Monday, September 20, 2010

When O.P.M. Sounds Good - Langer, Winstanley, and Buckmaster overwhelm Madness and Elton

Back when I was in college radio, one of the deejays (I've forgotten his last name, but I believe his first name was Paul) would occasionally talk about O.P.M., or Over Produced Music. I don't know if I've really encountered over-produced music (outside of Jeff Lynne's post-ELO work), but I've certainly encountered some HEAVILY-produced songs in my day. Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" comes to mind here.

But then there are some bands that are consistently heavily produced, so that the heavy production becomes associated with the band itself. For example, I was recently listening to the Madness song "Primrose Hill."

If you listen to the song, the most distinctive element of the song, especially toward the end, is the horn arrangement.

Now let me distinguish between horn arrangements that include the band, and horn arrangements that include people outside the band. Chicago's horns were self-contained within the band. Oingo Boingo's horns were self-contained within the band. But when Fleetwood Mac played "Tusk," and Madness played "Primrose Hill," these were peopled who were added to the band.

Now "Tusk" was pretty much a one-off - there's no marching band on "Albatross" - but horns pop up elsewhere in Madness, such as the song "Keep Moving" (brief mention here). It turns out that Madness' producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, kinda sorta liked lots of horns. When discussing a Nitcaps album, this comment was offered.

Sire spent the money where it mattered: top-notch production from Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Madness) and the full-time assistance of the Uptown Horns. (Langer and Winstanley never met a horn they didn’t like.)

But if you want to talk about an artist whose entire sound was shaped by heavy production, take a listen to (most of) the early records of Elton John. That little piano player had a much broader sound on songs like "Your Song," "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," and others, courtesy of the orchestral arrangements of Paul Buckmaster. In fact, in a review of the Elton John self-titled album, John Mendelsohn said that the album succeeded DESPITE Buckmaster.

The major problem with Elton John [the album] is that one has to wade through so much damn fluff to get to Elton John. Here, by the sound of it, arranger Paul Buckmaster's rather pompous orchestra was spliced in as an afterthought to flesh out music that had sufficient muscle to begin with, their choirs and Moogs and strings threaten to obscure Elton's voice and piano, everywhere that they appear at least momentarily diverting the listener's attention therefrom.

Buckmaster's review was dated November 12, 1970. Just five days later, Elton John recorded an absolutely fantastic live album. Forget Buckmaster and everybody else - just three people - Elton on piano, Dee Murray on bass, and Nigel Olsson on drums - put on an incredible performance. The album, called either 17-11-70 or 11-17-70 depending upon what side of the pond you live on, shows the musical skills of the three-man band, especially the piano player. If you've never heard any of the album, take a listen to this version of "Get Back."

True story - after an incredible and exhausting run of several years, Elton burned out, retreated, occasionally retired, and worked to get his bearings. For a while, the over-the-top piano player seemed to have disappeared. (Luckily, he came back later.) In fact, when I first heard the Double song "The Captain of Her Heart," with its extremely simple piano solo, for some reason (Captain?) I thought it was a new Elton John song, and I thought to myself, "Boy, Elton's hit rock bottom now."
blog comments powered by Disqus