by Memphis Evans
When you have written a song, there are two ways to go about recording it. These two philosophical poles are Ultimate Version Vs. Kick Ass Performance. Neither is better than the other, it is merely a continuum. Easy examples of true musical heroes who embody both poles are Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.
The Ultimate Version of a song is one that includes the very best aspects of every single idea you had for the song. It is generally done by planning and building a recording track by track, playing individual parts over and over until they are perfect.
Listen to the outtake of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on The Beatles Anthology Volume 3. The Beatles run through a perfectly good performance of the song but Paul calls for another take in his lovely lilting British, saying, "It had some good bits, but it would be nice to get the good bits and the other bits." If you listen closely enough, I belive you can hear John Lennon grinding his teeth. (He seems usually to veer toward the Kick Ass Performance philosophy.)
Paul had certain things he wanted to hear happen and he wasn't going to be satisfied until all of them were happening. The Beatles used multi-track tape to layer every possible idea onto the song and indeed the final version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" contains a wealth of delightful moments and explodes with fully realized ideas and sounds. This philosophy of the Ultimate Version is the driving force behind pretty much every piece of Paul McCartney music.
When you go to see Paul McCartney in concert, you hear perfect note for note renditions of the fully realized recordings he has made of his brilliant songs. You are guaranteed to go away with your "I saw Paul McCartney sing Yesterday and it was just like it was in 1965" badge. There is nothing wrong with that. It makes people happy.
When you go to see Bob Dylan in concert, you are guaranteed to hear things you have never heard before and things no one will ever hear again. This is one reason I've been to five Dylan shows and only one McCartney show, the others being price of tickets and frequency of touring. At the latest Dylan show I heard an amazing version of "It's Alright Ma" that was nothing like the vastly different versions I'd already heard on his studio and live recordings of the song. (And after five shows, I finally heard him play his biggest radio hit "Like A Rolling Stone" for the first time.) Dylan builds amazing, improvised, never-to-be-repeated moments into his shows that seem to stop time.
When you listen to Bob Dylan in the studio, you are listening to individual performances that, with a few album-length exceptions, are completely live. There are obvious mistakes by some of the musicians and flubbed lines by Bob and the various backup singers he's worked with. But strangely enough, these moments rarely detract from the recordings. In spite of the fact that I myself tend to go for the Ultimate Version in the studio, I find myself listening more to Dylan's albums than McCartney's, although by a narrow margin. I wonder sometimes what McCartney and Dylan think of one another's recorded and live work.
What about Elvis?
Elvis Presley's career took off when he recorded a Kick Ass Performance of "That's All Right Mama" with a couple of other guys. They were just goofing around, but the performance they gave is arguably also an Ultimate Version in its own way. This is a line Elvis walked brilliantly.
For most of Elvis' career he had incredibly talented backing musicians with plenty of great ideas and the ability to execute them take after take. This created an Ultimate Version depth. Also, everything was recorded live over and over until Elvis felt everyone had given a Kick Ass Performance. Elvis made hundreds of recordings that find the perfect middle way on this continuum. They are polished and full of interesting parts while at the same time being completely unique, one of a kind performances.
What about Memphis?
Great Uncle Helmer's first CD old man will travel was mostly recorded live and represents the Kick Ass Performance end of the philosophical spectrum under discussion. (If not necessarily its nominal execution on every track.) "Travellin' Around" is a song that has been performed many different times many different ways by at least two different bands. It is too elastic and it can not snap back. To ditch the metaphor, it has expressed so many mutually contradictory musical ideas that there can be no "Ultimate Version" of it at this point. The song is a mature being.
Great Uncle Helmer's second CD Generic Mayhem was recorded with click tracks for rhythmic stability and made extensive use of overdubbing. I completely indulged myself in executing every single idea I had. The Ultimate Versions on Generic Mayhem are thick with ideas and parts, sometimes perhaps too thick. I think I overdid it on "Starguise" for example. This is part of the reason I wanted to make a live version of the same material available, which we did.
Recording the Generic Mayhem songs as Ultimate Versions was both a philosophical and economic decision. We wanted an album where the songs sounded more different from one another than the songs had on old man will travel. We thought that the Ultimate Version approach was more appropriate to this group of songs. Economically, we were working in my own studio, so time and hourly rates were not a factor, and we also thought that the Ultimate Version approach was more likely to get on the radio.
One advantage to creating the Ultimate Version is that the general public will prefer it. Paul McCartney is a billionaire and the biggest money maker in the history of recorded sound. Bob Dylan is no slouch but has probably made more money from other people trying to make their own Ultimate Version of his songs.
This discussion would be incomplete if I didn't mention Jubilant Dogs' two CDs Abby and The Game Is Up. They represent the two extremes of the spectrum even better than the Great Uncle Helmer CDs. Listen to them for about 10 seconds each and see if you can tell which is which.
Next time you listen to recorded music, think about this continuum and ask yourself where the song falls on it. See if you can guess where the artist might have placed themselves philosophically. See if you can figure out what they were going for and what, if anything, they actually acheived.
Memphis Evans lives in a zoo. He looks like a monkey and he smells like one too. He is a frequent contributor to memphisevans.com.
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