Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual in its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. But now that the technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, most pop, dance and hip-hop music is produced using similar methods.
The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception, giving fascinating insight into the creative process along the way.
We’re asking participants in Play With Your Music to create musical structure graphs of their favorite songs. These are diagrams showing the different sections of the song and where its component sounds enter and exit. In order to create these graphs, you have to listen to the song deeply and analytically, probably many times. It’s excellent ear training for the aspiring producer or songwriter. This post will talk you through a structure graph of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Co-produced by Peter and Daniel Lanois, this is an emblematic eighties pop tune.
For Paul Geluso’s Advanced Audio Production midterm, we were assigned to choose two tracks from his recommended listening list, and compare and contrast them sonically. I chose “Regiment” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb.
Recorded ten years apart using very different technology, both tracks nevertheless share a similar structure: dance grooves at medium-slow tempos centered around percussion and bass, overlaid with radically decontextualized vocal samples. Both are dense and abstract soundscapes with an otherworldly quality. However, the two tracks have some profound sonic differences as well. “Regiment” is played by human instrumentalists into analog gear, giving it a roiling organic murk. “Little Fluffy Clouds” is a pristine digital recording built entirely from DJ tools, quantized neatly and clinically precise.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
If you had to name the most influential drummers in contemporary music, who would you pick? If you’re a rock fan, you might go with Ringo Starr, John Bonham, or Keith Moon. A jazz fan might talk about Max Roach, Elvin Jones or Tony Williams. You probably wouldn’t think to name Gregory Cylvester Coleman. He was the drummer in a sixties soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” That doesn’t sound like much of a case for Coleman’s importance. But his short drum break is widely considered to be the most-sampled recording in history, ahead of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache” and “Cold Sweat” and all the rest of the classic breakbeats.
Here’s “Amen, Brother.” The famous drum break comes at 1:27.
My quest to track down the origin of the most persistent recurring hip-hop memes brings me to this chant:
The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire
We don’t need no water, let the motherf***er burn
The chant made its first appearance in the hip-hop canon in “The Roof Is On Fire” by Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three, the B-side to their 1984 single “Request Line.” “The Roof Is On Fire” ended up being way more popular.
The recorded version of “The Roof Is On Fire” leaves out the mofo line. In 1984 people mostly weren’t using curses in hip-hop recordings, which now seems charmingly quaint. In live shows, Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three were less demure, and when they led the crowd in the chant, the mofo was included.
In 1987 I remember having my ears grabbed by this thing on the radio called “Pump Up The Volume” by MARRS.
Now that mashups are so common, this track doesn’t sound particularly remarkable. But in seventh grade it was startling to hear a house music track full of random samples. “Pump Up The Volume” was part of the same UK dance music movement that spawned the KLF’s “Doctorin’ The Tardis” and “Rush” by Big Audio Dynamite. I wasn’t enough of a hip-hop head in 1987 to recognize where the phrase in the title comes from, but now I do, it’s from “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B and Rakim. Listen at 0:43:
I’m pretty sure that “Need You Tonight” by INXS was the last song I fell in love with through commercial radio. I would never have admitted it, and I couldn’t have articulated why, but oh yes, in middle school this track hit me exactly where I lived. It still sounds as fresh today as it did back in the eighties.
I resisted liking the song because of what I imagined it representing. I mean, watch this video with the sound off, these guys look like incredible douchebags. As a teenager I was very invested in the idea of purity in music, and INXS was the exact opposite of pure. The band was and is a capitalist venture above all else. I hadn’t yet learned that commercial music can be incredibly good, and that pure artistry is no guarantee against awfulness.