Monday, August 11, 2014

'If At First... - Part I - Skyline Pigeon'

For this next update I'm going to split it into four parts, they each won't be too long but are on a common theme. With threads of varying strength connecting them.

You be aware...or not...that Blondie released a 'greatest hits' package recently. On it was something unusual and the suspect of much discussion. Included was a disc of various said hits of the past re-recorded. Exactly the same way as they were originally done. Arrangements, production all replicated with precision. The only discernible difference being Debbie Harry's (obviously) aged vocals. Quite what the point was or what it hoped to achieve is kind of lost on me. It's not as if the were recorded in the dark ages, most of the original versions would stem from the digital era. As they stuck rigidly to the originals, any notion of reworkings or remixing wasn't a factor in revisiting them again. I found it baffling. So why do it? As we shall see, Elton did employ such a device on a number of occasions over the years with varying degrees of success.

A recent post highlighted both versions of Madman Across The Water, this series be will along similar lines. As we'll see, each time a particular song was started afresh the end result was quite different to the previous effort. Due in no small part to a different production ear controlling things and sometimes different (better) personnel contributing. Life experience and better artistic technique are also present and correct. For the first part we'll go back to the start and hone in on an early classic...

Empty Sky (1969)

The Empty Sky version is incredibly delicate, almost fragile. The sound is regal, helped by the noble sounding harpsichord, which evokes a religious feeling on top of it. The spectrum split of the stereo has Elton's vocal on one side and the keyboard on the other. Like as if they are sitting in the pews of the church. The coming together of voice and instrument into the middle is like them all congregating on the altar. Harmonium and organ join in as fellow celebrants. The track is incredibly keyboard pure, Elton's voice isn't exactly nervous but maybe unsure if it's taking the right path. His phrasing is incredibly pronounced, 'fountanes' and 'mountanes' sounding very proper. The sparseness of it all gives it an almost naive feel. Wholly unintentional I suspect but ultimately being the key to the song's charm. Could anymore be done to emphasise the songs statement. I think that could be done...

B-side of Daniel (1973)

Skip forward a few years and Gus Dudgeon gets a hold of this one. If the instruments on the previous example were the main celebrants, the personnel here are the father figures. Straight in we are confronted with confident, purposeful piano. No fragility here, this is strong from the start with confidence that was lacking earlier. The fullsome beauty of the melody is now realised, the piano's stronger tones exemplify it no end. Elton's vocal phrasing is similar but now is less pronounced or forced as the earlier example. It's natural flow at this time more from ease than trying to please. Playing it live in the intervening years (a device that we'll see again employed later) had made him find the songs nuances and use them to better effect. Dee's flick switching plectrum introducing the rhythm section is another statement of intent. Davey's crisp strumming and Nigel's fills on the toms are incredibly important here. Nigel had the tom's tuned in those days in such a way that they were devoid of heavy 'dead' thud but still sounded huge. Wide without being overbearing. 

To top it all off, this is the cherry topping that others spoke of in other portals. Buckmaster adds more than colour here. It's a painting in it's own right that hangs side by side with the masterwork it is displayed with. Some canvas this! His low key strings introduce themselves slowly but surely, the gradual rise from the low end upwards to sweep over the various sights that Bernie's lyrics describe. His woodwind work, like his brass work, is often overlooked (not here) and is crucial to the songs impact. He introduces the woodwinds after the first chorus, holding them back until the time is right.  Later on we'll see this method acted out again. The oboe sound is nostalgic, it has to be. The song requires it. It was that type of song right from it's inception. Buckmaster found it and delivered it for our pleasure.

Overall we can see both songs are dramatically different in their approach. With that drama giving way to dramatically differing end results. Whereas the first version is more to do with getting the song out there, the second version is more in keeping with and finding out what the song is about. It's a tremendous moment of feelings and emotions, an evocation of freedom. The first version is very quaint and has it's moments, but the reworking of it was necessary and ultimately becomes the definitive version. How do we know that? The same arrangement is still used to day for the live band version. All in all a job well done!!

'If At First... - Part II - Grey Seal'
'If At First... - Part III - Shine On Through'
'If At First... - Part IV - Where Have All The Good Times Gone'

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