Director: Jeff Dupre, Maro Chermayeff and James Manera
Cast: Sir George Martin, Dr Dre, Linda Perry, Don Was, Steve Van Zandt, Annie Lennox, Tom Petty, Nile Rodgers, Lamont Dozier, Ringo Starr, The RZA, Hans Zimmer, Quincy Jones, Billy idol, Neneh Cherry, Sheila E. Skrillex, Gamble & Huff and Tom Scholz
Narration: Dermott Mulrooney
Running time: 480 minutes
100 years of recorded music divided into an 8 part documentary that shows and tells everything you ever wanted to know about record production in an easy to understand / relate program format. In a word, sublime. One thing I loved the most about this documentary series is how, unlike other music docus which typically stick to songs, artistes & celebs, this one goes further behind the scenes to the creative process, production techniques and technology evolution that drive the industry forward. It is skilfully woven through the 8 episodes, in historical order, giving the viewer a perspective that is both unique and comprehensive.
Furthermore, it touches on, and in many cases also featured soundbites and clips from, major musical talent in a roll call of everyone you could possibly think of in the music business. Not surprising perhaps, when you consider it features none other than the 5th Beatle himself, Sir George Martin.
The following is a quick snapshot of key impressions I got from each of the 8 episodes, which I watched sequentially and virtually back-to-back, as follows:
Episode 1: The recording artist – focused on record producers who are described as the craftsmen that combine several elements (including vocals, music, engineering and composition) into the product. E.g. Sam Phillips saw Elvis as the perfect vehicle for making accessible to mainstream audiences the black blues music art-form that later became known as rock and roll. Sir George Martin, signed and produced the Beatles before realised they had been rejected by every record company previously. Phil Spector, was the real artiste on all his records with his ‘wall of sound’ approach to music production. Sly Stone, of Sly and The Family Stone, was innovation personified. He was ahead of his time as musician, producer, performer and genius. Dr Dre, master hip-hop record producer combined with Jimmy Iovine’s music business nous to eclipse and break perceived limitations of hip-hop when they sold their Beats audio business to Apple for 3.2Billion Dollars. Speaking of hip-hop, sampling played a big role in the stellar careers of produces such as: Rick Rubin, The RZA, Pharrell, Kanye West, Timbaland and Sean Puffy Combs.
Episode 2: Painting with Sound – Recording techniques evolved over the years with multi-track innovation that helped define it as a distinct art-form in its own right. Boston’s ‘More than a Feeling’ was recorded in multitrack by a producer. There was no band called Boston, just session musicians who played the role after the fact! Les Paul the legendary guitar maker was also an accomplished player and producer widely regarded as the creator of multitrack.Sir George Martin introduced The Beatles to multi track recording in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ record featured over dubs, and ‘Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club’ had a symphony orchestra, as did Pink Floyd etc. The explosion of pop music was arguably the result of geometric increase in the number of tracks artistes could play with, (e.g. from 2, 4, 8, 16 tracks etc.) making it easier to create music even more cheaply, right through to analogue home studios (as used by Eurythmics), Digital studio technology and finally bedroom studios in a laptop or mobile device.
Episode 3: the human instruments – focused on the quest for the perfect vocal track. It is believed that the voice is the soul of the song. it is what makes you want to listen to it’s intersection of melody and human emotion, according to The Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb. The ability to project emotion is highly desirable, such as Adele’s ability which channels the likes of Aretha Franklin. Bessie Smith’s voice had power, Bonnie Raitt held pure emotion and Eric Clapton was incredible.
the instruments used for voice evolved from analogue horn recorders to electronic microphones which gave rise to the subtly nuanced crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand and Any Winehouse. The voice is so personal and integral that you’re your own instrument and ultimately make the artiste vulnerable and open to judging, but “if you are an authentic singer, a truly authentic singer, you resonate”.
Episode 4: Going Electric – “Plug it in; everything’s electric now” – “Just think what would happen to the music industry if someone pulled the plug and stopped all the electricity?” some quotes from this episode totally spell it out about electricity enabled music. In 1976, The Who with their early amps / Marshals were recognised as loudest band in the worlds at 125dbs! The electric guitar became its own instrument and basically took over recorded music. Charlie Christian is widely hailed as the first rock guitarist. He joined the Benny Goodman sextet and changed big band sound forever. Essentially, the acoustic Mississippi blues travelled to Chicago and plugged in! The Blues also travelled to England and became a hit with the Rolling Stones’ Mick and Keith who revelled in their image as copycats and bad boys trying hard to sing badly. The Fuzz tone effect was an early ‘dirty guitar’ distorted sound which took and became the signature of many rock bands. Artistes like Jimmy Hendrix took it to the next level with his unique sound, vibe, style and skill, (complete with ‘greatest guitar player’ epithets).
Another great milestone of electric innovation was the introduction of synthesisers. Robert Moog made synths mainstream. The Moog series of synths were used by the likes of Bob Margoluef and Malcolm Cecil in their famed ‘wall-of-synth’ Tonto studios to create the music genre of Electronica. A post Motown Stevie Wonder came in on the act via Tonto studios which allowed him to run amok with 5 albums worth of hit after hit. They took the hitherto uber-geek electronica sound and made it accessible to mainstream. Disco arrived in the 70s and took over the soundscape with the likes of Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer’s – ‘I Feel Love’. In contrast, the 80s music embraced highly processed sounds but hated synths. Brian Eno did synth based sonic scape album for airports -i.e. the birth of Muzak. Master film score composer, Hans Zimmer, used synths to create new sounds for Batman movie score using cheap PC hardware to score the music for the mega budget Hollywood Blockbuster. Welcome to the age of Computer music where new sounds can be created, mixed and recorded on computers. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) opened up vast new possibilities e.g. the likes of DJ Skrillex can create complete tracks on the car journeys to a gig venue!
Episode 5: four on the Floor – focused on dance and music e.g. EDM (aka electronic dance music) simply makes you want to move – the future is computer engineered music. Ironically, the much maligned Disco was ultimately responsible for more than critics are willing to admit. It all started with church music and gospel rhythms which morphed into rock and roll such as little Richards’s “Tutti Frutti”. The Motown sound was dance heavy with a drum and bass backbone. James Brown incorporated dance as a key part of his show. the sounds from every instrument were rhythmic and percussive e.g. in 1965’s “Papas Got a Brand New Bag” and he essentially invented the funk genre. Carlos Santana introduced the mixture of electric guitar blues and latin percussion – dance overdrive. The film and soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” by The Bee Gees made disco mainstream. However, the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash heralded the end of disco and major talents like Nile Rodgers and Barry Gibb became writer producers with huge hits for other people. Jellybean Benitez and other DJs started the remix fad (e.g. remixed Madonna’s ‘Physical’ and finished / produced the hit, ‘Holiday’). Drum machines became programmable and made dance music more accessible. Raves and house parties played techno, and EDM became an experience complete with trance inducing dancing, but people still wanted real performance from real artistes not machines.
Episode 6: The world is yours – focused on Hip hop and the sampling phenomenon. Started in 1980s South Bronx, the hiphop movement with originators DJ Cool Herc, Afrika Bambara and Grandmaster Flash had strong Caribbean roots, with dub and rhythm excursions of a single beat covered and re-used by multiple songs and singers. James Brown is still the most sampled artiste. Chic’s “Good Time”, was copied and recreated for Sugar Hill Gang’s smash hit ‘Rappers Delight’ in the first hip hop smsh hit record. Def Jam’s Run DMC rapped over Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ track produced by Rick Rubin. Early samplers such as Fairlight and the E-MU SP 1200, which was used by the Wu Tang Clan’s producer extraordinaire to create Method Man’s massive hit “Bring The Pain”. Marley Marl, Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy), Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys) and Paul’s Boutique sampled everything, as did everyone else. Until the lawsuits came and stopped the party. Only millionaire rappers could afford the lawyers needed to clear all the samples in each album (e.g. Kanye West and P Diddy).
Episode 7: Sound and Vision – focus on the role of visuals and MTV brought music videos to the fore. Eurythmics visual experimentation was a huge factor in their success. European music videos took off and fed MTV right from the start. This was not surprising because even previous pop acts embraced it – The Beatles had videos and Blondie made videos as a rule. MTV was initially focused on rock music for a predominantly Young White Male audience. Michael Jackson’s beat it broke the ground for black artistes – heavily supported by CBS records – and “Thriller” broke new ground in music video.
Yo! MTV Raps took hip hop to a national audience. Madonna used her video visuals and music to play the PR game to her benefit. She was the consummate video artiste. However, it all got too much, with even more elaborate and more expensive videos until Eric Clapton started the unplugged revolution (i.e. one artiste and their instrument) – his unplugged record sold 5M copies. Eventually video TV fragmented with numerous entrants to the game and MTV became reality TV obsessed in trying to ‘do more than just music’. Music economics had changed completely to something more individualistic and less the communal lean forward experience of before.
Episode 8: I am my music – focused on music formats changes and charted the march from shellac to vinyl discs. From 76ins to 331/3in LPs and the 45inch single. Lieber & Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog’ performed by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton sold 500k, and the Elvis Presley version sold 10M copies. the 3 minute radio friendly track had arrived, but it was pretty limited. Frank Sinatra solidified the LP with a concept album approach to making records. Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was 6 minutes long and album became the standard in 60s / early 70s, including message albums such as Marvin Gaye’s ‘Whats Going On’.
Cassette tapes became the format for the 70s & early 80s. Tapes were cheaper, easier, low fi and particularly appealing for their ability to create mix tapes. Sony Walkmans brought in the era of the personal music experience. Compact Discs in mid-late 80s brought better quality, pristine music. However it also brought out the greed and recording industry’s biggest hustle whereby people repurchased entire collections in the new format, and albums got made, with only a few good tracks, but sold for the full price despite being cheaper to manufacture. However, The MP3 format in the 2000s soon came along to disrupt the entire industry with free music downloads via applications such as Napster. Interestingly, Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner was apparently used to refine the MP3 format until it become good enough for consumers. Other more legal disruptive applications (e.g. iTunes and YouTube) soon appeared and completely reshaped the music industry. We await expectantly for the next phase of the great music journey.
There you have it – an awesome journey through the history of recorded music, created and presented by one of its great shapers. Nothing was left out and you come away with a feeling of having been on the scene of most of these great innovations and achievements. A stellar work indeed and, in conclusion, one that shows recorded music to be a fundamental, profound and life-affirmingly awesome part of the human experience. period.