Monday, March 21, 2011

...An Example of an Album From 1972

Once again, this post is going to focus on something all songwriters need to do in order to advance their view of what is possible... intensive listening. I have chosen for this week an album I keep returning to year after year, fascinated by the sound and the feeling of it. It seems like all the elements of greatness are present: great songs, great musicians, great arrangements, and great performances. Let's dig into this record and see if we can learn anything about how we can make something like it. Get ready, it's gonna be a long one...

Now, it must be said that I have a certain respect for the music that came out in the early 1970's and for music that came out in  1972 specifically. I plan on writing something soon about the interesting conditions that enabled the music industry to produce so many amazing records in 1972.  But there is something that strikes me about most of the artists in 1972: most of them aren't pretty. Seriously. It seems like many of the artists releasing records in 1972 were musicians first and something to look at second. Seems like the opposite of the way the music industry works today.

When you look at this cover: can tell this isn't the Partridge Family or the Osmonds. That's right. It's Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's Sloppy Seconds.  From the cover, you can tell they are hairy guys that have tastes leaning toward bell-bottoms jeans, denim shirts and leather. Not pretty boys by any stretch of the imagination.

My first memory of this album was my dad playing it in the room of our house that was reserved for my his stereo, album collection, book collection, and leather work.  My mom called it "The Pit."  I remember walking in and he was just standing there, singing along and looking at the sleeve of this record (remember when you could DO that?). I walked in and asked him what he was listening to, and he gave me the sleeve to look at. I couldn't have been more than eight or nine....

Dr. Hook fans generally regard the first three albums, Dr. Hook and the Medicine ShowSloppy Seconds, and Belly Up! as their best work, and I agree.  I think Sloppy Seconds is the best of the three, and I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the songwriting on this record. All songs on this album were written by Shel Silverstein.  I would argue that Hook is best when they are singing Shel's songs, especially the serious ones.

The album starts off with  a nice Silverstein comedy song that has lots of nice vocal interplay between Dennis Locorriere and Ray Sawyer.  You can tell they're having fun.

1. Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball

I like the rhyme structure. It's an interesting arrangement, no drums in the song. Bass, Steel Guitar, Acoustic guitar, Piano, Vocals. Dennis doing a really cool raspy/froggy thing with his voice. Lots of nice chords in this one, too.

2. If I'd Only Come and Gone

It's tempting to judge this song only from its title, as apparently the reviewer on the All Music Guide did. (And since we're on the subject of the allmusic review of Sloppy, they gave the record 4.5 stars, but the review is over the top negative...maybe they should strive for more consistency.) When taking  the title alone, it's easy to paint the entire song in terms of the lowbrow side of the double-entendre.  The problem is that when faced with the rest of the lyrics to this song, the "low brow" interpretation becomes untenable.  The song is great because of the imagery Shel uses: "merely parked my dusty boots outside your door, tracked no footprints cross your polished hardwood floor."  Also, this line: "If you'd only stopped to read the cold hard words I carved on other bedroom walls, and heard the morning coffee truths I told them all." This is no one-dimensional song.  Plus there's a really cool imperfect rhyme that I wish I had the balls to think of: he rhymes "Denver" with "remember."

As if in answer to the questions we are tempted to ask about the presence or lack of  a drummer in the band, this track starts with some tom fills. Also nice strings on this track. And I'm no fan of strings.

3. Carrie Me, Carrie

This is one I keep returning to...I think it's the best representation of what this album is.  Really nice dynamic contrast between the sections of this song, something that is becoming more and more rare in today's music environment. Nice steel guitar and piano intro. Interesting drum panning:  the bass drum is centered, all other parts of the kit are panned hard right.  Seems like the only instrument panned hard left is the acoustic guitar. I like the way they treat the acoustic guitar. In the chorus, when the acoustic guitar player, who I assume is Dennis, really lays into it, there is a nice amount of tape saturation. Also nice tape compression and saturation on the piano during the out section. The bassline is GENIUS. The background vocals are really wet with reverb.  The outro section is amazing.  With Dennis "feeling it" while the harmonies chant. Love the last vocal can hear the tension of all the backgrounds trying to stay on pitch for the duration  of the note.  A little rough...and therein lies its greatness.

Rhyme scheme:

broadway (a)
doorway (a)
hands (b)
prayin' (c)
old rag (d)
brown bag (d)
stand (b)
sayin' (c)

farther (x)
mile (a)
to (b)
you (b)
little (x)
little (x)
while (a)

4. The Things I Didin't Say

Again, nice dynamic contrast between the sections in this one. Organ, electric piano (with some nice stereo tremolo), bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, steel guitar, drums.  Again, the bass is great.

5. Get My Rocks Off

Truthfully, when I put my iPod on shuffle and this song comes up, I skip it. I don't find it that remarkable except for maybe the horn arrangement. Shel novelty know what to expect...

6.  Last Mornin'

Here's another one that is astounding.  Starts with the amazing bass line, with steel guitar color hovering over the top.
Another great arrangement. Sort of builds from smoldering embers to something really interesting at the end. The song is more in a verse/refrain type of form.  Verse two begins and the drums are really grooving in the pocket. The back ground vocals are introduced in the second half of the second verse, building towards the climax of the third verse.  Dennis keeps singing higher and higher until the band drops away except for the bass drum, and we are left with  a choir if voices floating us in the air holding the word "where," before letting us drift down with "the dream went wrong." The song closes with a bit more of the verse and the refrain, ending with a cool vamp where Dennis, Ray and their overdubs riff...

The coolest and most noteworthy lyrics come right at the climax (another testament to great arrangement and performance):

down below the subway's screamin'
as I lie here halfway dreamin'
Lookin' at the ceilin'
wonderin' where
the dream went wrong

You can have "Penicillin Penny" and "A Boy Named Sue." When Shel is writing serious, non-novelty lyrics, there is NO ONE better. Period.

7. I Can't Touch The Sun

Again, a strange arrangement. Strings predominate. The acoustic guitar is featured in the first verse, but  takes an increasingly low-key role as the strings assert themselves during the course of the song. No drums again.

As far as rhyming and lyrics go, what stands out in my mind is the use of rhymes that aren't the last syllable:

sun for you
done for you
one for you

sixteen again
green again
been again (and we'll overlook, for now, the fact that "been" and "green" do not rhyme...)

Again, lots of soul in the vocals.

8. Queen of the Silver Dollar

A nice extended metaphor. The arrangement really shines on this one. Horns. Lots of horns.

9. Turn On The World

6/8 waltz.  Strings.  Ray sings the lead. Lots of reverb.  Another instance of Shel's use of this kind of rhyme scheme:

fly (a)
why (a)
die (a)
...Turn on the world (refrain)

Dennis on the left side, injecting some soul and intensity.  Again, nice dynamics.

10. Stayin' Song

The groove on this track is kick ass. Cowbell. The electric piano and organ acting like glue, holding the track together with some nice tastiness. Cool electric rhythm guitar.  Bass is holding it down and locking it in.  Harmonica fills. Cool horn arrangement. No acoustic guitar in this one.  Lot's of 'verb on  Dennis's background vocals. Nice Dennis ad-libs in the outro: "I don't think so!"

Verse Rhyme Scheme:

do (a)
while (b)
through (a)
style (b)

Chorus Rhyme Scheme:

I never sung no stayin' song before (a)
I've done them blues and goodbye tunes a thousand times or more (a)
and it seems a little strange that I ain't headin' for the door (a)
but I never sung a stayin' song, (b)
I never thought I'd stay this long, (b)
I never sung no stayin' song before. (a)

Always using unique rhymes and schemes. This one I always turn up.  the groove, the horns, the stop at the begining. Great arranging and performing again.

11. Cover of the Rolling Stone

Country. Dennis starting off with the Froggy Hippie from New Jersey Shtick. When Ray starts singing, you can hear either a reverb return through the right channel, or Ray's voice bleeding into Dennis's mic...the thing is, it sounds like bleed from a previous take, because it's not singing the exact same thing as the Ray's final "keeper" vocal track. Ray and George sing the verses.  Weird edit in the first chorus....they cut off Dennis as he's singing  "on the cover of the R-" then it cuts out, presumably so Ray is alone for the "Rolling Stone" line, and so we can listen to the country electric guitar fills.  Clapping. Don't normally like clap tracks, but this one is fairly subtle as far as clap tracks go, so it works ok.  Not quite as much 'verb on the background vocals as on the other tracks on this record...most of the 'verb is on the claps.

Again, Shel is the master of the internal rhyme- "getcha-Picture," "richer-picture,"  also, the first lines of the verses almost all contain internal rhymes.

So that's it. The whole record. It's a good example of what SHOULD be done for a sophomore record. It's the opposite of the sophomore curse. I've listened to this record over and over again, learned the songs backwards and forwards, and I am still mystified by it.  I wondered if I was still missing something, could I learn more about the process and circumstances that went into making this record? I needed to try to find someone who was in the room when all of this stuff went down, so I could ask 'em about how the elusive "feeling" was captured.

So I went hunting online.

I knew of Dennis Locorriere's website (, and I knew he had a message board through which  you could ask questions about the Dr. Hook days, and he would respond when enough questions had been asked to warrant a lengthy reply.  So, thinking I would have a wait ahead of me, I asked some questions about Sloppy Seconds, to see if I could learn any more about the process by which Shel's songs were turned into, as far as I'm concerned, a pop masterpiece. I asked some questions and he replied the same night, much to my surprise. Here's how that went down (Dennis's responses are in blue):

Did you already know the 11 songs that would be on the record?

We weren't writing alot of songs yet ourselves and were almost exclusively recording Shel Silverstein's material.
As I recall, we went in to the studio with several of his songs in mind and the confidence that we'd have plenty of wonderful material to draw from as we went along.

Did you mostly record it live in the studio?

Basic tracks were recorded as 'live' in the studio, with overdubs and vocals added later.
We may have used a lead vocal or two from the tracking sessions.
A few of our musician friends at the time were invited to play on some of the tracks as well.

Did Ron do all the arrangements?

It being only our second album, nobody in the band had had very much studio experience at that point, so Haffkine's main role was to harness and pull together our raw energy and talents and make sure we didn't just hurry by any great ideas in our exuberance.
Shel's 'stories' themselves pretty much guided the arrangements, with everyone present contributing ideas, including the CBS engineers.
A good idea was a good idea.
It was very much a team effort in those days.  
It was mostly feeling, exuberance and luck.

Really cool of him to reply to me for something as unimportant as this humble blog. Thanks Dennis. I really appreciate it. 

I think that last line sums up why I like this album so much: feeling exuberance and luck.  No, the recording is not perfect, there are missteps, for sure, but when taken as a whole, the imperfections tend to amplify the FEELING...they make you appreciate how much of a diamond in the rough this album is.  It still stands as a testament to the fact that in an era of manufactured corporate bands, there was still a band that was able to sell millions of records based on feeling and executed with exuberance. Songwriting, musicianship, and arrangement trumped looks and slick production. 

So what can we learn from all this?  And what do we do with it?

From analyzing this record, we see that Shel was good at this kind of a form:


So this week, I'm going to focus on writing some things in that form and others that Shel uses on this record.  

Also, I'm going to experiment things that I'm mixing. I'm going to try to pan the whole drum kit to the right except for the bass drum, just to see if that helps to capture the Sloppy vibe. I'm gonna use unfashionably large amounts of reverb on the background vocals. But mostly, I need to find a bass player that can lay it down with the awesome feel and tone that Jance Garfat could. 

I guess what I'm saying is, right now in the music industry, slick production and the aesthetics and overall look of the artist are the the things that matter, not whether you can write a decent song, or even sing on pitch most of the time. It's like Jackson Browne's line: "It's who you look like, not who you are."  Sloppy Seconds, by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is an example of how good songs with good musicianship still matter, 40 years later...and how those things should matter again.

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