I just got my first actual R. Stevie Moore album, after years of hearing multi-generation cassette dubs passed on from great friends in-the-know. It’s great to hear his legendary first album Phonography on a lovingly produced 180 gram clear golden vinyl pressing from the good folks at Sundazed. It’s as good as Lo-Fi can sound! More importantly, it’s a good reminder that just because a track is well recorded doesn’t make it a great record… think about that. Some of the worst records I’ve ever heard have been stunningly beautiful audiophile albums. They sound great, but it’s not music that anyone with an ounce of heart and soul would really want to add to their collection. That is just my humble opinion…
Accordingly, I thought this would be a good time to countdown some of my favorite homemade “D.I.Y.” — or Do It Yourself — pop recordings. These are albums by artist who could hire a band to play them, but for numerous reasons chose (or choose) to just record all the parts themselves or they record the band on their own in their basement, garage or bedroom home studio. As something of a D.I.Y. artist myself, I am certain that the rationale for doing this has as much to do with artistic control as it does time and budgetary constraints. Sometimes it’s just easier to lay down the template yourself — the vision as you the artist see it — rather than trying to get other people to interpret your music for you. Frank Zappa once said (and I’m paraphrasing here based on a memory of an interview on a TV show) around the time of his Grammy winning album Jazz From Hell — which was almost entirely recorded on a early digital computer workstation system called “The Synclavier” — that if he had had this type of technology back when he started, he probably would have never started the Mothers of Invention. His reason for assembling a band, or hiring an orchestra, was simply to hear how his music sounded. Check out this interview from CBS news, where he is interviewed early in the morning in his bathrobe in front of the Synclavier. It says a lot about the rationale for artists to want to do it themselves. (More on Frank a little later)
With the advent of quite high-fidelity, relatively affordable home recording gear from companies such as Teac and Revox, many artists indeed were able to dive deeper into their artistic vision without the need for necessarily entering a formal recording studio.
And thus, we have this rundown of a baker’s dozen of my favorites. Let us know some of yours!
1) Les Paul: The New Sound — Arguably the granddaddy of all indie recordings, Les’ first 10-incher (and several subsequent singles, which were added to the later 12-inch LP of the same name) is an amazing trip that set a template others (Phil Spector, Brian Wilson) would follow years later for lush multi-layered sounds and sometimes cosmically trippy sounds.
Just listen for the invention of reverb and time-manipulated instrumentation on these recordings, which he made in his garage, recorded direct to 16-inch 78 RPM discs, with the cutting lathe running from the inside out, resulting in less distortion as the songs got louder and more dynamic.
2) Phil Spector, The Teddy Bears: “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” In 1958, Phil was just 18 years old when he issued this, his first million selling hit record, which ushered in a batch of recordings that arguably changed the face of popular music. ‘Nuff said.
3) Brian Wilson wrote and produced “When I Grow Up To Be A Man” within the first year of The Beach Boys’ breakout in 1964, a remarkable feat that demonstrated Wilson was already starting to push the envelope with unusual arrangements and instruments. While not “indie” in the sense of it being made in his bedroom or home studio, Wilson arguably should be included on any DIY list since he was the first to embrace the studio as an instrument itself, a place to create new sounds that ever existed before, simply by combining sounds and taking chances. There wasn’t really anyone leading him on this — he was directing the engineers and creating wild sounds he heard in his head.
4) Todd Rundgren: Runt — While Something/Anything? is his (mostly) D.I.Y. masterpiece, Todd was rockin’ the multi-track, playing everything on earlier albums like this one, which includes the hit “We Gotta Get You a Woman.”
5) Paul McCartney: McCartney — Yeah, I included a Beatle-related record, but I did so because Macca did record this one in a very unconventional (and courageous) manner, without a mixing board, plugging instruments right into the back of the recorder. Accordingly, Macca’s first solo album has a distinct DIY feel that at times is not all that removed from Les Paul’s first one in terms of that direct-to-disc feel.
6) Emitt Rhodes: Emitt Rhodes — I have a long story about how I became a fan of Emitt’s music. In short, a mail order record club sent me his first album (on Dunhill Records) as a temporary consolation, as they were out of The Beatles’ Let it Be. Being all of 9 years old, I was devastated when I opened the package and it wasn’t The Beatles. But after my brother calmed me down, we put out the record and discovered that someone at that record club knew what they were doing. The music here is arguably stronger than Paul McCartney’s first solo album. And Emitt did it all in his, garage playing every instrument and singing every voice. According to the wiki, the album made it to #29 on the charts and had some single airplay (as I remember hearing it on the radio as a kid in NJ), but really it’s all about the start to finish list on this wonderful slice of music.
7) Frank Zappa — Before he was signed to Verve Records, Frank was a DIY producer at his own studio, putting out lost singles like “Hows Your Bird?” and “The World’s Greatest Sinner” under various pseudonyms. In case you didn’t know, Frank Zappa went on to break new ground and shatter most rules of pop music, beginning with his album Freak Out in 1966, which some consider to be the first 2-LP rock album and one of the first albums with a single song that filled an entire album side (Dylan did this too by the way). This album set the stage for much of Zappa’s career, with songs that dance to the beat of their own drummer, from twisted sarcastic doo wop to mocking commentary of the sounds and people of the times to experimental studio creations like “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” which includes the sounds of dozens of freaks and hippies invited into the studio right off the Sunset Strip at the dawn of the psychedelic revolution. Zappa continued to push the envelope even to his dying days, recording some of his tremendously complex music initially created on a computer with musicians in Europe who figured out how to play it.
8) R. Stevie Moore: Phonography — R. Stevie Moore (RSM) came about at the dawn of punk and disco in the aftermath of some great pop music that was eclipsed by bigger trends like Southern Rock and Heavy Metal. Listening to Phonography, RSM’s debut album, one hears hints of some of the great independent thinking musicians of our times, from Frank Zappa to Roy Wood to Todd Rundgren. I hear echos of the lost mad classic by Thunderclap Newman (produced by Pete Townshend), which most people know only for its hit single “Something in the Air,” but were so much more… almost vaudevillian.
The intro to Phonography (“Melbourne”), sounds at times like an omage to Todd, who incorporated spoken word and Zappa-esque sound effects in the opening tracks to his classic album Something/Anything? Even some of the madcap fun of Harry Nilsson shows his influence on RSM. What else can I say? Listening to RSM is always great fun, and there are many riches there to explore. Visit his site and get the new reissue on gold vinyl at Sundazed Records before they sell out.
9) Martin Newell: Songs From a Fallow Land — Newell was in a band called Cleaners from Venus, and when that band split up he became an indie artist. His first cassette-only release — Songs From a Fallow Land — has recently been issued on a high quality 180-gram vinyl LP, and it contains many gems, including the lovely “Julie Profumo.” But my great hope is that his amazing album The Greatest LIving Englishman will be issued on vinyl. It sounds great on CD and features production and co-songwriting credits on some tracks from none other than XTC’s Andy Partridge, another studio rat who makes my DIY list (see below). The album features many amazing tunes that echo influences from The Beatles to the Holies and beyond including “Goodbye Dreaming Fields” and “She Rings The Changes.” But it’s the track “We’ll Build A House” that impressed me most with its haunting grandeur.
10) Andy Partridge: Fuzzy Warbles — The genius behind Swindon, England’s XTC is well known for the multi-track madness he lays down in the “shed” in his backyard, which serves as his home studio and the place where he has constructed the blueprint for many of the band’s classic studio recordings — including Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons, and the band’s last two albums, Apple Venus 1 & 2 (with Volume 2 alternately titled Wasp Star). Not only has the band put out two LPs of the demos for these albums (including high quality vinyl pressings), but Partridge compiled a tremendous collection called Fuzzy Warbles that spreads out over 8 CDs and includes a wealth of amazing material. The box set is notable for Andy’s fantastic gift of creating amazing packaging — a huge box that looks like a child’s stamp album from the 50s or 60s, with spaces for each of the CDs (initial pressings of which were autographed) and a big booklet and a bonus disc (cleverly called “Hinges”) with additional outtakes and demos.
11) Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand — This is the album many consider to be GBV’s Lo-Fi masterpiece. I consider it that and more because it’s astounding just how many amazing songs were put together on consumer grade tape recorders. And just listen to how GBV starts out their earlier album Propeller with a made at home chanting crowd cheering them on before they were even known to most anyone. This really is indie rock, personified.
12) John Otway — Otway gets included for his shear guts, chutzpah, and belief in himself and ability to effectively stalk Pete Townshend (yes, of the Who) into producing and playing on one of his early singles. All of these revel in low fidelity splendor, but sound amazing nonetheless. Here are some vintage performances from the UK back in the 70s. And he’s still going strong, putting out albums and touring and bonking his head against a microphone.
13) Roy Wood — The founder of The Move and The Electric Light Orchestra and Wizzard rounds out this baker’s dozen list because he is also one of the influential multi-instrumentalist D.I.Y. musicians of our time, issuing a number of astonishing recordings as a solo artist where he played and sang every part — from saxophones and drums to cellos, classical guitars, and harmonies. A testament to his vision, albums like Boulders and Mustard belong in any good collection of independent artist recordings.
Here is a relatively recent clip of Roy Wood on TV in the UK — He’s still alive and well!