Saturday, May 18, 2019

Midnight Landing

The story of the "lost" Hendrix albums is told in full over at the deadhendrix blog, but here's an extract, reprinted without permission:

When it came to footing the bill for the Record Plant sessions, neither Jeffery [Mike - Hendrix "manager" - Ed.] nor Warner Brothers wanted to pay, so Douglas [Alan - independent producer - Ed.] paid, and the tapes went into his library, and it was this material - his own tapes - that Douglas now went through. He brought in hotshot engineer Tony Bongiovi to help pull the album together, and Warner Brothers demonstrated their faith by throwing 100,000 bucks on the motel bed - a shitload, by any standards. 

As Douglas knew, there were no songs in a state of completed production, so the criteria were: some great guitar, and a good vocal - exactly what Hendrix had always brought to the table. Although there was a lot of material which met these criteria, the fact that there was nothing Jimi had signed off on - the tracks were incomplete - necessitated a re-think as to what constituted a Hendrix album. And there was the unignorable impact of the changing times: in 1975, Hendrix had been dead for five years. These days, that's a quick turnround for a new album from a "major act" (pardon my mirth), but back then, for the music business, it was a generation. The era of back catalog strip-mining enabled by the CD was some way off, and a whole new audience had emerged - more adult, more sophisticated, listening to an entire new generation of acts that had little to do with the cultural values - or the sounds - of the sixties. Acts who were recording with studio facilities that were undreamed of back in Hendrix's day. Some context: Steely Dan and the Eagles were already on their fourth albums, Little Feat their fifth. Springsteen was up to Born To Run. And punk was set to kick everything over the following year, albeit briefly. None of these albums sounded like sixties music, all were extremely polished, and to put out a bunch of old tapes claiming that it was new Hendrix product would not only have been cynical, it would have been commercial suicide, drastically eroding the public’s interest in Hendrix, whose Experience albums were gathering dust in bargain bins across the U.S.A.
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Douglas and Ostin thought alike - let's do it right, and give Hendrix a new lease of life. So Douglas chose to invent the remix album, even though the art had yet to be recognised. Bill Laswell, respected uber-remix producer and longtime friend, has this to say: “What matters is that Douglas knows what Hendrix did and he knows what Hendrix could have been.” As always, the people in the know, know.

Douglas used new musicians (not sampled loops and beats and computers - a band of real live musicians) to create a new Hendrix album, with a contemporary sound. The musicians he chose had to be technically expert enough and professional enough to work with recordings where time-keeping hadn’t been a priority - where they often had to re-record four bars at a time, repeatedly, to accommodate shifts in Hendrix’s beat that had been missed by his accompanying musicians at the time. Douglas knew the limitations of those original musicians, and he knew that to get them back in the studio to correct and improve their own work in this endlessly painstaking way would be asking both too much and for trouble. The musicians he chose were seasoned professionals, and exactly the caliber of musician that Hendrix would be playing with if he’d lived - it's asinine to claim that Hendrix would still be in a power trio of old buddies in the mid-seventies.

Without in any way downplaying Mitch Mitchell's inspirational playing and irreplacable role in the original Experience, Allan Schwartzberg is the best drummer you'll hear on a Hendrix record. Called in by acts such as James Brown, Mountain, Kiss, Gloria Gaynor, and Roxy Music, Schwartzberg served a long apprenticeship in NY jazz clubs. Jimmy Maelen has played percussion with just about everybody. Jeff Mironov, a superb in-demand session guitarist, didn't have an individual style or sound that might compete with Hendrix, and as such was the perfect choice. Bob Babbitt played bass in Motown's legendary house band the Funk Brothers, for Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and many others. It’s to the Hendrix fan’s shame that they have more respect for Noel Redding (a guitarist, let’s not forget, who was at the right place at the right time and wearing the right clothes) than for one of the greatest bass-players in the world.

There’s something else about these productions that can’t be stressed strongly enough, and that is widely missed and unappreciated - Douglas never does anything Hendrix didn’t. He never introduces anything for which Hendrix himself hadn’t set a precedent. Playing with other guitarists. Using back-up vocals. Stripping in new tracks by different musicians. Using overdubs. All these techniques had been employed by Hendrix. If Douglas had added Hollywood strings, or a Mariachi trumpet section, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or synthesisers and a drum machine, then maybe the charges of disrespect would have had some basis. And if those suggestions sound ridiculous, it’s worth remembering that in March ‘69 Hendrix said, “I’m having a string section and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir” on First Rays. But Douglas’s approach was rigidly purist, almost minimalist. A band of real musicians, playing live in the studio, Hendrix coming through the ear goggles. Standard recording procedure for a real record.

Objectively, Midnight Lightning sits very well with Crash Landing - it uses the same musicians and original material from the same period. The two best tracks are superior to anything on Crash Landing, and if the two albums had been released as a double, no inconsistency would have been apparent. Midnight Lightning reached the US Top Fifty, a disappointment after Crash Landing, but no disgrace when you consider the competition from Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, Springsteen's Born To Run, Fleetwood Mac's eponymous genre-definer, and the astonishing Horses from Patti Smith, presaging the punk revolution a few short months away. That a Hendrix album charted at all in those times is almost miraculous. But interest had waned, the impact was muted, and the sense of repeating a formula with diminishing returns was inevitable.

Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning are remarkable successes on every level. They give us a whole new insight into where Hendrix was at and where he was going in his last months, and they sound like mid-seventies Hendrix. The discography is richer for them, and yet they are shunned like lepers for reasons that become more bizarre with each passing year, and less forgivable with each listen.

In 1988, thirteen years after the release of Crash Landing, producer Lennie Niehaus stripped off all the original backing tracks to the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio-pic Bird, leaving only Parker’s solos, and overdubbed new parts played by contemporary musicians, recorded in stereo. The album was lauded for being a “technological miracle that sublimated Bird’s performances without any sacrifice of his original sound. If Bird was with us today, this is unquestionably the way he’d want to sound.” The sleevenotes to the critically-acclaimed and Cannes award-winning soundtrack album boast that it “has no parallel in recording history.”

6 comments:

  1. The more one knows about how records are made, the less squeamish (at least on principle) one is about projects like this.That being said, this particular example has it's problematic side.
    I like the Beatles remixes by Giles Martin as well.

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  2. There are a couple of "problematics" to these sessions, but they're nothing to do with the music that reaches your ears, unless your preconceptions get in the way. Douglas made as good and respectful a job possible on the production side, but he admitted he screwed up by giving himself writing credits for some of the material. The other is that he gave an infamous interview (Guitar, or Guitar Player, magazine) where he came off as an arrogant blowhard. Those two misjudgements negatively impacted the albums later, although they did okay at the time, getting good reviews and good sales.
    If you haven't, read deadhendrix.blogspot.com for the Big Picture, and the weird subculture of Douglas-haters. And read this: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/postscript-alan-douglas for a glimpse into Douglas' earlier career. That's him pictured with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, 1960. A little respect, please.

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  3. Thank you for the links. I believe that I first encountered some of the deadhendrix material in an article in Ugly Things or another music magazine.
    I'm in agreement with the opinion that the musical backing is appropriate and done well. I also understand the objections some have that these ultimately (and inevitably) come off as unfinished.
    One might also argue that this lends the project integrity, in that manipulation has been kept to a necessary minimum as opposed to something more like a 21st century remix project.

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  4. Thanks. I purchased both of these albums back in the day on vinyl....always did enjoy them. Nice to have some mp3 versions to tote around with me.....

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  5. Glad you were able to find them at the back of the store, Mark!

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