With the release of our latest 45 (The Mandatory Eight - “Soul Fanfare #3”) fast approaching, I thought I would share some of the thoughts that help to form our process when producing a record like this.
I find the medium of the 45 fascinating and often catch myself thinking about all the elements that surrounded making the music itself. It is quite possible that the artist or band only got as far as recording that one 45 and were never to be heard of again. In America, for example, it could have been only popular in one state, distributed by some long forgotten obscure record label.
What was the studio like? I’ve often heard stories of record shops with a simple recording set up out back where local bands would cut a 45. It’s unlikely they were top of the range like Stax or Motown as the price of a multi-track tape recorder was typically between $10,000-$30,000 (approx $80,000+ today). As a result these small back-room studios often had their own individual sound and style of mixing developed through trial and error recording countless aspiring acts.
What kind of instruments did they play on these obscure recordings? It definitely wasn't a brand new Fender Stratocaster ($330 in 1968, equivalent to $2,300 today) but more likely a cheaper Harmony or Silvertone bought at a Sears & Roebuck or the local “Mom & Pop” music store. Who was the band? Were they a promising bunch of kids fresh out of high school who had been religiously singing doo-wop together paired with the local night club backing band? Were they just the backing band who had a chance to cut a tune because the local doo-wop group didn’t show up to the recording session? So many amazing parameters to influence the moments that were captured on tape, mixed, pressed, sold (or not) and ultimately forgotten about, left to gather dust until an intrepid record collector prises the lid off the box decades later. I could go on and on thinking about what these sessions could have been way longer than the 3 minutes of music that appears on them.
These days when making music in this genre, particularly the 1960’s soul, funk and r’n’b of black America, I often feel that producers and bands can fall into the trap of focusing in on applying post-recording technologies when trying to recreate or pitch something in this ballpark. An approach to recording and a playing style clearly influenced by modern techniques can be apparent as well as the utilisation of modern instruments and equipment, seeking to “lo-fi them up” after the fact in an attempt to recreate the sound they can hear on record. I can hear this a mile off and it often turns me off modern funk or soul. That punky lo-fi attitude that draws us to the music we seek comes from the source, and is often a sum of many factors.
At ATA when making a 45 these are the important things to think about. I’m not interested in making perfectly executed pieces of music; it’s about making something that is going to spark someone’s imagination in the same way that some of the fabulous music found on funk and soul 45’s does for me.
One of the main influences for the debut 45 from The Mandatory Eight is from a group which fits very nicely with some of the thoughts posed above: Amnesty. I first heard their record “Free Your Mind” a couple of years ago and recently managed to get myself a copy. The group Amnesty existed in the early 70’s in Indianapolis and only managed to release two obscure 45’s of hard vocal funk until record label Now-Again compiled them in 2007 alongside some other studio recordings and a couple of demos which were kept all those years by the bands bassist. Amnesty had a hard to categorise sound; prog/rock/soul/funk not too dissimilar to where Parliament or Funkadelic were heading in their early days. I am sure they could have found success beyond the bounds of Indianapolis if they had had a label to take them to the next level.
There is so much that endears me to this collection of recordings, the music is creative and sophisticated, if at times crudely executed. It has that drive of youth that thinks “why not?” and dares to be different. I love that the trumpet player falls slightly short of conventional tuning in his short solo in the intro to the epic “Can I Help You”. Similarly, the vocal harmony is slightly funky at times but it never grates on me because the passion of what they are doing overrides any musical criticism. I think it’s the curse of some well-trained musicians that their perceived level of proficiency hinders doing something truly creative or free. What they deem as good or worthy is often exclusive to a small group of like minded individuals.
We wanted the Mandatory Eight to feel like they came from a similar place to Amnesty. Not just instrumental funk by numbers but a band with high aspirations despite lacking the tools to execute them. The small amount of time that would have been allotted to them in the studio and the equipment that they were recording on meant that they would have dealt with the odd mistake from both sides of the glass as there wasn't the time or money to fix them. Today’s technology, with the ability to endlessly edit, tweak, cut and paste has removed those honest human moments from the table. Is there the same intense commitment to a recording if you know that you can just fix it after? And where do you draw the line of what you fix? Modern production has become like Photoshop for the music industry. I prefer polaroids.
Side A of The Mandatory Eight’s upcoming single “Soul Fanfare #3” is the cheerier, more optimistic of the two sides. I imagine The Mandatory Eight as a nightclub backing band like the “Nightlighters”, cutting their teeth on the tunes of the many touring Artists passing through town… Maybe they would get a slot before the singer performed their set of RnB crowd pleasers. For want of a better title “Soul Fanfare #3” was just the best of their many set openers, tried and tested.
Side B “Turn it Out” is the track that reminds me most of Amnesty, it’s more mature edge sounding like a bunch of guys tired with the well-trodden club hits and with the influence of groups like parliament and funkadelic creeping into the mix. The biting tough horns stray from pitch at times but that to me makes them better. It’s not a reflection of the ability of the horn players, it’s just that the tenor sax was quite old, not top of the range and in need of a service. I don't hear an out of tune horn I just hear a musician wrestling a difficult beast. The fact that the farfisa organ was slightly out across the board due to the degradation of ageing components didn’t help matters, but it’s the sum of these experiences that make for an honest moment of music.
Ultimately, I guess what I’m trying to say is that we didn’t purposely manipulate the recording to make it sound old and funky. Instead we just tried to recreate the parameters that we believe they faced, and rolled with that. Feel over precision, passion over execution, soul-on-a-budget grooves that leave you feeling that with a little bit of dedication and determination we could all cut a 45.
By Neil Innes