive in some cases, while age lowering my voice might make others impossible…who knows??
but for whatever reason – I found myself trying to do this song, live, with one acoustic guitar – or rather, with an acoustic guitar substitute, which is my roland gr-55 guitar synth. because my real acoustic guitar is unhappy, I had to use the synth instead, which, admittedly, does look a bit odd, in the video, but it had to be – and it does a reasonable job, I have to say – not bad. It certainly sounds acoustic on playback, and of course, I can’t resist giving it a bit of “sparkly”, by using the Waves Reel ADT plug in on it – give it some Beatles chorus or flanging – which is about the right era, “W” might have been written in the late 60s, I don’t really know, in fact, I only have two versions of it – one is the live version (from 1971) that I “grew up with”, which, oddly enough, has only just recently been released officially, on the new Van Der Graaf Generator CD “After The Flood” – At The BBC 1968 – 1977 – that live version,which is to me, an absolute Van Der Graaf rarity, coming from a rare 1971 John Peel concert, which had only previously been available on bootleg – which is where I had heard it.
years later, I also acquired the “studio” version, which again, isn’t that easy to find, but it’s out there, and of course, I had to have it – beyond that, I don’t know if there are a lot of other live versions out there, I doubt that they played it much after 1971, I am not sure about the song’s history, but I am sure of one thing: the effect it had on me, as a young Peter Hammill fan, I just think it is an amazing performance, led initially by Dave Jackson’s amazing horn playing, and it’s odd and wonderful to hear Hammill singing and playing live on acoustic guitar – with the rest of the band, playing in a subtle and wonderful way, Hugh Banton coaxing some of the oddest and most wonderful harmonics from his Hammond drawbars – I love the organ playing on that live version, I love everything about it – it’s just one of those odd tracks that sticks in your head for some reason- I really loved that particular bootleg – it had the first three Van Der Graaf songs I ever heard on it, in this order:
Which is actually reverse order from the real session, but that’s just bootlegs for you (in this case, “Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – what a title!).
And while all three tracks were absolutely mind-blowing to this young man, who was just discovering this remarkable band, over time, it’s “W” that has stuck with me the most – although “Man-Erg” is a close second – I just love these performances, it’s a great session, and it’s really great to have it officially released at LAST – thank you. That is not to downplay “Killer”, but I can’t perform “Killer”, although I can play the main riff – the connection is, over the years, I have learned, practised, and performed both “Man-Erg” and “W“ – while with “Killer”, I can only sit and listen in astonishment – especially when David Jackson takes THAT solo – wow. Amazing stuff.
So – at a session meant to capture “acoustic guitar songs” by Peter Hammill, where I’d performed both “Shingle Song” and “Again” – it suddenly struck me – hey, you could play “W” !!! Or – could I?
My first attempts were spirited, but flawed, mostly, it’s the guitar playing that got me, although the vocal does present certain challenges….so I abandoned the 20150222 takes (reluctantly) and am now currently embracing the 20150419 takes – which give us a completely different story – more of an embarrassment of riches, than anything else.
By this time, after about three warm-up takes, both the guitar arrangement, and the carefully designed vocal part (where I have to omit at least one high note that I can ALMOST hit, but I don’t want to risk – so I have made a slight change to the melody in one place, so as not to embarrass myself every time) have come together pretty well, they are both reasonably well developed – and starting with take four, and going on through take 12 – the takes are all good!! With tiny variances, very difficult to note, and making it very, very difficult to “choose” between takes, when they are mostly all, so very good. Basically, there are 8 good takes out of 12, with five of those being near perfect or with only very slight faults, and the other three, only slightly less perfect.
Every take has something of merit, so I have really had my work cut out for me here: how do you, when you have eight out of twelve good takes, make any decisions at all – how to know which one is “the” take. The answer: listening. Of course…once you start really listening, all of the tiniest errors find their way to the surface – which, allows you to cast out more and more takes for more and more small reasons – until you are left with what is, truly, “best”.
You have to listen and listen, perhaps focusing in on one aspect of the performance each time – for example, it was important to me that the guitar take contain a clean four bars of introduction, and that the same four bars, when repeated later as an instrumental “solo” of sorts, that those are also as flawless as possible – and also, the ending is important, I’d added on this crazy “Fripp”-chord as the final ending, and the quality of it varied on every track – with a few most excellent, others, just OK, and then, of course, I wanted a take with a really good vocal…luckily for me, there isn’t as much variation between the vocal takes – so in the end, it was really about where the best, most consistent, guitar playing was, and it had to be a whole take, obviously – with one exception – I could, potentially, since there is a silence while I sing the last line of the song – I could potentially “swap out” the ending chord, if for example, I had a great take (like Take 11, for example) but the ending chord was a bit better, a bit cleaner, on Take 12 – then, maybe, I might take a slight liberty and improve the audio, by having a better, cleaner chord – which of course, I would tell my listeners (if I decide not to use an entirely live take, then I would say “live performance of take 11 – except for the final chord – which was borrowed from take 12” – or whatever I had done) – or maybe, I would just decide to keep whatever ending the “best” over all take had – it depended on what sounded best.
I wanted what sounds best, so I really have to trust my ears, and say ” this take, this one is it” – and then stick by that decision – then, do everything in my power as both producer, and as engineer, to make this take sound as humanly good as possible – or as humanly possible. At this point in time, during my second or third re-assessment of the 12 takes, I believe that Take 11 is the master – I can’t find much fault with it, but, I do tend to like the end chord of Take 12, very much indeed – and, Take 11 itself is not bad – so I need to decide between these two, I think.
I get to this point, and then I think – yes, but, what about those early takes, where I was a bit unprepared, but maybe there is a bit more spontaneity, maybe…so I find myself back again, listening to take four, take five, and so on – trying to rule these “earlier” takes out for one reason or another – but it’s difficult, because they are good. I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t produce two or three of these – and that is a distinct possibility, it’s definitely do-able, because these takes are so uniformly good – it’s strange, because I had such a struggle playing the song on February 22, 2015, but on April 19th, I had no such issues, and every take from take four onwards, has a life and a feel of it’s own. Heck – maybe I should produce ALL of them, warts and all…it’s such a temptation, it really is. But I really want to pick just one, and I really need to narrow it down – so I just keep doing the only thing a good producer can do – listen, listen, and then, listen again.
After a long afternoon of listening, and then listening again, I was forced to exclude the majority of the earliest takes – 4 through 9, basically – because the guitar intros and solo sections were too imperfect. Even take 11, which is closer to perfect, is still imperfect, but, it’s so much better than takes 4 through 9, that it makes enough of a difference – it’s a good take! So now, it’s pretty much going to be a race between Take 11 and Take 12…
Finally then, some full on tests, with levels properly set, limiter on, and the final, finishing touch – my beautiful Waves Reel ADT Plug-Ins – a stereo one for the vocal, and another stereo one for the guitar – and just adding those on, makes such a huge difference to the sound – it’s just remarkable.
And what this meant was, that, the imperfections in Take 11, seemed worse, while the relative perfection of Take 12 – seemed apparent, so adding the Reel ADT plug in, made it possible finally, to choose between the two “best” takes – and 12 – the very last take of the session – has it all, at least, to the extent that anyone can “cover” such an unusual song with one guitar synth, set to “acoustic guitar”, and a shure sm-58 vocal mike !!
Not that it’s particularly difficult to play, the chords are easy enough – but the lyrics certainly are not. “double you” – seeing yourself from another perspective, as other things occur to the other “you” – is a strange point of view for a song; you wake up one morning, and there are two of you, which makes you twice as unhappy (as it would, if you were unhappy) a strange tale told of this man, immobilised, almost, only able to look out the window, and see the smoke “billowing across the lawn” or only able to drag himself downstairs, to specifically find out that “you are gone…!”.
At the end of the song, you wake up (again) – look to your left, but you see no reassuring head – you then stayed in bed all day, when, at six o’clock, you realised – that you’re dead. A short, unhappy tale, with a strange atmosphere, strange lyrics – definitely one of the oddest of all Peter Hammill-penned songs. But at the same time – a strangely compelling one.
A very strange perspective, the classic sort of “seeing yourself laid out on the table”, and realising that it’s you, it’s YOU that are dead – that’s very odd, and it’s no wonder the band didn’t perform this often, what with it’s somewhat cheerless lyrics – not the most cheerful tune ever written by the sometimes-unusually-morbid Hammill (as he could be, back then) – who, while known for tackling difficult, or uncomfortable subjects, rarely tackles a subject like this one, in such an inflammatory way, too – practically a primer for how to leave your body, which some might view as the ultimate “suicide” song – I don’t, I view it as a man having the odd experience of seeing his own body, suspended in space, whilst realising that the body is dead – not having realised it earlier in the day. more metaphysical than death wish, if you know what I mean. but I think each listener has to decide for himself or herself, what the song means – because even though I am singing it here – I absolutely do not know.
So the sort of day-long purgatory of trudging around the house, knowing something is wrong, dragging yourself downstairs – and finding that you are gone…that longest day finally ends in the sudden realisation that there is a very specific reason that there are two of you, that you have woken up and it’s a “double you” situation – “W” – because, you have passed away, of course!
The rate that our hero realises at, well it take a few minutes, which gives the song time enough to get through it’s purgatory phase – and then, it’s all over, in a blinding flash of – well, in the real live version, it’s a wonderful, sonically crushing organ chord and bass note, accompanied by a crashing horn note from David Jackson – which I have chosen, for unknown reasons only known to the other half of me, to represent in this version with a very long, loud, dissonant “Fripp” chord – that was the only thing I could do, safely, on an acoustic guitar, that might work as a facsimile organ/sax ending – and I suppose, sonically, it could be worse – it’s a decent choice. originally, back in February, I wasn’t returning on the guitar at the end, after the final two words – I was just letting the last two words, be the last thing you heard in the song – but I think the frantic, crazy guitar chord is just the ticket, and it was an absolute joy to try to play – even though, I only got it “right” about once in every 12 attempts 🙂
I was as happy as I could be with the guitar arrangement, and the vocal arrangement, and then, it was just down to the playing – and luck – and in the end, “practice made perfect” or at least, practice made it bearable…and I finally stayed with Take 12, and started working with the track – until I got a sound I liked, and was happy enough with – I mean, it is live, and it’s only as good as it’s two simple components, so there is not much you can do to improve the performance itself – it is what it is.
I think you can tell that I love this song, that I love to sing it – I hope that comes across in the video, it was an incredible surprise to me, that I could actually play it, and I so much enjoyed singing and playing it, it was a real pleasure – and I am really glad that I did learn this song so many years ago, because at least it came back pretty quickly – which is great. What a nice surprise, to have an old friend like this turn up out of nowhere – and still be unchanged, as familiar as when I first knew them – a good, good surprise!
In the end, it took me almost two full days of work, and four attempts at getting the right sound, before I could produce an audio track of “W“, completely live (I decided, in the end, that the completely live take 12 was the best bet, no messing about – warts and all – not quite perfect – but, not too bad!) that I am happy enough with, and now, I am assembling not just the video for “W” live, but also, a strange special bonus video – what happened directly AFTER the end of the successful take.
so I’ve produced two audio tracks, and am working on two videos, one for the live version of “W“, using the whole of take 12 as it’s master, and the second, which I am calling “improv on a theme – stone free (james marshall hendrix) – live – post take 12” which is approximately one minute worth of digital recording time directly following the final “Fripp” chord that ends take 12 of “W” – for the first time ever, I’ve decided to release some “non-song” footage, featuring a spontaneous jam on “stone free” by jimi hendrix – notably, a song that I have never played, never learned, and have no idea how it goes!!
it’s only really “on theme” for about the first 17 seconds, and it then wanders off into random imaginary hendrix octave playing – and then dissolves completely into a fatigue-driven crazy, climbing riff of uncertain description – remember, I’d just spent an hour and ten minutes filming, and recording, no less than 12 complete or near complete takes of “W” by peter hammill – so I was pretty tired. but the hendrix tune just sounds so good with that odd, acoustic guitar tone, and having the whammy available on the “acoustic” sound is so strange, too – so I just thought – why not?
so for the very first time anywhere, about 54 seconds of “what happened after the last take” has been included, which, I should warn you, some pretty lame guitar playing at the end – I plead fatigue, and I wasn’t really trying to play anything – this Hendrix thing appeared – and then just as quickly – disappeared – leaving me with nowhere to go but out. I just thought it was OK, an interesting glimpse, an epilogue if you will, to the best live take of “W“, and it shows a little bit about how my mind works – or maybe – doesn’t work – I am working on a serious Peter Hammill song, and yet, during the break – I jump into “Stone Free” by Jimi Hendrix.
I begin to think that it’s been far, far too long since I was in a band.