The crucial difference between songs and records is that a song is an idea and a record is a thing. The clue’s in the name: a record is a record of its own creation. Even with the impact of multitrack recording and digital workstations, a record is a document of a place and a time. A fixed point. Did the singer have a cold that day? How did the instruments sound? Were the band getting along? Where were the mics placed? Did Sting accidentally sit on a piano?
“A Day in the Life”, The Beatles
If you catch the author of these words in a particularly grandiloquent mood he will argue (at tiresome length) that A Day in the Life is the high-water mark of 20th century music – an ambitious, ambiguous masterpiece that’s as close to transcendent as pop has managed to achieve. After a rising orchestral glissando, the song climaxes with an E-major chord played simultaneously on three pianos and a harmonium. As the note rings out for forty triumphant seconds, the vibrations drifting off into the universe, Ringo Starr’s shoe squeaks as he shifts his weight in his seat. Improbably, it’s the perfect ending: an art form’s apogee, recorded over 34 hours, and in its final moments you hear Ringo fidget.
“Mack the Knife”, Ella Fitzgerald
Kurt Weill’s standard Mack the Knife has been recorded by so many artists that you probably have a version of it out there somewhere, but few iterations compare to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 live performance. After the first verse Fitzgerald went completely blank, but managed to style it out, singing “Oh what’s the next chorus to this song now/this is the one now/I don’t know/but it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune/So we tried to do Mack the Knife” and continuing to make up two further verses without missing a beat. Fitzgerald was such a pro that she – by her own in-song admission – made “a wreck” and still ended up winning two Grammies for the performance.
“Black Country Woman”, Led Zeppelin
A common childhood memory: the weather is glorious and your teacher, in a beatific mood, agrees to have class outdoors for the day. For adults, unfortunately, the insect-alluring reality rarely matches the fantasy. Led Zeppelin learned this when they decided to use the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio (like a mobile library but containing a mixing desk and drugs instead of paperbacks) to record Black Country Woman in Mick Jagger’s garden. As soon as they started taping a plane appeared overhead, but they chose to keep this in along with their discussion about keeping it in. This ended better, at least, than the other occasion they attempted recording in a garden and Robert Plant was attacked by a flock of geese.
“Infested with self-pity and anger” following a break-up, in 2011 Liz Harris – the artist and musician known as Grouper – accepted a residency in the small Portuguese town of Aljezur. Alone for days at a time, she would take field recordings and walk miles through the ruins of old estates. After a storm brought a power cut, she sat at a piano in the dark and played an aching instrumental called Labyrinth. A note or two from the end, something happened: the power returned, and floating across came the sound of the microwave switching back on. Harris decided to leave the song how it was; the result is perhaps the most haunting, lonely microwave beep you’ll ever hear.
“30 Hours”, Kanye West
The perfectionism of Kanye West’s music stands in contrast to his self-sabotaging public impulsiveness, which is why something seemed different about The Life of Pablo. West – a recently-married new father, preoccupied by other creative interests – continued to fiddle with the album in the months following its release, unable to get it right. He was so distracted that in the middle of an improvised verse during the song 30 Hours his phone rings and, unbelievably, he actually stops to take the call. “Yo Gabe, I’m just doing an adlib track right now”, he says, the tape still rolling, “What’s up?” While the moment amuses, it’s hard to imagine the hungry young producer of a decade earlier being diverted by anything.
“Oh Comely”, Neutral Milk Hotel
Considering the (lovely) magazine that’s named after it (but we’re biased, don’t take our word for it), Oh Comely is far darker and stranger than you might expect – eight and a half minutes of mass graves and sitting inside a stranger’s stomach and wanting to save Anne Frank in some sort of time machine and adulterous fathers who “made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park”. Jeff Mangum had been asked to sing a verse as a soundcheck, but ended up performing the entire song in a single take. As he finished, his astonished collaborator Scott Spillane, standing in the sound booth, screamed “Holy shit!”. He speaks for us all.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight. Illustration by Matsuo Reiko.