Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Imagine...it's been 29 years

In December of 1980, I had just dropped out of college as a music major to join a traveling top-40 band. We spent the holidays learning five sets of music prior to beginning what would be my first tour, and the beginning of my 3-year stint as a "Professional Lounge Musician".

We had to learn a wide variety of music for the types of clubs we would be playing, not just the current "top 40" and "dance" music, but also a "dinner set" (the early set) which needed to contain mostly laid back stuff and ballads. I suggested we learn "Imagine" by John Lennon, and everyone agreed it would be a good one....so we did. I sang it. In my mind, this was to be one of the high-points in the evening gigs. This was not to be...for a while.

About 3 weeks before the end of our 8 week rehearsal period, I walked into rehearsal to a bunch of very sad people. I was not into "news" so I hadn't a clue what had transpired the evening before, on December 8th, 1980. John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his home in New York City. An icon...no, a living legend was gone. I was devastated, and we all agreed to can rehearsal for that evening. I cried...a lot. I got very drunk. Then I cried some more. For days it seemed. I tried to watch some of the "tributes" and such that were on TV, but I couldn't. Every time "Imagine" came on the radio, for weeks to come in fact, I cried.

Since age 8 in 1969, I had been a huge Beatles fan. My first two LP's were "Let It Be" and "The Beatles Again" (the US-only LP that was a collection of singles, including included "Hey Jude", "Paperback Writer", and "Lady Madonna"). I had always said that Paul was my favorite Beatle...his first solo album was the 3rd LP I acquired. But I loved plenty of John's songs as well, and I always held out hope that they would re-form in the 80's, and conquer the world all over again. I was actually quite SURE that this would happen. When John "retired" in NYC I got a little worried, but then those rumors of "what almost happened" on Saturday Night Live kept the flame alive.

With John's passing, part of me died. No chance of a Beatles reunion now, for one thing. For another, I carried around this visceral fear and loathing for this type of evil that I never really admitted, before now, could exist in the world. How could ANYONE be so evil as to deprive the world of someone like John Lennon? It was just unimaginable.

Even five years later, I recall seeing TV shows marking the December 8th date and crying. My sadness was not for myself, or for John, or Julian, Sean or Yoko. My sadness was for a world so pathetic that something like this could happen. For a world that would never again know the magical synergy that was The Beatles. I'm sure I sound like I'm being overly dramatic here, but as I write this, the feelings are as fresh and real as they were 29 years ago.

So flash back to the spring of 1981. After three months on the road with "Members Only", a show band fronted by singer Amy Runion, the band started asking me, "hey can we go ahead and play Imagine now". I said I would try. The first few nights were hard, but I made it through, then it got easier. We didn't waste this song on the "dinner set", which was often played for 3 people, 2 of them waitresses. We actually saved it for a "slow dance" number in the rocking-out last set, and it was amazing to see the dance floor FLOOD with people during the first few chords of the song.

People LOVED it. Almost every night, I had someone come up to me after the last set was over and tell me how much they enjoyed us playing "Imagine". Some said "I've never heard a band play that song in a club". Some people begged us to play it one more time before we went home. During the summer of 1980 when we spent 12 weeks at the same resort, we began to get requests for "Imagine" from the regulars, and would sometimes end up playing it 3 times in one evening!

All for this little three minute song with about 6 chords in it. This simple little ode to world peace, written by a man who may have actually been capable of furthering that concept, had he not been so rudely interrupted.

"Members Only" was Randy Runion, Dow Tomlin, Amy Runion, me and Dan Searles

I first recorded "Imagine" almost four years ago, but I was never happy with the mix. Listening back to that original mix which you can hear here, I can't believe how bad it sounds to me now. So, I decided recently to completely remix it. I think the new mix is light-years better than what I produced originally.

All the MIDI parts (just 5) were recorded with new virtual instruments. The biggest difference there is that the modern "pad synth" sound was replaced with a more retro sounding "Mellotron Strings" sound, produced by IK Multimedia's SampleTron.

The Hammond is a different sound altogether, a sound called "Preston!" from Native Instruments B4II, obviously named after Billy Preston, a man often referred to as "The Fifth Beatle". The bass guitar sample is a vastly superior sound to what I had back then, a 3GB sample of a Fender Precision from Native Instruments called the Scarbee Pre-Bass. The drums are the EZDrummer engine playing the "Nashville" expansion, while the drum part itself is me playing drums on the keyboard, as recorded back then. In fact, ALL of the actual MIDI notes are exactly what I played back then with no editing. For the Piano, I used the same sample as before (a 7GB sample of an upright piano from SampleTekk called "Vertical Pop"). And the vocals are the same tracks as before. They were recorded using an AKG C3000B microphone through an older DBX tube pre-amp.

So, I imported all of this into Pro Tools 8 M-Powered (which I should probably admit is fast becoming my DAW of choice, over both Cubase 5 and Sonar 8) and started completely over on the mix. First re-working the MIDI instruments used, then completely re-thinking the vocal effects and the effects on the instruments. I used a LOT less reverb on everything, in fact the piano, bass and organ are completely dry, and there is some intentionally fake-sounding reverb on the Tron (to give that Moody Blues strings effect)....I was going for a real "live-in-the-room-with-you" band sound.

For the vocals, I used a rather complex (for me) effect chain of EQ + compressor + De-Esser + Reverb.

I left every bit of the "slop" in the timing on the MIDI parts and didn't fix a thing. I was tempted on a couple of parts where the bass and kick are not completely tight, and especially tempted to just completely quantize the drum part, but I resisted the urge. I wanted this to sound natural....like me in the studio laying down this classic track with very little editing or other studio trickery. And it is.

I hope you enjoy my latest rendition of John Lennon's timeless classic, "Imagine".

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments

1 comment:

Clay said...

Oh man! I'm totally impressed. You've got so much talent. The vocals are awesome. I closed my eyes and you sounded just like Lennon. Awesome stuff!!!