Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Session stars and BDSM

I was inspired to give this old blog post a revamp by a beautifully filthy email and a newspaper article about Chas and Dave -which may be the first and only time I’ll ever get beautifully filthy and Chas and Dave in the same sentence.

This is a post without links. Why? It seems simpler that way, that’s all, and it might challenge readers to type some of the names into Google for themselves. Someone at work mentioned the Monkees.  They were lambasted by many as being inauthentic, because on their early albums they didn’t play. So that’s them in the same bag as The Archies and Milli Vanilli then, along with the Bay City Rollers, S Club Seven and anyone else who fails to pass the authenticity tests prescribed by the rock media and the fanbois.

Except…

Except lots of people didn’t play on their own records then, or now.  Sometimes the driving force was economics; session players were cheaper because they could be relied upon to get it right first time. Sometimes it was about technique; inexperienced players, like The Byrds and The Monkees, simply couldn’t play with the skill and flair of the great session players. Especially in an era when multi tracking was in its infancy and auto tune was three decades away. Nevertheless, the prevailing ethos of rock and roll was that it was somehow less real, less authentic to use session players rather than do it yourself. Now, if you’ve ever listened to Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, does it  matter that Joe Moretti played the original version of that spine tingling guitar part? Within  a couple of years of Mick Green beginning to do the job live he was inspiring a new generation of players like Pete Townsend and then Wilko Johnson.

The idea that session players were somehow less authentically rock and roll is simply hilarious. Jimmy Page was a session player who got the job as bass player in the Yardbirds, then moved into the guitar job when Jeff Beck left. Now there are plenty of arguments to be had about how authentic Led Zeppelin actually were, but few people disparage Page as grey or colourless.

Richie Blackmore was a session player long before he joined Deep Purple; hilariously, amongst his accomplices in Screaming Lord Sutch’s school of musical hard knocks was one half of Rockney novelty act, Chas n Dave, who was also in seminal British rockers Head Hands and Feet, and, for one night as a sickness stand-in, bass player in Deep Purple. Again, Blackmore’s later adventures with lutes and medieval pomp rock have been as ludicrous as one can imagine, but no-one can doubt his rock and roll credentials.

At this point you might be wondering if this is the domly equivalent of showing off, an assertive male proving how much he knows. There’s more to it than that though.  There are parallels in this about how human beings behave and about how our society defines value.

The Wrecking Crew out of Los Angeles were the best of their kind, and spawned all manner of successful acts – it’s easy to mock session musicians as being boring, non-rock characters who prefer a pay cheque to the risks of rock and roll, but the story of Jim Gordon and his role in writing Layla, followed by his sad decline is a rock tragedy as large if not larger than the legends woven by clever publicists out of many other rock lives.

The LA session scene produced bands who were successful, as well as musicians who could make any record better; Toto are a fine example, with their individual involvements in everything from Michael Jackson to Steely Dan, and their collective success as purveyors of FM friendly rock. (This blog had its first stirrings in a brief glimpse of Toto’s Jeff Porcaro and David Paich backing Boz Scaggs on a 1970s edition of Top of The Pops on BBC4).

One line of criticism of session musicians, perhaps evident in the astonishing record of people like Jeff Porcaro or Steve Lukather from Toto,  is their ubiquity; Larry Knechtel was as much at home with Duane Eddy or The Doors as he was with Bread or Simon and Garfunkel, or as a West Coast Funk Brother, playing on the Los Angeles era Motown recordings.  It’s akin to criticizing bisexuals for the breadth of their tastes (although, of course, this is precisely what some sections of the swinging community do with bisexual men or women who have sex with women as more than foreplay for swinging.) InKnechtel’s case his multi instrumental talent was arguably also his downfall; do you praise him as a bass player for  the Byrds and the Doors, as the pianist on Bridge Over Troubled Waters or as the guitar player on Bread’s Guitar Man? That guitar solo doesn’t become any less valuable, or skilful because it was by a session muso experimenting with a borrowed wah wah; the epitome of this is the guitar break on the Carpenters Goodbye to Love, which is great, no matter what you think of the Carpenters, and a worthy companion to Shakin’ All Over in the ‘great guitar moments played by guys you haven’t heard of’ rock and roll hall of fame.

Another point is the argument that the majority of session musicians don’t make it in bands, that Toto or Bread are the exceptions. Leaving aside party bands like Spike Edney’s All Stars, novelty acts like Jools Holland’s Big Band, or the simply dire, like Mike and the Mechanics, the thesis runs that session musos are that way because they aren’t rock and roll enough for bands, or more chillingly, that they are technically proficient but lack the creative spark demanded of true rock and rollers. Bearing in mind that the chief criticism of Led Zep is that they were hugely derivative, and that Jimmy Page was a star session muso, you can see the point.

Session players can also fall foul off the criticism of being too introspective and technical; Wilton Felder may have been poppy enough to play bass on the Jackson 5’s records, but the Crusaders were very much an acquired taste until they got Will ‘Titanic’ Jennings in to help craft a song for Randy Crawford to sing. You don’t have to have too many albums by Brand X in your collection to know that the things that please musicians aren’t always melody, or that even when Phil Collins can write melody his lyrics can be shallower than a puddle in summertime.

There’s another issue rears it’s head at this point though. It’s arguable that soul and r n b session players get treated differently. Booker T and the MGs  are revered by anyone with an ear for soul music, but they may be the exception that tests the rule. Never mind that some of their stuff was a tad derivative, or sounds like the house band warming up for work (which of course they were). Even before the Blues Bothers movie anyone with an ear for soul would recognise the sounds of Steve Cropper’s guitar, and Duck Dunn’s bass lines. Indeed, the Blues Brothers band could be the ultimate session players party band – just a bunch of guys who were good at what they do having fun.

By comparison the Funk Brothers were often uncredited, and unregarded; they acquired less cachet than, say, James Brown’s outfit or the MGs, partly because they got less credit from control freak Berry Gordy.  James Jamerson didn’t get a mention on a Motown album until 1971, despite playing on most of the label’s 1960s output. Similarly, the guys who played in Philadelphia were more likely to come to notice as performers or acts in their own right than as session musicians. MFSB might have achieved some success, and acts like McFadden & Whitehead might have been stars in their own right, but all too often their contribution as producers, writers and musicians was overlooked because nobody talked about it.

Why was it that records targeted at nerdy college kids had credits listing every musician, while the most danceable and sexy music simply happened?

One explanation of course is that soul and rnb fans got what they wanted just by listening to the music. It didn’t need any credibility beyond that. Another explanation is that you didn’t need a list on the record of who played on a Motown record; the producer knew who his first call players were, and that was all that mattered.

If you’re listening to a Jackson Browne album from the seventies, full of nimble introspection, knowing that that guitar solo that made you gasp was by David Lindley might seem important to you, but only because such records were given an intellectual cachet that assigned them the value of poetry.

I know. Over a thousand words of this blog and barely a reference to sex.

Here’s a clue.

I’m a reformed fanboi. I like Jackson Browne. I have a huge memory for records by LA era bands, for rock and roll, for the kind of records that came out in the 70s with intricate credit sheets. I also have a huge affection for records that just work, that don’t need a lyrics sheet or an explanation that the acoustic guitar was by James Griffin but the solo was by Larry Knechtel.

I do BDSM. I like it. It doesn’t need a credits sheet, or a lyrics sheet, or details of the kit the keyboard player used.  It just is. If I were any good at BDSM I’d want to be a session player, someone who can make the most of every opportunity, flexible and ingenious, not a singer songwriter intent on telling the world about his or her world. I am not claiming my style is more or less authentic, it’s just my style.

What’s wrong about rock criticism is the way that authenticity, what’s really rock and roll, is defined as being about the behaviours of musicians, not how it sounds. BDSM is about how it feels, not how you explain yourself. If the woman I enjoy dominating has just spent a night, or an hour, or a second of her time kneeling at the feet of a woman who wishes to be called goddess it doesn’t change for one moment how I experience BDSM when I am with her. The moment is more important than the ideology or the ideas, and what’s most important is that people enjoy, and feel rejuvenated by, the experience of BDSM.

Otherwise, why bother?

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One comment on “Session stars and BDSM

  1. Pingback: By their internet lists shall you know them | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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