Making the Fantasy Band

Music Features

“If patience started a band I’d be her biggest fan.” —Elliott Smith

A great band is always much more than the sum of its parts, which is why supergroups cobbled together from individual all-star musicians are rarely that super. The greatest bands are formed when individual spiritual forces mysteriously coalesce to birth an entirely new collective personality (Band with a capital B). Author William Gibson even has a name for the particular personality that is Steely Dan’s Band: “Mistah Dan.” When Walter Becker and Donald Fagen reformed after their long hiatus, Gibson was listening to see if Mistah Dan would show up again in the studio; and indeed, there he was.

As inheritors of the “artist as hero” paradigm, we’re wont to place a lopsided emphasis on solo virtuosity. Take a capital B Band like U2. Legend has it that in the beginning, U2 didn’t know who was going to be the guitarist and who the lead singer. “How can this be?” you ask, “when The Edge is so obviously a world-class guitarist and Bono so obviously a world-class vocalist.” But they grew into their roles in the shared context of the larger Band.

So when I decided to create my own hypothetical supergroup, I needed a twist. I couldn’t simply create a supergroup of virtuoso musicians. Bill Bruford will not be on drums. Stevie Ray Vaughan will not be on guitar. Jaco Pastorius will not be on bass. Billie Holiday will not be singing. None of the members of Rush will even be mentioned.

Nor will the band include John Coltrane, for the simple reason that John Coltrane by himself soundly trounces all challengers. No need to even write the article. Simply close the magazine now and go listen to Interstellar Space. The end. It’s the same reason nobody puts Jesus on a list of “ten people from history you’d invite to a dinner party.” He would necessarily monopolize the conversation.

Mine is not really even a supergroup. It’s more like a dream project—an ideal album created by combining some of the most blessed individual elements of pop-music history. Rather than merely naming musicians, I will pinpoint particular performances and inventions. For example, my chosen bass guitar element is not merely “Paul McCartney,” but McCartney’s rollicking bass line on The Beatles’ “Rain,” from Yellow Submarine in Pepperland. I concede that, in reality, my dream album would probably be a logistical train wreck of egos and styles, not to mention a historic impossibility, but no matter. You’ve gotta have a dream, ’cause if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

Production: Daniel Lanois and Peter Gabriel’s production of Us

Peter Gabriel’s Us doesn’t really sound like rock music. It doesn’t really sound like orchestral music. At the time, Gabriel’s head was full of indigenous music, folk music, world music, non-Western music, or whatever you want to call it. But he still had that “Sledgehammer” chrome-pop instinct. Daniel Lanois had just finished producing U2’s Achtung Baby, itself a defining moment in experimental pop production.

Each track of Us is lavished with intention and particular sensitivity; every song is a potential radio single. And yet the project is a classic concept album. The unifying threads are Tony Levin’s ambient bass lines; Gabriel’s crisp, intimate, front-and-center vocals; and a plethora of non-Western percussion insinuating throughout. Unlike other pop/world music hybrids like Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints, the “world-music” influences on Us are integrated and integral. The album feels less like “fusion” and more like a new kind of music.

Contradictions are masterfully balanced. There are layers of fat synthesizers, but the production doesn’t sound the least bit ’80s. Lanois’ production is precise and hyper-thorough without being soulless. It’s simultaneously lush and restrained. It’s dense but never thick; poignant but never thin. The overall result is an immediately accessible yet intricately challenging album that still rewards repeat listens. Brian Eno says of ambient music, “[It] must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Us is meticulously produced ambient pop.

Sampling: Dust Brothers’ production of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique

I don’t imagine the Dust Brothers and Daniel Lanois share the same audio-production process any more than Paris Hilton and Queen Victoria share the same dating process. No matter, because the Dust Brothers can mine drum samples like a rat does cheese. Beck’s classic Odelay bears the certifiable stamp of Dust Brothers hijinks, but even its brilliant quirkiness pales compared to the groundbreaking production of Paul’s Boutique. Recorded back before clearing sample rights was such a freaking nightmare, the Dust Brothers swashbucklingly plundered beats as if clearing sample rights wasn’t such a freaking nightmare. On most tracks, there are at least ten samples. On one track there are a whopping 18 samples. John Bonham’s monster drumming recontextualized as a hip-hop beat box—how can that not be a crucial component of any dream album?

I wouldn’t let these guys loose on the boards to run the whole show. I’d just bring them in for breakbeats, brainstorming and post-production. They’d add a bit of Portishead spice to a groove that might otherwise run the risk of monotony. Speaking of human metronomes…

Drums: Maureen Tucker on the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”

Girl drummers are inexplicably cool. Maybe it’s because rock music is so male and the drums are so foundational to rock music. So the last thing you expect is for a rock band to have a female drummer. Even semi-girl groups like The Breeders and Veruca Salt have guy drummers. The fact that the Velvet Underground, the quintessential proto-punk band of all time, has a girl drummer is exponentially cool.

Maureen Tucker is a machine, a driving force. On “Sister Ray” she plays straight 2/4 time for seventeen minutes. The rest of the band has the luxury of falling apart all around her, because she’s wide awake at the wheel… munching on coffee beans like they were sunflower seeds. Listening to the drums on this track, I see Tucker in my mind as some kind of Speed Racer anime character, hunched over her kit with her elbows flailing, her teeth clenched, her eyes squinted and all those wild anime speed lines flying around her sticks and over her head.

Melodies: Elton John’s melody to “Tiny Dancer”

As sappy, populist and patently obvious as this choice is, it simply won’t be denied. Leonard Bernstein’s melody to “Maria” and Carole King’s melody to “I Feel the Earth Move” made the shortlist. Both are amazing in their own way, but “Tiny Dancer” is more robust and multiform than either. It grooves; it lilts. It’s melancholy; it’s hopeful. It’s bright; it’s mournful. It’s anthemic; it’s intimate. It takes some fairly silly lyrics and makes them seem heavy. It wins best-in-show. There is no part of this tune I don’t want to hear over and over again. When the whole thing repeats itself halfway through, it’s like being really thirsty and getting a free refill on your Big Gulp. The melody overwhelms me with nostalgia for the early ’70s, and I was barely even there.

My dream album would contain ten different melodies of the same caliber as “Tiny Dancer.” “Benny and the Jets,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Rocket Man,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”—maybe my dream album is actually an Elton John tribute album. Kooky.

Lyrics: Paul Simon’s lyrics on Hearts and Bones

Paul Simon is a master lyricist and this is his singular masterpiece. The runners-up are not even worth mentioning. (Actually, Joni Mitchell’s lyrics on The Hissing of Summer Lawns are worth mentioning, but only parenthetically.) Simon’s “Renee and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” is the best lyric ever written. That alone would be enough, but the album also includes “Hearts and Bones,” “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” and the ars poetica meta-song about how to write a song, “Song About the Moon.” Each of these lyrics is so organically composed that quoting a few lines from one is like exhibiting a few bricks from a Frank Lloyd Wright house in order to show what the house looks like; yet even the bricks are exquisite:

“Hey songwriter, If you want to write a song about a face
Think about a photograph
That you really can’t remember but you can’t erase
Wash your hands in dreams and lightning
Cut off your hair and whatever is frightening
If you want to write a song about a face
If you want to write a song about the human race
Na na na na na na
Yeah yeah yeah
Write a song about the moon”

Lead Vocal: Chan Marshall

Chan Marshall calls her band Cat Power. Is she an angsty shoegazer in need of anti-depressants? Is she an erratic performer in need of guitar lessons? Is she Jack White’s Bizarro World twin sister separated at birth? No, no, and no. Chan Marshall is the real deal. In an overly generous mood, I might venture to call her my generation’s Joni Mitchell, but that’s not altogether accurate. Vocally, Joni Mitchell is controlled and nimble, even in her most experimental jazz stylings. Chan Marshall’s voice is much more wild and raw. She can go from soft and raspy to wild and raging in an instant, or she can draw out the transition in a tense crescendo of mounting fervor. Maybe she’s better described as a female Kurt Cobain with an intriguing Patsy Cline timbre. You could not accuse her of being unexpressive.

I love Chan’s vocals on all her albums, from early punk to recent pop. A particular standout is The Covers Album, on which she covers a bunch of standards with sparse arrangements, often just piano or guitar. With no drums or distortion to hide behind, it’s a do or die moment for her vocals, and she nails every track. In short, Chan Marshall is my Norah Jones. She rocks and I want to hear her singing Paul Simon lyrics set to early Elton John melodies. I have a dream.

Harmony Vocals: The Beach Boys’ harmonies on “In My Room”

The Beach Boys are deservedly renowned for their harmonies, and their harmonies on “In My Room” qualify as mindblowing. Compared to the harsh, brittle, pre-stereo harmonies on old doo-wop standards like The Platters’ “Only You,” “In My Room” veritably envelops you in a tangible field of lush omnipresence. Chalk it up to Brian Wilson’s production genius—doubling and trebling vocal tracks, widely panning and boldly EQ-ing. Did The Beach Boys sound like this live? Not likely, and who cares? We’re making a studio album, not going on tour.

The runner up in this category is Crosby, Stills and Nash’s harmony on “Helplessly Hoping”—a beautiful vocal blend, passionately performed. The difference is, the CSN harmonies are still mortal. It sounds like three different human beings singing together really well. In comparison, The Beach Boys’ harmonies sound like some huge blanketing force of nature. Harmony as placebo. Harmony as quaalude. Harmony as delusional comfort zone. It’s so invitingly assuaging it’s almost threatening. Compared to this level of sonic hypnotism, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” sounds like a Girl Scout campfire ditty.

Rhythm Guitar: Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien of Radiohead

“Rhythm guitar” is a crude misnomer when applied to Radiohead’s dueling electric-guitar duo. “Lead guitar” is even less accurate. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke is more like the band’s rhythm guitarist. As such, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien are left to function like John Lennon and George Harrison had The Beatles been a three-guitar band.

On The Bends, Greenwood and O’Brien began pursuing their strange, prickly, musical dialogue in earnest. We hear two separate, distinct guitar “minds” perpetually bobbing and weaving in and out of each other, and neither is playing “rhythm guitar.” During subtle passages, one guitarist might barely signify a picking pattern while the other patiently milks ambient feedback from his amp. During raucous passages, both guitarists might tightly harmonize on a crunchy musical hook that overtakes the vocal melody, hijacks it and redefines the entire song.

Radiohead’s electric-guitar masterpiece is OK Computer, a post-rock cornucopia of fuzzy texture, sad, chiming beauty and gloriously orchestrated confusion. On The Bends, Yorke’s singer/songwriter stylings comprise the project’s core, with Greenwood and O’Brien acting in supporting roles (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Yorke’s troubled Hamlet). On OK Computer, Greenwood and O’Brien’s guitar negotiations are center stage, with every other element of the band supporting their unorthodox, intuitive, idiosyncratic dialogue. It’s My Dinner With Andre with Yorke as the waiter.

On subsequent Radiohead albums, the electric guitars take a less prominent role (how could they possibly take a more prominent one?), but they’re never far offstage—elucidating, contriving and always dialoguing. These incessant murmurings are the pulse of the Radiohead squeezebox, the barely discernible scheming of angels and demons.

Lead Guitar: Curt Kirkwood’s solo on the Meat Puppets’ “Oh Me”

I’m not sure I’d even want a lead guitar on this project, but if it ever required one, I’d call on Meat Puppets guitarist Curt Kirkwood circa 1984. His solo on “Oh Me” is cool, slow and meandering while simultaneously risky, daring and unnervingly strange. It’s as if the instructions for the creation of the solo were broadcast from some fleeting, transitory satellite of indeterminate origin. The instructions passed through Kirkwood’s ephemeral transom, he intuited them and acted on them in real time and a ghost was born.

On my dream project, Kirkwood wouldn’t construct an overt superhighway of riveted guitar work spanning the breadth of the song. Instead, he would dig around in the dirt until he discovered some forlorn but integral thread which had fallen from the song’s garment; he would daringly/lazily signify that thread in the form of an electric-guitar solo; then he’d release the thread to float gently down, settling back into the dust from whence it came. Beneath the paving stones, the beach!

Bass Guitar: Paul McCartney on The Beatles’ “Rain”

Of all the outstanding performances mentioned in this article, this one is the most inspired. “Inspired” falls short of what it is. It’s anointed. This bass line is so recognizable it constitutes the song. Jedi recording engineer Michael Paul Stavrou says the best way to mix a song is to find the one performance in the song that sparkles most, and construct your entire mix around that one track. Beatles producer George Martin has done just that. Every other element of the song (even the vocals) are panned wide left and right, leaving McCartney’s bass front-and-center to bounce and bubble unrestrained.

McCartney improvises throughout. He’s jamming, and his exuberance and celebration radiate. It’s tough enough to make a guitar solo expressive, much less a bass line. But this one is so full of cheer and personality, it deserves its own name. Let’s call him “Puck,” or at least “Jimmy.” And now, a few words from our bass line (to be read in the voice of the sea turtle from Finding Nemo)…

“What’s up dude! Right On! The sun, the rain—dude, it’s all good! Rrrrrrrighteous! Aw, little dude, how can you be down when it’s ALL SO BEAUTIFUL! Chin up. Let’s go for a ride! Yeah! Wooh! You gotta love that! Whoah! Duuuuuude!” How will Jimmy’s naive optimism blend with Maureen Tucker’s jackhammer drumming? Daniel Lanois will make it work.

Keyboards: Keith Jarrett’s Rhodes solo on “Funky Tonk” (17:10-21:36) from Miles Davis’s Live Evil

Of all the outstanding performers in this dream band, Keith Jarrett is in a league alone. On Live Evil, Jarrett is part of a hot lineup that includes guitarist John McLaughlin and Miles himself at the height of his electrofunk game. Other Live Evil songs feature performances by legendary keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. Yet on the entire double-live CD, nothing is more memorable than Jarrett’s four-minute solo on “Funky Tonk.” Jarrett creates such a mesmerizing, self-contained moment that nobody in the band wants to rejoin him and pick the tune back up. I imagine them all reverently staring at him, wondering how long he can sustain the vibe.

Jarrett’s genius is for improvisational composition. He’s an amazingly dexterous player, but it’s not his “hot licks” that make him the master. His ability to compose cohesive works of profound beauty and integrated structure off the top of his head is uncanny. Four minutes of sustained organic improvisation is small potatoes for Keith. His Sun Bear Concerts are five separate 70-minute solo improvisations, plus encores.

A year after Live Evil, Jarrett swore off electric instruments and “went acoustic.” He hasn’t played electric in concert since 1972. Still, on my dream project, he’s back on the Rhodes. The Rhodes electric piano is its own customizable universe of tones, and Jarrett’s is tricked out in a seriously non-standard way. Some keys buzz, others plonk, others chime. Halfway through the solo, he doubles his own melody line on what sounds like a Hammond organ hooked up to a wah-wah pedal. The whole effect is positively orchestral in its tonal variety. If I were the producer, I’d set Jarrett loose to improvise on every track; but Lanois will probably make more judicious and appropriate use of Jarrett’s peculiar talents, which is why he’s the producer and I’m just the writer.

Cover Design: Roger Dean

Roger Dean’s album covers for Yes and Asia so mesmerized my developing adolescent brain that my instinctive penchant for psychedelic nouveau still earns me derision in modern graphic-design circles. On a conscious level, I realize mythical fantasy environments and airbrushed logos are totally cheesy; but on a subconscious level, I still want to open up that double-album spread and drink deeply from those gaudy sunset wells of blue and purple. Any album cover from Yes’ Fragile to Asia’s Aura will do the trick. Relayer and Yessongs are particular favorites.

The runner-up is Vaughan Oliver (aka V23). His work for the 4AD label in the ’80s spawned an entire design genre I call “gothic organic.” His covers are deeply textural, moody and evocative; and his technical integration of type and photography was as masterful as it was visionary. Personal favorites include The Breeders’ ironically festive Pod cover and the Pixies’ lushly textured Doolittle packaging.

By all rights Vaughan Oliver should get the job hands down, but for this particular dream album, I’m going with Roger Dean. Why? Because secretly, I’m hoping that a capital-B Band personality will emerge from this project, and it would break my heart if she were ironic, cryptic and dark. I want her to be complex and realistic; yet still undaunted, hopeful, and unafraid to risk a bit of cheesiness. Above all, I’d like her to be ambitious, anthemic and (dare I say it) heroic. Not a band full of heroes, but Band as hero. May she be a balm, yea, an antidote, to the insidious poison of hypocritical opportunism that infects our fearful, cynical age. Now you see why Roger Dean must design the cover. His hyperbolic intergalactic landscape sensibilities will be in perfect phase with the Band’s core mojo. A monumental album with a mythical cover! We shall call the band Beacon, and the album shall be called Broadcaster! Even now, I see beams of neon light piercing the dark shadows of some forlorn lunar landscape! Somebody please stop me before I completely sabotage the whole thing.

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