Jul 2, 2008

Strange Devices Used as Instruments in Pop and Rock Songs

Left: the humble washboard, whose best practitioner is the inimitable Skid Roper, who I bought a shot of whiskey for in 1985

We live in an era in which digital technology allows for the artificial creation of an infinite range of sounds, and one in which audio experimentation is often a matter of computer technicians.

Yet it was not so long ago, kids, when musicians sometimes searched for all manner of unusual ways to create unique sounds on pop and rock records. Back when I once considered a career in music, I spent countless hours with my four-tack analog recorder capturing odd noises that I one day hoped to mix in my songs. Unfortunately, life and middle age caught up with my aural experiments, but I remain fascinated with artists and engineers who can find musical value in unexpected places.

Listed below are a few of the curious implements that musicians and studio whizzes have used to create memorable sonic moments when they were not recharging their respective batteries during Las Vegas vacations. Feel free to leave any others of which you are aware.

1. Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer in the City." This essential hot weather song features car horns and a jackhammer, and I distinctly recall reading an interview with John Sebastian in which he discussed recording a number of jackhammers before finding one that sounded particularly "flatulent," though I did not pull up this interview in a Google search.

2. Roxy Music, "Love is the Drug." If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of ripping paper being used as a percussion device every fourth beat. No kudos to the band for the sound of a roaring car at the beginning of the song, though - this had been used many times before the recording of the 1975 album Siren.

3. The Supremes, "Baby Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go." OK, you can credit Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland for the idea, but I still think it is cool how Mike Valvano created the footstomping sound by jumping up and down on wooden boards that were suspended in the air. I recall an interview with a member of the Funk Brothers who said that the crisp, martial sound was improved by the addition of sand on the wood.

4. Guns N' Roses, "Paradise City." About 1:20 into the song, Axl Rose lets loose with a - of all things - a referee's whistle that screeches and kicks the song into high gear. Yes, sometimes GNR was a bit derivative, but this is hands-down the best referee whistle solo in rock history.

5. The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations." Among the other studio wizardry in this song is the inclusion of a musical solo played on the Electro-Theremin, best known for making creepy sounds for science fiction B-movies.

6. Beatles, "Lovely Rita." Far too many memorable studio oddities to mention in this post, so I'll just close with this song. The strange noise after the lines "And the bag across her shoulder/ Made her look a little like a military man" was created by John, Paul, and George dragging combs across paper.


Anonymous said...

You can even see this in some modern bands. The band "The Bravery" has a second album that is a classic example of using unorthodox instruments.

microdot said...

Just a few oddities...
In the original line up of Roxy Music, Brian Eno actually reprocessed Phil Manzanera's guitar as he was playing it...the guitar was fed into an 8 track reel to reel and Eno manually manipulated the reels and tape on stage to create some very unusual and theatrical effects.
In the David Bowie song, Space Oddity...Ground control to Major Tom?...Rick Wakeman plays a cheap early toy synthesizer that was played with a plastic stylus over a sensitive band.
Yes, and in the original Texas Maniacs, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators led by Roky Erikson, in their first hit in 1965, the proto punk You're Gonna Miss Me, the weird oscillating noise in the mix is an amplified jug!
Roky was convinced that by burying a "secrety sound" in the mix, he could guarantee an sure fire hit!

microdot said...

The 39 dollar toy synthesizer in Space Oddity was the Stylophone.

Whirling a flexible hose to create a musical noise in Urban Spaceman by tghe Bonzo Dog Band...produced by Paul McCartney.

The toy piano solo played by Al Kooper in Flute Thing, by the Blues Project.

We won't even go into Frank Zappa's usage of nasal snarks....
except to mention he won an Emmy for best commercial soundtrack for a Pepto Bismo commercial in the 60's created with his friend Dick Barbours nasal Snarks.....