Friday, February 29, 2008

Music and memory

Driving home just now I heard KISS’s Shout it out Loud on the radio. For some reason, it was like a flashback, and I was back thirty years.

The studio version of the song is kind of flat and tame. Even though that was what the radio was playing, I was hearing the live version, just as we performed it in the 1970s. That was truly electric rock’n’roll.

Some songs feature a strong guitar lead, and others have an overriding vocal presence. That particular song is really driven by Gene Simmons, with a biting, pounding bass line. He played that song with a custom bass that Steve Carr had made him, using active electronics I’d made for Steve. The electronics, the strings, and Steve’s instrument design combined to create a bass that was very trebly; very bitey. And very loud.

I don’t really know how to convey that sound to you in words, but I can hear it even now. Gene wanted that punchy sound because it had definition. Every single note stood out, distinct, clear as a bell. And we needed that bite to punch through all the stage noise. It worked. You could stand alongside the aluminum scaffolding, over on the stage right where Gene played, and the sound from that bass just dominated everything. The only thing louder was the explosions Hank would fire off every few minutes.

And it moved fast. Gene hammered the notes out at twice the speed of a traditional blues bass line. This wasn’t dance music. Not at all. This was kick start the Harley and wind it out at full throttle music. The speed, the volume, the bite; the raw power. I can even feel it today. The instruments stopped for a moment as we looked out into the audience, half blinded by the follow spots. “We got to have a party,” they all yelled, and the PA system went into distortion for a moment when the band kicked off again.

You didn't drink beer for music like this, because the sound pounded you so hard, your grip would crush the can. And if you had bottled beer, the glass would break, and you'd cut your hands. They knew better than to let bottles into places we played. No. You got cranked up first, and then you went inside, for two hours of kick-ass music.

Gene played that song with the amps at full power. Actually, as far as I remember, he played everything at full power. We had a stack of Sunn Super Coliseum bass amps chained together and I’d watch the clip LEDs flash with every note. There was a smell you’d get from the bass cabinets when they played loud for a while. It was sort of musty; the smell of hot speaker coils and atomized dust, you might call it. You just knew it was beating the speakers to death, but no one cared. If they made ten shows it was good enough.

When you stepped back from the stage, it was a bit like stepping out of the shower. You kind of moved away from the blast zone. It was still loud, but a little less overwhelming.

The sound is very different backstage. Most places, the vocals are missing and at a distance of fifty feet, it’s kind of muffled. All the voices are carried by the main PA speakers, and they’re hung from the ceiling forward of the stage. So you don’t hear them in back.. The musicians have monitor speakers – the Brits call it foldback – which throw the vocals back in their faces but the instrument sound is so loud the vocals never make it off the stage. As you walk around the stage, different instruments dominate different places. Beneath the stage, it’s the stomping of boots and the drums. On the right, it’s Gene’s bass. To the left, you’d get Ace and Paul’s guitars.

In some venues, we’d have the PA cabinets on the floor, on scaffolds. If you went under them, the bass and drums dominated. If you got close to the bass bins, the pounding blurred your vision, and you’d feel like you were getting beat up. If you stepped in front, the blast almost made your ears bleed. I never did that.

Scientists say everything we see, hear, and feel – all our lives - is locked inside our brains, waiting for some trigger to bring it out.

They're forecasting 10 inches of snow for tonight. I have to go grease the plow, to get ready.

17 comments:

Polly Kahl said...

Whew! I'm feeling a little shell shocked. That was some post.

Chumplet said...

Music and smells. They both bring back memories for me.

Dire Straits music takes me back to the panelled basement where I snuggled with my boyfriend.

A certain deodorant takes me to Geneva, where I spent three days while waiting to visit my dad in Algeria.

The smell of tar takes me back to Saint John New Brunswick when I was a kid.

In the small bars where my brother played, the music was so loud I couldn't hear it properly unless I stuffed my ears with cotton. Then I could pick out the notes.

Kanani said...

Well, funny you should write this. It looks like I'm covering the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in L.A. Today, I received an invitation to a show and GENE SIMMONS will be there! Ha! I think the fashion show is being filmed for his new family reality TV show.

So I'll get to meet him. If I say, "John Robison" will he look at me dumbly, curse me, or say, "Oh, I love John."

Tell me before I say your name.

John Elder Robison said...

Kanani, I have no idea what he'd say. I worked mostly with Ace but I'm sure he remembers who I am.

Kanani said...

If I meet him, I'll give him your book.

Kim Stagliano said...

Lord yes. I'm sure this is why we have 40's stations, 50' stations and the success of Satellite radio where you can choose your genre with a click of the remote. They don't call it, "The Music of your life" for nothing. Very much like scents. When I broke up with a boyfriend I missed very much I'd sneak up to the Filene's fragrance counter and smell his brand. Royal Copenhagen Musk - which gives you an idea of how long ago that was!

Theresa said...

"The studio version of the song is kind of flat and tame."...Yes, I agree. I felt like KISS should only have released a live version of that song. I think it would have been even more popular.

"Even though that was what the radio was playing, I was hearing the live version, just as we performed it in the 1970s."

Every time I see a band live and then hear their songs later on the radio, I get the same throwback to the show I saw. But only if the show was good, or especially good. I never saw KISS live, (wish I had)
but bands I saw that bring this back for me even years later include Godsmack, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, and believe it or not, 3 Doors Down. I saw them on their last tour and I believe they were the most professional rock band I have seen. On stage within 7min. of start time...and their sound system was the best ever... as close to studio quality for an outdoor venue as I will ever hear, I guess. What do you suppose they do that's so different?

I never had the perspective you had from walking around the stage, underneath and behind the stage at a show, but the way you describe it is very vivid and takes me back to the shows I've seen. Right now I'm too poor to go to shows, what with raising kids and all, so thanks for bringing back some memories!

Lisa said...

Have you seen his show on A&E? I always wonder how the 2008 Gene Simmons compares to the 1978 Gene Simmons/Gene Simmons persona.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Amazing descriptions here John,

Holly Kennedy said...

Great post, John.
And I can sure relate.

Every now and then I'll hear a song that pulls me up short and tosses me, almost tornado-like, back to a day/week/month lived long ago, and I love when that happens, because it makes me appreciate long forgotten life lessons and memories that are part of who I am today.

Daniel J. Watkins said...

I loved Kiss as a kid...but never saw them live. How was the live version of "God of Thunder?" compared to "Shout it Out Loud?"

John Elder Robison said...

Daniel, we opened many shows with God of Thunder. It was a powerful song too, with a heavy drum line in the live version.

Sustenance Scout said...

Wow, fun post John! Amazing that you were there in the middle of all that mania. Your writing brought us all back there with you. K.

Robin said...

It is amazing to me how fast certain songs can transport me to another time and space.

Thanks for the view from backstage. It is in my top things to do before I die list -- To Experience a Concert Backstage. Your description may be as close as I get.

Shawn said...

I know the smell of speaker cabinets quite well, as I've done audio in the past and play guitar. --It's a good smell.

Speaking of Bass Bins, people used to think I was crazy when I would curl up inside old scoop style bins while they were running flat out, and get a massage courtesy of 1.2Kw of LF Bass signal. -- This was how I found out that most people aren't aware of the fact that the most damaging audio source is in the HF and upper mids.

As far as bands go, though, I've noticed that a lot of bands come off much better in a spontaneous live situation, than they do in the controlled situation of a studio.

Anthony Peake said...

John,
Fascinating blog. I came across you after doing a web search on 'hypothymestic Syndrome' and then surfing off in many directions. My name is Anthony Peake, a UK based writer. My interest area is human consciousness and the neurological constructs of perception. The interest in my work is such that I have set up a blog site that has proved to be a surprising success. I am already approaching my 100 'full members' limit. The reason for my approach is two fold; firstly your synaesthesia is fascinating (as are the subsequent responses regarding instant memory recall) and secondly that some of my most activemy blog contributors are either autistic themselves or have autistic children (one guy I know will really be interested in your blog). Please take a moment to check out my blog - and possibly my website (www.anthonypeake.com) and if you are in any way interested please contact me or, even better, join in. I am sure that many of my blog team will be very interested in your stuff.

Cheers

Tony

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