Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Calling Out the Canned Midnight Special Performers

I'm finally watching the 1980 "Midnight Special" DVD and I'm having a rich experience that I'd never anticipated; in seeing the performances range sequentially from 1973 to 1980, I've gotten a sense of the changes in both music style and performance over that period.

My conclusions are by no means scientific -- each season of "Midnight Special" has been compressed to an hour's worth of performances by a small number of artists -- but I have watched the folk renaissance wane and disappear (Gordon Lightfoot, Janis Ian); the growth of disco out of R&B and funk into an increasingly glittery spectacle (from James Brown to Earth, Wind & Fire to Donna Summer to Amii Stewart); the mainstreaming of hard rock (AC/DC) and punk (Blondie); the slow death of glam into a more watered down style (Nick Gilder); and the sudden appearance of white guys with red suspenders and metallic hats, inflicting their humourless, spastic, disturbingly misogynistic dance routines on big-haired ladies with silver stiletto heels.

So, like, the '80s have arrived.

Most interesting, however, has been the evolution of canned performances, which have become increasingly more common and stylized, apparently paving the way for MTV.

Since I love spotting canned performances -- and since some people seem to never notice this sort of thing -- I present this handy guide for figuring out when your favourite '70s band is faking you out.


Straight Up: Everybody in the band is playing their instruments, the singer is really singing, and nothing significant has been added to the mix. This is obvious because the song doesn't sound exactly like the album, and nothing sounds totally perfect.

As an example, here's Heart playing "Crazy On You." It's all so improvisational, they're all looking at each other to keep the playing tight, the vocals are unprocessed and "real," it doesn't sound like the single, and...well, there's an ENERGY.

If you spot the things listed in the following categories, however, then your favourite band is putting you on.

Embellished: Most of the band is really playing and the singer is really singing, but they're playing along with a backing tape which includes horns, a string section, and/or vocal harmonies.

You can spot this if you hear horns or strings, but there is no horn or string section on stage. Keyboards in the '70s were far from reproducing those sorts of sounds, so a mysterious keyboard player cannot be responsible. You can also spot this if the harmony sounds TOO GOOD, and the people supposedly SINGING the harmony are just the band members.

If the harmony is being sung by dedicated backup singers, however, then there's more chance they're legitimate (but beware when two backup singers suddenly sound like four, and they don't do any apparent improvisation, and they overlap in a way that would be impossible for only two people).

You can also spot this if the drummer is wearing headphones, which means he's listening to the backing tape (or a click track) in order to stay in sync. Otherwise the drums are prerecorded and the drummer is just faking it, in which case he's NOT wearing headphones and he's hitting cymbals that you can't actually hear. When this happens, though, pains have been taken to make the drums at least SOUND live (as opposed to the next example).

Here's a good example: Golden Earring's "Radar Love." The vocals and guitar are certainly real, and the bass might be as well, but the drums, keyboards, horns, and most of the backup vocals are fake. The drummer ALMOST pulls it off but you can see moments where he gets it wrong. It's all most obvious near the end.

Singer Only: The band is not playing their instruments, but the singer is really singing along to a backing tape. You can tell this if the vocals sound a bit rough but the rest of the music sounds exactly like the studio version. Also if the instruments -- especially the drums -- sound double-tracked or otherwise produced in a way that wouldn't work live: particularly thumpy or whizzy, for example.

If the musicians don't seem to be paying any attention to each other when the song changes tempo, chances are they aren't really playing...in a live performance they tend to glance around to make sure they're all switching to the right beat at the right time. This is especially obvious at the end of songs which have those big synchronized "WHAM!" (wait for it...) "WHAM!" (one more time...wait) "WHAM! ... WHAM! WHAM! WHAM-WHAM-WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAAAAM" (waaaaait...) (waaaaait...) (waaaaaaaaait...) "WHAM!" endings.

This brings us to the BIGGEST (and most ridiculous) sign of a canned performance: if a song DOESN'T end with a synchronized "WHAM!" and instead actually FADES OUT, then nobody is playing, and I bet the singer isn't singing either (see below). There's a reason why live songs don't fade out: it's impossible, and even if somebody went through all the trouble to make it happen it would just look stupid.

In some cases they'll dispense with the artifice altogether and just put the singer alone on the stage. This is a dead giveaway. You don't go through the trouble of laboriously soundchecking a band just to hide them behind a curtain (though there appeared to be a trend for disco and R&B singers to sometimes put their bandmates in a dark, obscure area, maybe to make the singing and theatrical dancing more prominent).

Here's ABBA's "Mamma Mia" as an example. The "ABBA sound" was so treated and produced that it could NEVER sound that way live, but you can hear the way their live vocals stand out from the rest of the song. Amusingly, the men AREN'T actually singing.

Milli Vanilli: It's all pre-recorded and the singer is lip-syncing. This sounds EXACTLY like the single version, and the vocals sound far too smooth and "treated" to be live. The singer drastically changes the position and distance of her microphone with absolutely no change in the quality or volume of her vocals. She dances in a way that would otherwise leave her out-of-breath, or at least cause her to "hitch" occasionally. She doesn't improv or say "thanks" at the end.

Here's Olivia Netwon-John's "Magic." That is NOT a live voice, it is far too smooth and echoey, it's been sent through a half-dozen sweetening filters. It also sounds exactly like the single. A slightly more subtle example is Hall & Oates' "Kiss On My List," which again is far too slick and -- ha ha -- fades out at the end.


On "Midnight Special," this spectrum gradually shifted from the "Straight Up" to the "Milli Vanilli" area as the years went by. I wonder if the "studio sound" was getting harder to reproduce on stage, or if expectations were simply changing?

At the same time, the audience went from a huge auditorium full of real people sitting down, to a smaller selection of dancing club "characters" -- including, yes, a shiek -- in a way that seems to represent a shift of attitude...instead of the viewer joining an audience to watch a band perform live, it's become the viewer watching a stable of dancers, with a band in the background as an afterthought...like the viewer is just a dancer listening to the radio. A case of nightclubs and their frenetic, hyped-up subcultures killing the live band, maybe?

I assume the logical next step was "Solid Gold," which (to my memory) was just dancers performing to prerecorded hits without anybody from the band even being there.

And after that? I don't know. Any thoughts?


Kimber said...

I think the next step was Big Top Talent with Oopsey the Clown!

Anonymous said...

actually I saw Olivia Newton-John in conert and she did improv but still sounded like the Midnight Special performance. Perhaps she was unique, perhaps a good mimic. Maybe they recorded the improv. But nothing beats http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzLLNH7HcpE

Those phony laughtracks were great!

Adam Thornton said...

Those kids really performed, Kimber! You could tell because they tended to be awful.

And Lynda, oh my GOD. "El...ton...who?" That clip brings back memories of all quickly-written variety show scripts past, present, and (surely) future.

"Hey, Lynda Carter can make it!"

"You said she couldn't come?"

"Her agent just called, she can film from 3pm to 3:30 Tomorrow. She wants to do something 'funny.'"

"DAMN! Uhhhh...Wonder Woman...fighting crime...with Olivia Newton John..."

"We can't afford a stuntwoman for Olivia. So no stunts."

"SHIT! Uhhhh...how about...Olivia is stealing money so she can afford her show..."

"No, she has a squeaky-clean image right now, we can't do that?"

"Okay...Olivia falls in love...with a Nazi..."

"Her boyfriend wouldn't like that."

"ALRIGHT ALRIGHT! We'll use Special Guest Script 11-C, the one where the host wants the guest to be on the show, but they can't resolve their stylistic differences."

"And mention somebody famous. Elton John."


"No stunts for Elton."

Adam Thornton said...

PS: Sometimes, when a performer is lip-syncing, they'll turn up the mic at the beginning and end so she can say "This is a song everybody here knows" and "Thanks, thank you very much."

Anonymous said...

girl, you make me giggle

Eli McIlveen said...

I just stumbled upon this one: Yellow Magic Orchestra and their silly version of "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells... on Soul Train. After which Don Cornelius tries in vain to make conversation with the band.

Adam Thornton said...

I had no idea that Yellow Magic Orchestra ever sounded like that! What a great song!

And totally, 100% lip-synced, by the way...though they never focused enough on the singer to reveal whether he was interjecting.

The final interview is just far too painful...somehow I get really uncomfortable watching things like that.

Unknown said...

I just noticed Gloria Gaynor - "I Will Survive" on a bonus feature Midnight Special disc. Obviously lip synced. Bay City Rollers - Saturday Night" on another disc. The drummer was either live in the mix of a backing track, or like on American Bandstand and Soul Train when the live studio mics placed for crowd reaction take over as the backing track is fading out as on the original recording you can hear the drummer still playing slightly after the fade. Dead give away.
And BTW there examples of bands LIVE on Soul Train! AWB - "School Boy Crush" and more was taped and aired live in 1975 believe it or not. And I believe around 1974 James Brown did almost an entire Soul Train LIVE.