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New episode of my podcast

May 3, 2018
Tattoo You

We’ve taken a couple of months off, but my @RollingStones “Deep Cuts”-themed podcast Under the Radar is back.

Check it out and subscribe!

RSS feed link here, or check Apple Podcasts.


A Day in the Life: a duet with tape echo

June 9, 2017
The 50th anniversary hoopla surrounding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band prompted me to re-examine it more closely for its innovative use of recording technology. If you’re interested, there are many “behind the scenes” snippets and outtakes out there, which shed light on how the Beatles and producer George Martin put everything together, working with engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush. This one clip, however, was the most revelatory to me: an isolated a capella rendition of the middle section, just before the final verse begins.
Take a listen to it here.
I must have heard “A Day in the Life” hundreds of times; I’ve been enjoying it ever since I was a kid. Before hearing this specific piece of the recording with the voices in isolation, however, every single time I heard it I always thought John Lennon was singing the melody during this part. Well, he wasn’t, it was Paul McCartney! How weird is that? Heck, I even saw Paul sing the song live in concert and didn’t realize this.
Until hearing this voice track, bathed in eerie tape echo, I mistakenly thought (and surely many others thought this as well) the melody was John’s voice, because of the dramatic change in timbre after Paul’s prior line “I went into a dream”. However, it appears that Paul recorded his entire bridge vocal — everything from “woke up, fell out of bed” up to John’s return for the final verse — as one uninterrupted overdub. That notable change in tone with the “aaaaaah” melody, which feels like a shift in narrative perspective, if you like, largely derives from the recording engineers switching on the tape-echo effect at that point during the overdub. Suddenly, it sounds like a different person altogether — recalling John’s heavily echo-treated performance strongly enough that it overrides the identity of the real singer.

Isn’t that remarkable? While just about every critical analysis of this song recognizes the brilliance of the Beatles’ decision to leave a gap during the recording for two cacophonous ascending orchestral climaxes, and John always gets credit for delivering an amazing lead vocal performance, this little moment is actually my favourite part of the song… and I didn’t even know it was Paul’s the entire time. In retrospect, of course it makes sense for Paul to have sung this part (he also conducted the orchestra while they overdubbed the sustained chords that underscore it), as its melismatic tenor delivery is more typical of him than John’s more straightforward baritone singing. I didn’t hear John and George’s extemporaneous falsetto “oooooooh” vocals in the background, either (they’ve been there the entire time, just buried in the finished mix).

Tape echo (more commonly known as “delay”, in today’s recording parlance) was an important factor in John Lennon’s vocal performances throughout his career. He apparently loved hearing it back on headphones, drenching his voice as he sang; it gave an extra rhythmic element that he could play against, inventing unique vocal phrasing in the moment. This technique is all over John’s work on “A Day in the Life”, but the real insight for me is how much the production decision to stop the vocal echo for Paul’s “woke up” line, and then resume it for the “aaaah”, is what makes the middle bridge section so compelling. The surreal nature of the echo is a defining texture, enhancing John’s voice so well that when Paul’s “dry” voice first comes in, echo-free, it really is like waking out of a dream — and then plunging back into one, when the echo returns.

Statement on “The Lost Girls”

July 11, 2015

Just a sad situation all around. I hope the victims find some peace this long after the terribly brutal trauma this caused.


The story of Kim Fowley sexually abusing a young, intoxicated woman in a hotel room after a Runaways show is grim and horrifying. I would like to say it has knocked many readers into a stunned silence – but in these days, it instead seems to have ignited a firestorm. I personally need more time with the story to say all that I want to say. But I know that the Internet waits for no one (and is woefully unavailable where I am currently living!), so here are some of my current thoughts.

For one, the story is not entirely new. Cherie Currie spoke about it in Victory Tischler-Blue’s 2004 movie Edgeplay; the Runaways singer also wrote about it in detail in her 2011 memoir Neon Angel. I discuss it at length in my 2013 book Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways. What has…

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Farewell to Brimstone & Treacle (last time I’ll badger you about this damn play, I promise)

May 17, 2015

First of all, a BIG thank you to everyone who came all the way out to the East End, parked their keisters in the SideMart Theatrical Grocery​, and saw Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle presented by Precisely Peter Productions​. It was a difficult show in many ways, but also an extremely artistically rewarding one for me as an independent theatre practitioner. We had a whole bunch of outstanding reviews, I heard many positive comments about our use of music in the piece, and I especially want to shout-out John Shooter, a fearless, wonderful director (and also an extremely gregarious, intelligent, sweet guy) who took so many risks and made lots of great choices in order to help get this unique and thrilling piece of art onto a stage in Toronto. Rare talent and dedication went into it, and everyone on the cast and crew rightfully should be (and I think, is) dead proud of their achievements in contributing to it. If you missed this run, too bad, because I doubt you will ever see the like of it again.

I want to make a couple of observations about this show, the reception it received, and speak a bit more generally about indie theatre in this town. Now that I’ve spent some time outside of the non-stop treadmill of indie theatre production, with a few weeks under my belt of steady work in one place (for a change), I can look back at the hit-and-run nature of my career — as a sound designer first and foremost, and also as a multi-department freelance stage technician — with a bit of objectivity. First of all, theatre as a cultural force in Toronto is absolutely thriving. I’m sure there are more venues and artists presenting amazing, top-shelf work here than almost everywhere else in North America and certainly there are more than anywhere else in Canada. A dizzying quantity of young people like myself are quite eager to enter the scene so they can make really exciting, fresh new art that deserves a hearing.

But we are struggling mighty hard in order to do it. Almost all of us have to take other jobs (plural) in order to subsidize the art we want to make, if we can even find the time. Producing your own theatrical work (that is, putting up the capital investment to hire people, build things, book the space to do it all in, organize and plan around a fiendishly difficult production schedule where NO ONE has open availability, manage public relations and promotion, track expenses and budget) is, to put it bluntly, a total bitch. Then it feels like your livelihood depends on begging anyone and everyone you know to carve time out of their schedule just to check out what you did, which is tough even with tickets priced insultingly cheap compared to the priceless nature of the experience, to say nothing of the actual costs associated with it. If you’re like me, the friends you are closest with are also in a million shows of their own, and getting them to come out is a bit like a chef asking all the other chefs they know to come to the opening of their new restaurant. It’s incredibly intimidating, and you feel sheepish even asking them to show up, because who could really blame them for saying no?

Brimstone was no exception. I believed strongly in the people behind this show (though I’d never worked with any of them before, except for the unbelievably talented costume and set designer Rachel Forbes), and during our time together I went to work on my social networks evangelizing for them and this dark, disturbing play about a family in trouble who are tempted by the Devil incarnate. I relentlessly bugged my hundreds of connected followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook (heaven knows how any of you had the strength remaining to click on this link and read this far), up to and throughout the run of the show, talking it up at every opportunity, and in the end less than ten of these people were sufficiently moved by my noisy hawking to actually come out and see for themselves. Since we had a fairly brief two-week run of performances, that means approximately 0.5 of my engaged, savvy, theatre-going friends came per show. This is not atypical for a small indie production, and I already knew that going in, so it was not a shock — but still something of a disappointment. After all, I worked really hard during the rehearsal process and in my own time to build the sound design to exacting standards, and not even enough people came to pay me for that time or cover the cost of my own equipment (donated to the production, although it wasn’t donated to me). We didn’t cut any corners to get this show on its feet; everyone brought their best to the table and it showed. It was artistically fulfilling, but a financial write-off for our entire production team.

Could it be that people were scared away by the show’s reputation? Perhaps. It was originally banned by BBC-TV for its unflinching portrayal of Pattie, a character with a disability who is sexually assaulted. There are very few issues of our day that cut to the heart of our anxieties more than rape culture, and beyond just being taboo it’s quite naturally not a matter that most people are keen to delve into for entertainment. But I had a few really interesting conversations with John about his goals for this production, and it was not to shock people, but rather to provoke their thoughts and discussions about private, unspokenly shared cultural assumptions when it comes to family matters and people in our midst who fall on hard times. To whom can we turn, when faith and family prove false and untrustworthy? Whose responsibility is it to take care of the unlucky and vulnerable ones? What does it say about our human nature when we desperately try and keep certain things in our past a secret, yet blurt them out at the slightest provocation? If you did happen to catch one of the shows, I’d be happy to hear your comments about our work. If you stayed away (not because you were busy with your own show, but because you were trepidatious about the content) I want to hear about that too. In order for a theatrical project to be a complete success, it should do its best to start a dialogue. And I’d like to see our little effort succeed in that goal, too.

A trippy shootout between four different CD versions of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”

November 11, 2014

What would happen if you started playing four different versions of the same album simultaneously? Well, they would stay in sync for a few seconds, but then they’d begin to drift apart as they inevitably dropped behind or jumped ahead of one other, thanks to small differences between them that might be imperceptible when you listen to each version on its own in turn. They’d soon slip out of time entirely, and collide in unpleasant, unmusical ways — or would they?

I’ve always been fascinated by the aural collisions that these minute, imprecise, unpredictable variations in timing can produce upon music playback. I encountered a particularly trippy example recently, while I was comparing four different digital releases of David Bowie’s masterful 1973 glam-rock album Aladdin Sane. I’m a big fan of this work, and I have collected a bunch of different versions over the years. It has been released on CD at least four different times: by RCA, by Rykodisc, by EMI, and just last year by Universal Music to celebrate the LP’s 40th anniversary. Just for curiosity’s sake, I decided to compare these, by ripping them to my laptop, and putting them all side-by-side in a digital audio editor.

Aladdin Sane’s unforgettable album cover

I adjusted each one to be relatively the same volume (the 1980s-era RCA disc is quieter than the rest, which is typical of CDs produced back then, so I brought the others down in level a bit to better match it). Then I lined them up at the first downbeat of the opening song, “Watch That Man”. Initially, I had intended to just listen to one at a time, and flip back and forth between each for blind comparison. Accidentally, however, I left them all playing at once. Here’s what it sounded like.

Closer examination reveals just what’s going on. Each time the original analogue tape was played back to make each CD’s digital master, there were fluctuations in its speed. For example, “Watch That Man” runs slower on the RCA compared to the other CDs, but on most of the other tracks, the 40th Anniversary CD is slowest. The ending of “Drive-In Saturday” fades out gradually to silence, and this fade is a couple of seconds shorter on the Rykodisc version. There are other differences, mostly in the amount of silence the engineers placed between some of the tracks on all four CDs. According to my research, CSR in Japan also mastered a fifth variation for the United States, which differs from the more common RCA CDs originally pressed for the European market. I was not able to track one of these down to compare.

The European RCA also has a tiny extra bit of piano at the end of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, whereas all the other CDs fade out entirely at that point. I appended this little gem to the very end of the file above, after “Lady Grinning Soul” has faded to silence, so you can hear it in isolation (if you make it that far)!

Bob Dylan & The Band’s Basement Tapes version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Belshazzar’

November 5, 2014

Yesterday, Bob Dylan released a 6-CD box set called The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, featuring extensive rehearsal and demonstration recordings of The Band backing him up circa late 1967 inside their rented house ‘Big Pink’ in West Saugerties, upstate New York. This is an historic moment for Dylan fans, who have been chasing various actual bootlegs for decades (ever since some of the original recordings were issued by fans on poor-quality white-label vinyl pressings in 1969) to obtain this material. Finally, it has been officially released in its entirety, to rapturous response from Dylanites.

I’m more of a casual Dylan fan, myself (even though I’ve already seen him in concert three times over the past ten years, and will be going to see him again in about a week’s time), and I’ve found myself buying only a few of these big-ticket box sets by other artists. But as I perused the track-listing, and noticed that on the first disc was a cover of Johnny Cash’s song “Belshazzar”, I got excited. This is one of my favourite early Cash songs, a great retelling of the Biblical myth from which the idiom “writing on the wall” derives.

Take a listen:

This is my personal restoration of the song, taking the false start from the beginning (which was recorded a whole tone higher in musical pitch compared to the rest of the song) and pitching it a semitone lower, stitched along with the rest of the song pitched a semitone higher, so that the complete song exists in one key. This is an old trick, famously used by George Martin to assemble The Beatles’ recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1966. So had Dylan wanted to, he could have issued this very same tape, using contemporary technology to create a master.

Capt. Kirk is climbing a mountain. Why is he climbing a mountain?

September 29, 2014

William Shatner announced that he received an offer to appear in the next Star Trek film, slated to shoot some time after the crowned scion of Sci-Fi movie direction J.J. Abrams finishes his work on Star Wars Episode VII. From a cultural standpoint, this is a bad move by Abrams on Trek’s behalf. We all know Shatner is a cheesy performer: his stock-in-trade is in the pause-filled, navel-gazing read of the iconic Captain Kirk role he originated in the Star Trek TV series of 1966. But the last time he appeared on screen as that character was twenty years ago (now taken up since 2009 by Chris Pine in Abrams’ high-octane reboot of the film series). Killed off by Malcolm McDowell’s character in 1994’s Generations and never seen since except as the younger Pine portrays him (quite capably, and without many legitimate complaints by fans), Shatner’s Kirk has sat out the last five Trek movies.

“Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain. Why is he climbing a mountain?” In this video by the brilliant remix artists Fall On Your Sword, the refrain tickles us in its almost Dadaist anti-thesis of jettisoned cultural cache. Taken in isolation, the very words betray ignorance of what the rest of humanity not named William Shatner might consider an interesting or stimulating topic of discussion. How awkward for Shatner to even raise such a pretentious question before his audience, by way of an attempt to intellectually explain away the cheesiness of his art. You’re an action hero, dummy. Maybe just pretend (you know, ACT) like this attempt at doing something which requires physical effort isn’t a life-or-death existential crisis for you.

Why does this question even exist? Only because Shatner briefly got to helm the entire enterprise, and not just the fictional ship on which its adventures took place, in 1989. The midlife-crisis level of strain apparent on Shatner’s increasingly folded face, which he plastered across cinemas in his horrendously self-indulgent and tedious directorial debut for the franchise, The Final Frontier, prompted a nationwide revolt against the film and TV series’ formerly kitschy and fun image. This was Star Trek‘s tipping point towards oversaturation in our popular culture, particularly for Shatner as a cringe-worthy yet indelible part of its mythos.

Oh, Captain Kirk, remember how your character dealt onscreen with your advancing age three movies ago (in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan), in a graceful way, by acknowledging that the adventure of living his unique life kept him young, even while he knew that death was inevitable? WE THOUGHT THE SUBJECT HAD BEEN CLOSED. Never mind, okay, here we are spending an hour and a half pondering it all over again with you, watching a desperate flail through the emotional beats you doggedly drag us through, like stations of the cross on which Kirk is tortuously flayed.

In a blaze of torporific Shatnerian turgidness such as “what does God need with a Starship?” — meant in earnest to provoke and delight its audience rather than bore them senseless — the movie failed, and backfired on its producers tremendously when it closed early and fell far short of box office projections. This dramatic flop, the immediate subject of ironic scorn by younger TV parodists who had grown up watching the show and were horrified by its new direction, prompted Paramount film executives to frantically woo ace-in-the-hole director Nicholas Meyer back to save their cash cow from unceremonious slaughter, finishing the original Star Trek cast’s series of adventures on a high note with The Undiscovered Country.

Abrams and the rest of the current production team would do well to learn from this experience, and take careful pains not to repeat a colossal blunder by catering to the whims of the Shat, in all their I-can’t-believe-he’s-actually-serious trainwreck of screen-chewing glory, even for one last spin around the galaxy.