2019/05/20

Lessons



It wasn't long after Underfoot came out that I knew I should have done a better job producing. The record wasn't bad. It was just timid and safe. It didn't pop. And it didn't grab very many people.

I knew we weren't the best musicians around. We played as well as we could in the studio. I had thought part of the reason the record wasn't great was that we hadn't played well enough. That was wrong. Both playing and singing were way stronger than I had thought. Given a better mix, that became delightfully obvious to me. I heard how the drums and bass locked, and how the guitars worked in support. Mostly I heard some great vocal performances, especially by Cilla. I love the range of expression in her singing.

I really had no idea a remix could make this much difference. And this is with the engineer and I being mindful of not fixing too much. You can hear the misses because we left them there. This is the real thing, all recorded back in 1985. But you can also hear how little would "need" fixing even if we were going for perfect the way many do now. Tempos slide a bit. We did not play with a click track. I don't think we could have at that speed, and I don't think we would have wanted to. But for the most part the rhythm is solid. You can dance to it.

Only one "wish I had caught that" so far. I'm sorry the cowbell isn't a bit higher in the break in "Short Wave." It's the Morse code sound, and that's the one place where it should come up. I imagine I will hear more regrets, but I not going to sweat any of it.

Mostly Still Underfoot is only eight songs, a small slice of a particular Underachievers period. The band recorded one other time at Euphoria (the first "Friend o' Mine" and a cover of "Boys") and several times at an eight-track studio called Radiobeat (the earliest tracks were with a different drummer). I would love to put together a Radiobeat Sessions collection with "I'll Be There for You," "Wasted Youth," early tape-only songs like "Get Out," and maybe even "Crosswalk," never released in any form. I might also put some more marginally recorded stuff on SoundCloud.

On Bandcamp, the album has some pretty standard pricing. I did that because music and art are worth something, and none of it happens for free. But I don't want friends or even acquaintances to pay unless they want to. If you know me, hit me up. I have more download codes than I will ever use—unless the record explodes. Think that's likely?

2019/05/17

Let's dance/not dance



I had always wanted to end the record (the EP at least) with "Let's Not Dance." It just always feels like the way I want to end. But there was label insistence, as I recall, and the sequencing on Underfoot is only partly mine.

We had recorded "Let's Not Dance" at Radiobeat (eight-track studio), but I don't know if we ever sent the tape to radio stations. I haven't listened to that version in a long time, but I'm pretty sure it was similar. I even used Mackie's Silvertone guitar amp in both versions.

I have no idea how I came up with this song. It's not like the others. It's the closest thing to a groove that the Underachievers ever did. I think the drums and bass on this are brilliant, and I'm pretty happy with the guitar layering. Overall, the remix is pretty close to the original, just brighter and shinier.

The genesis of the song is the "see the poor girl starting to cry" part. It happened to Sweetie pretty much that way—flying elbow, lost contact lens, no more fun. It's funny, Cilla and I never did any real co-songwriting, as in sitting down and working stuff out. We weren't that disciplined. But I know that she wrote about half the lyrics to this song: the "smell like salami" verse, the "guy with lead in his toes" part, and the closing verse. And credit for the music goes to everyone.

If you write a song about annoying stuff that happened at a dance club, you should make it danceable, right?

2019/05/15

Tall, thin, cool, weird



Underachievers' drummer Bob (Mackie) MacKenzie also wrote songs. Indeed, he wrote one that's better known than any of mine—"Don't Talk to Me," which people think G.G. Allin wrote (Mackie was with his band at the time) and which has been covered by many artists, probably with no compensation to the writer.

The Underachievers played "Don't Talk to Me" live, and we recorded it on the pre-production demo. I'm not sure if Mackie ever intended that we record yet another version for the record. At any rate, by the time we did the Underfoot sessions, we were playing "I'm So Tall" in our set.

You'd have to ask Mackie how he intended this song. He is tall. Cilla was (and probably still is) smaller than size 8. Mackie was too cool to be hanging around with our somewhat uncool band. And even though none of us shampooed with Kwell, I think most of us qualified as weird. Beyond the literal, I don't have a clue.

Played live by a three-piece band, the song was pretty basic, so like most of the songs, we wanted to embellish it a bit. Mackie's Vox organ made another appearance. I can't remember what I was playing on stage, but I made up that guitar solo in the studio (you can probably tell). Marc the engineer suggested those big guitar chords that start in the third verse. I can't imagine not having them now, but Mackie took a lot of convincing.

Tom the remix engineer loved this song, especially the lyrics. And of all the remixes, I think this one surprised and delighted me the most. Mackie and Cilla did a great job on the vocals, which are much crisper and clearer than in the original mix. I love their voices together. The remix makes the song come across much more powerfully. The song used to close side 1. Now it sits as a big climax before a change of tone to finish the album.

2019/05/14

I'm going under


Before Ronald Reagan was re-elected as President of the United States in 1984, I had played a song called "High Noon," a distinctly anti-Reagan diatribe with the refrain "Oh, wanna watch you go!" But by the time we started recording for Underfoot, his second term was well underway. At some point during that span, I wrote "Underground Again."

The title was inspired by the Jam's "Going Underground." I had already been through the Nixon and Ford years, and now things looked worse, so time to go underground again. As usual, the politics are half baked and were more about getting in the faces of regressives than about singing a protest song.

The guitars are an expansion of what I played live. I don't know why that long intro is there, but I intended it that way from the start.* The descending riff shows up again, both in the organ and at the end of the snaky guitar solo (I got a Robbie Krieger comparison in one review). On stage, for the last chorus where the guitars and bass drop out, Mackie played the fills on his kit. In the studio, he played his Rototoms. I have always loved those three lines followed by that powerful snare roll that kicks the song into the final refrain.

Nothing fancy about this song. Pretty straight-ahead rocker. Its melodic descendant is the Lisa's Hotcakes song "Je te vois partout."

*I might have written "Underground Again" as a set-opener. Starting with a long intro lets you get settled in. We had once had an instrumental called "Surf 'n' Turf" that we used as a lead-off.

2019/05/13

Gag yourself on a red Life Saver


"You're Not for Me" is a bit of nastiness. I was meaner in those days. I'm pretty sure that Cilla contributed the line I used as the title of this blog post, and she threw in "Sucker," so I can share the blame. Plus the person on whom the song was very loosely base deserved it a little.

When I don't mess up a guitar solo, that means I planned it ahead of time and didn't just make it up in the studio. Everything about this song is deliberate. On Underfoot it led off side 2. I think I had some idea that it might be our hit single, except I didn't write a catchy melody.

I heard it all in my head: the feel of the guitars in the first two verses and then the change in the third verse, the lock with the drums and bass, the hand-claps, the Lennon-esque harmonica and that descending tune that shows up in other songs, and of course the guitar solo, of which I have always been proud. With this remix, the song finally has the feel I wish I could have got the first time.

2019/05/11

Go down fighting



"Alamo" is a bit of a sport in the context of the album and in the context of our set at the time. I went somewhat cow-punk on "Underfoot," but the last lick in the guitar solo was intended to make light of that. "Alamo," however, is full-on country shuffle, and I'm not sure how I came up with that. The battle story was inspired by Neil Young's "Powderfinger," and the Alamo has long been a symbol of hopeless resistance. But once again it all went metaphorical in some vaguely political way. Since I can't remember what this song was really about, perhaps it wasn't really about anything. Sometimes you just like how words and music go together.

Cilla added her own lyrical touches: the bit she sings at the end and the "Go down fighting!" before the guitar solo. The drums and bass really locked on this one, and now the guitars mesh with the rhythm section as they should. The guitar solo is flawed, but at this distance I can claim those squeezed notes were intentional.

For most of the songs in these sessions, we took advantage of having 16 tracks, dropping maybe only a scratch guitar/vocal. The remix of "Alamo" comes from 12 tracks. No tom hits. No keyboards or percussion. One scratch guitar and one annoying guitar not used. This is what's left.

2019/05/10

Tuned in on a short wave


"Short Wave" comes from childhood. My mémère gave me her old Crosley radio, which had an AM band and one shortwave band, with a frequency range I can no longer remember.

On AM I listened to WBZ, a Boston station that played hits in the daytime and got adventurous on their clear channel at night.* Back then, even the hits were cool songs like "Lonely Too Long" by the Rascals or "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones or anything by the Supremes.

Listening to shortwave was more adventurous. Sometimes I could get a good signal, often not. Lots of noise, some Morse code, and occasionally an actual broadcast. Some broadcasts were in Spanish, and I understood nothing, but I fantasized that they were speeches by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who was a bogie man when we were growing up (along with Nikita Khrushchev).

That was the basis for the song, and then it turned into a vague commentary on freedom of information and hearing alternate points of view. Most of my political stuff was pretty punk, i.e., not always well thought out and done more for effect. I don't know why I spelled the title as two words.

As you might be able to tell, I had specific production ideas for these songs. For "Short Wave" I heard a piano in my head. I banged out the chords, and it came out just how I wanted it. It was Mackie's idea to use the cowbell to imitate the sound of Morse code. I'm afraid the remix has less cowbell rather than more, or perhaps just more of everything else.

*As you may know, at night AM waves can bounce off the ionosphere if conditions are right, so listeners can tune in from quite far away. Sweetie also listened to WBZ at night. We might have been listening at the same time.

2019/05/09

Thought you were a friend o' mine


On Underfoot, "Friend o' Mine" was not the second song. It was the last track on side two. Spindle holes are not always punched exactly on centre, and there was often some warp as well. The song generally came with a bit of wow, sonically speaking. Now it has a better kind of wow, I hope.

I wrote in the last post that "Underfoot" was not among the songs we had recorded as pre-production. Looking through my stuff, I realized that all of the songs we recorded for the EP were newer than the ones we had thought we were going to record. And the newer songs were better.

This was not, however, the first version of "Friend o' Mine" that we released. We had recorded it earlier at the same studio for the third Throbbing Lobster compilation, Claws!!! (I think that's all the exclamation points). I'm not sure why we recorded it again. I think it was because the way we did it the first time was okay, but a bit thin, the weakest of our three compilation songs, at least production-wise. But I liked the song and thought it deserved better.

It was a bit of a roman à clef, dramatized, as songs often are, about a very close friendship that went very bad (but then good again). In typical stripped-down fashion, it has no chorus, only a refrain at the end of each verse, a B part that happens twice, and then the refrain repeated at the end. Is that B part a bridge? Can a middle eight happen twice? The organ was a Vox Continental, on which the "white" keys were black and the "black" keys were white. People usually thought it was a Farfisa, which had a similar but not identical reedy sound.

The o-apostrophe in the title was a dumb inside joke. The original title was "Friend o' Mine (Plate o' Shrimp)," the "Plate o' Shrimp" being a reference to the movie Repo Man, which to this day is still one of our favourites to rewatch.

2019/05/08

If you can't help out, then don't get underfoot

"Underfoot" was the lead song on the album, same as on this EP. It was not on the pre-production tape from the previous November, so it was likely newer.

It's vaguely political, like many Underachievers songs, railing against boring, stuck people who are bogs in the system. The chorus lyrics are a bit messed up, and it took me only 35 years to realize that. They should be "You want to stand still / You want to stay put / If you can't help out / Then don't get underfoot." But we sang "don't want to stand still," which I think we always did, and which makes no sense. My bad.

As well, the words tumble out so fast that there was an actual mistake that did not reveal itself in the original mix (really don't know how) but which was now too clear not to fix. That fix is the only actual repair we did on these songs.

One naughty phrase is not a mistake and was not fixed and and so earns the song this label, which didn't exist at the time. We wear it proudly!

2019/05/06

Mostly Still Underfoot

In 1985, there was a Boston band called The Underachievers. We recorded and mixed eight songs at a 16-track studio in Revere, Massachusetts, intending to deliver an EP-length product to Throbbing Lobster, the record label. The label wanted a longer record, but we had no more money for more recording. We pulled two songs from a pre-production live two-track demo that we had recorded and created Underfoot, ostensibly an LP, but which clocked in at just over 27 minutes over both sides.

The tape with the stereo mix that was used to create the vinyl record master stayed with the label. At least I never saw it again. I took responsibility for storing the master tapes, but clearly not as much responsibility as I should have. People talk about releasing tracks from "the vault." Maybe real and/or well-off musicians have an actual vault for tapes, or at least a room with temperature and humidity control. The Underfoot tapes sat in apartment closets, were moved in a truck across the continent, and finally ended up in my basement.

I should not have neglected those tapes, but I figured I would never need them again. They were mementos. Then along came digital and streaming, and along came me getting older and thinking about legacies and stuff, and slowly I began the process of seeing if anything could be rescued from the tapes.

If took time and a false start to find a studio with a 16-track analog tape machine that would take on the job of baking and digitizing the tapes. Old tapes often need to be baked at a low temperature before they are played, because over the years the tape medium becomes sticky. I was fortunate to find an engineer/studio owner who was willing take on the task and who then did a very good digitization.

I engaged the same engineer for the remix. He is a skilled engineer and really liked the material. Between those two things, I figured I would get a good remix.

I used the necessity of remixing not to try to reproduce the original sound but rather to make it more the way I want to hear the songs now. I used only the original tracks, but ProTools and software plug-ins (so many of which emulate vintage hardware in software) do an amazing job. The result was even better than I had imagined it could be. The performances were stronger than I had realized. The remix made the songs sound the way they might have sounded back in 1985 if we had worked in a major studio with very expensive equipment.

This is close to the original EP but not quite the same sequence. I call this EP Mostly Still Underfoot. Find it on Bandcamp, and soon from your favourite streaming service.

2019/04/05

Who's your mommy?

When I started on Ancestry, I had paper copies of the lineage of my father and mother's paternal families as well as a little information about my father's mother's family, which of course was my her father's family.

See a pattern?

We sometimes know about the people from whom our parents' surnames come. But how much do we know about maternal lines? With rare exception, a father passes his family name to his offspring, and the mother's family name (which came from her father) disappears. It can be difficult to trace maternal lines because the surname changes every generation. And yet I am no more related to the settlers whose names my grandparents bore than I am to any of my other seventh and eighth great-grandparents.

Fortunately, French women, including settlers, did not take their husband's name. If I can find baptismal, marriage, and burial records, the surname will be the same. And thanks to good record keepers and Ancestry, I have found a lot of records.

I trace up the top/left of my Ancestry tree, and it follows what I had on that piece of paper, the one line of my father that leads to the namesake settler. I trace up the bottom/right of my tree and I land at Anne Asselin, a seventh great-grandmother, from whom I am descended via all those generations of women. I can follow the women's lines to reach the original male or female settler or Indigenous woman who married a settler as easily as I can follow the men's lines.

Despite Ancestry's pink and blue default icons (easily replaced), a visual depiction of a family tree is an equalizer between the sexes. I'm chuffed that I can trace matrilineal forebears. In fact, because genetic paternity is (or was then) far more difficult to establish with certainty than maternity, the line of male descent that a surname indicates, the one we tend to cite when we say "my family," might be more about legality than genetics. And it was ever thus.

2019/04/01

Slowly I turn

People say age is just a number, but it's not like deterioration isn't happening. I've been sensing signs of aging since about 60. Your mileage may vary. The last two years of barely mitigated stress certainly did not retard the aging process.

I'm not an athlete, but I've usually been a fairly active person. I walk a lot, climb stairs, and generally try to do things in a more active way even if less convenient.

When I started to feel obvious signs of aging, I thought my body would tell me when I was pushing too hard or doing too much. I thought that little by little I would slow down naturally, be unable to haul as much, be unable to lift weight I had previously. To some extent, that has happened. I don't move as quickly as I used to. But more often, this is how it goes: I do something that seems fine, and later I suffer for it. Not as in straining a muscle, but as in aching in multiple places and getting pain trigger points.

I'm a slow learner, because I keep walking too quickly, hauling too much up hills, and lifting things I shouldn't lift. I don't want to slow down. But then later I hurt, and my body says, haven't you figured this out already?

I'm finally getting it. I'm trying to start off earlier, but sometimes I might just be late. I don't need the extra hurt. When I walk, especially with cart in tow, I try to be conscious of not exerting too much effort and of keeping my legs relaxed as they do their job. It's helping.

Even as my body sends painful reminders, I still find it hard to slow down. Until I retired, I worked with only one short break of unemployment for almost 50 years. The hurry-up habit is ingrained. My parents were not much for "time wasting" either, so I probably got it from the cradle. But I would like to hurt less, and I'm willing to "waste" some time to make that happen.

2019/03/26

Past is prologue

You know what is not a brilliant idea? Restarting your blog and then going on vacation, that's what. Especially when that's followed by a week in a recording studio overseeing a remix of a band I was in back in 1985.

Two 10-hour slots and one five-hour slot in four days made for a lot of listening and deciding, especially when the day and a half off mostly meant more listening and deciding (plus a few hours for the rest of life).

Now that I have a candidate for mastering, I'm in a more leisurely period of listening and deciding. My former band mates also have access to the remix.

So far I'm mostly happy. Some songs are killer. For some, I might want changes. There might also be things my band mates want changed. But it has already come a long way from where it was.

The original record had a somewhat thin punk-pop sound (my bad, I was enamoured of Miami by The Gun Club at the time) that the label owner tried to rescue during mastering, with some success. Effects were used judiciously, and nothing is very fancy.

I knew I wanted to fatten up the sound, but I wasn't sure about making it too much shinier. I thought that would affect the integrity of the material. In the studio, I soon realized that I was never going to make it so shiny that it wouldn't sound like itself.

The remixed songs still sound like us laying down tracks, sometimes live on the floor together, sometimes in overdubs, but all us. But now the presentation has more impact. The bass is tighter, guitars are stronger, the drums are beautifully handled, and the vocals are clear and bright. It sounds better in every way. If we had been able to make it sound this good in 1985, I hope we would have.

In other news, retirement rocks, except that I still seem not to have enough time to do everything I want to do. Like write blog posts.

2019/03/12

Not dead yet

Hello, is this mic live?

It's 2019. Since whatever popularity blogs had is long gone, I'm going to start mine up again. I'm all about unpopularity. If Twitter is a conversation with yourself that you hope someone else is interested in, then blogging is like writing on spec for a publication that no one can find. But if I enjoy doing it, then I'll keep doing it. And one never knows where readers come from.

At the point when I stopped posting, life had become difficult in several ways. The combination of not yet being able to retire from a good, well-paying job that I just didn't love, and the ascendance of so-called right-wing populism, i.e., politics based on people at their un-empathetic worst took a toll everyday. I would wake up stressed about work, as well as fearing what I was going to read in the morning's headlines. It had impacts on pretty much all aspects of my health.

In all this, I lost blog mojo. Instead, I started writing a journal again. Several blank books in a row, over the last couple of years. Writing in a journal has been very beneficial to me. It's kind of a habit now, which I had never been able to develop before.

(I didn't go completely private. I was on Twitter, too much. Twitter is a very good part of my life that can also be a very bad part. It has become a vital communication tool in my city and among people here whom I know. I see breaking news, and much more that is interesting and that I want to keep up with. The downside is that it can be all-consuming while also delivering non-stop distressing content and excessive outrage in almost real time.)

Now, I am retired. I made it. After all my rebellion, I did what my parents instilled in me: found a good job, stuck with it (for far too long), and saved for retirement. They were not against having a fulfilling career—after all, my dad became a teacher and then an administrator—but as children of the Great Depression, security was paramount for them. So since I stayed the course, maybe my sweetie and I will have enough to live on until we cease to exist.

Before I retired, many people asked what I would do instead of working. My answer was always the same: all the things that I have wanted to do all my life but rarely had time or focus to do.

I have new music to make and old music to revive. Next week, I will start remixing an album my band recorded in 1985, with more material to follow as budget permits.

I have writing to do. Not sure what kind of writing at this point, beyond re-adding this blog to the mix, but writing is something I can't help but do, like music.

I have a couple of volunteer things, one of which requires a fair amount of energy. I'm cooking and baking. It's finally time to head out into the garden.

And there are things I once loved and want to bring back into my life. When I arrived in Vancouver almost 25 years ago, I had more time than money. I did a lot of hiking on the North Shore, and I rode my bicycle between East Van and UBC. Now once again having more time than money, I would like to get back to both of those activities while I am still able to do so.

My sweetie and I have things to do together, such as travel, senior days at this or that local attraction, and occasionally being ladies who lunch.

I'm only beginning to figure out this new life and new schedule. I'm going to see if blogging more than once in a blue moon can be part of it.