Okay I’m forcing myself out of the seventies and I’m forcing myself into something with a drum machine. Actually the delay in posts this time around is because everything I felt like listening to recently was from the seventies or late sixties and I didn’t want this blog to become too genre specific!
My introduction to Billy Idol was when I was hired by someone I barely knew to block out my studio and produce music from a genre I’d hardly paid attention to. The ultimate gems given for me to duplicate the style of we’re from this album. This pushed me out of my comfort zone and to open my ear to hear the masterpieces I’d never considered. So without further adieu, stuff let’s have a listen to Billy Idol’s Eyes Without a Face from the 1983 album Rebel Yell. Purchase the track by clicking here so you can hear what I hear!
A couple of notes right off the bat- this song has a very particular shade of digital color which would be nearly impossible to recreate today. I think this reason alone would cause people to dismiss the recording prematurely because of it’s “grainy” sound by today’s standards or even any other decade’s standards. The reason I bring this up is that you’ll need to listen a little harder to pick out some of the truly incredible things happening in this one. (Compare this to something like Thriller and you’ll hear a shocking sonic difference which was released one year prior to Rebel Yell.)
In this song you can hear some early drum machines and other early digital type effects being used at their best. Think of what type of computer you were using in 1983, order then consider what type of computer would be miniaturized at that time to make a musical instrument and you realize that the use of these to make a cohesive musical whole is an accomplishment in itself!
Okay, disorder enough bashing on the gear, lets get to the track. Dominating the intro we have a rich synth pad sound which is in two layers: one high which pitch bends down a full octave, and another which stays at the original pitch. The overtones generated from this sound are quite a spectacle, and are really dreamy. The drum machine sparks off a 1/16th note hi-hat which has a slight swing and nice alternating loud/soft velocity which says to me “nod your head like this.” A fast but thick kick drum and a snare almost swims in reverb and to me defines what later in the 80’s became cliché as the “metal ballad” drum sound.
I love the live bass player. He just takes such authority with his part and liberty in the fact that he’s a live being and can massage the feel of each note. Clearly this is a very able musician who can play his ass off and is choosing to play EXACTLY this part- it has such authority in what it IS playing, but is so loose in how he goes about it. Awesome how he establishes the chord and sets up the space for the vocal.
Now after the first few establishing measures the hand of the synth player that was doing the pitch bent pad thing plays a single short chord on the first beat of each measure. The dry signal of the keyboard is panned left with a delay unit set to 1/8th notes fed to feedback gradually into the right channel as it dies out. (Now a side note which is a testament technically to the engineers here: nowadays you can set your delay unit to 1/8th note and it automatically syncs to the tempo of your song. These guys had to actually do the math and figure out how many milliseconds an 1/8th note is for the tempo of this song. Since it’s 1983 and the gear can’t get too precise a setting you can hear that it is slightly off from a precise 1/8th note. This is caused by the keyboardist being a live human being playing an instrument in real time as opposed to how folks today might “move the note over” in the computer so it lands exactly on a downbeat, making the 1/8th notes also be perfectly synced.) In my opinion its the IMprecise timing that gives the recording the life. It was probably intended to be “perfect” and today it could have been programmed to be “perfect” but this here has LIFE and I love the slight anticipations and latenesses of the performance. It humanizes the machine.
Billy’s vocal is remarkable because here is the “rebel” himself and somehow manages to pull off a performance that ballsy but still somehow delicate. It has real emotion without trying to sound pretty. This unfortunately is dumped into the sort of grainy reverb I was describing at the beginning of this post which disguises some of the texture there is in his voice- but it’s there, you just have to listen.
Toward the end of the first verse our virtuoso guitarist makes his appearance gently on an softly arpeggiated/strummed acoustic guitar run through a chorus effect. Since that acoustic guitar is so clean and organic, putting it through this particular chorus unit brings the sound in line with the particular digital color of the rest of the mix. If they hadn’t put the chorus on it the guitar wouldn’t have been “mixed” well and would have stood out to much. If you listen to what Mr. Stevens is playing here it is really beautiful, but I never “heard” it before in my life until I started writing this blog post. As I listen more it sounds like a 12 string, so that chorus is about as natural as you can get.
The chorus of the song has a beautiful ethereal female background vocal. It’s angelic. One thing that is cool is they didn’t compress this vocal very much so the singer’s natural volume increases as she sings the longer notes are slightly uneven. I can’t tell you how much I LOVE this. All this little human elements here while the drum machine ticks along make this cool man vs. machine dichotomy. (I doubt that was intentional at all, but nowadays were we can so precisely compress anything and move it and whatever you don’t hear these types of imperfections in recordings anymore.) To me these little “imperfections” which an engineer today would “handle” are what give this recording its heart.
The very last note of the lead vocal has a delay on it which is cool to decay into our little orchestra of sound as we ease back into the next verse. I love the new guitar part here. So subtle, I never heard it before, but what a cool counterpoint.
As we advance into the bridge the snare drum gets fed to a delay unit which makes a sort of “drum fill” poly rhythm. Programming a “drum fill” into the machine here would have been a pain in the ass on the machine they used and a live drummer would have taken this moment to show his stuff a bit with some breathing room and building the mix to pull us into the rock that is the bridge. It’s a cool use of technology to solve a unique problem introduced by using a drum machine.
Now, pick slides into the distorted guitar rhythm for the bridge, hell yes. This guitar part totally rocks and its not too out of place here in this mellow mix, paired against the acoustic earlier. It’s two guitars left and right. Gives us a nice stereo spread. Billy just raps the vocal which is cool. It has attitude without going into some sort of a scream, never losing his cool.
There is a “secret” guitar solo (holy smokes!) at the end of the bridge. He’s getting so many overtones from the feedback and use of the tremolo bar. It’s everything I could ever want from a fully overindulgent blazing guitar glam solo packed into just a few bars.
Then, that basically dies into just a beautiful vocal with all the acoustic niceness from earlier in the track. The attitude of the vocal is brightened.
Now for the outtro- the whole band sounds to be sort of falling off yet everyone is still playing and it ends into the luscious synth pad to take us completely out.
I love drum machine arrangement in this song. Just a few individual sounds used intelligently- pulsing, syncopated, affirmative. The bass leaves enough out of the measure to let the whole thing breathe, no-one is stepping on anyone else’s toes. This is a cool thing because in 1983 you HAD to be an incredible musician to be on a record. Even though there is heavy use of the drum machine, the talent of the individual musicians rings through the whole performance. In modern times, recordings don’t need to necessarily be able to be performed by anyone. We’ve become accustomed to “perfection” in timing, tuning and tons of other space which is much better filled with “performance.” There is no substitute for talented musicians who can play in real time.
There you have it. Thanks for listening with me, check back soon for some more music to explore!