Monday, October 29, 2007
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Will any musician ever have a more explosive short-term impact on the world than The Beatles did during their great run that ended with the release of Abbey Road in 1969? After the group splintered and each bandmember was left to his own devices, it came as no surprise that the prolific Paul McCartney, whose cherubic smile masked a flinty resolve, was first out of the gate. McCartney, released in 1970, yielded the hit “Maybe I'm Amazed” and remained on the charts for nearly a year. Not bad for an album recorded entirely at home.
Always a workhorse, McCartney began writing material for his next album, Ram, while the first album was still sailing on the charts. Although some critics fault Ram, which was released on May 17, 1971, as the saccharine effort that began a slide into camp from which McCartney has never fully recovered, McCartney's hauntingly beautiful touch can be heard throughout the album and is particularly evident in “Back Seat of My Car” and “Ram On.” Ram also produced the smash single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which combines McCartney's knack for memorable melodies with some of that theatricality he was always prone to.
Rhythm tracks for “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” were cut in Studio B at CBS Studios on East 52nd Street in Manhattan, with CBS staff engineer Tim Geelan at the desk. Now semi-retired and living in a house that he built into the side of a mountain in Virginia, Geelan cut 22 songs with McCartney during a six-week period in 1971.
“Working on ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ was one of the highlights of my career,” says Geelan, whose long list of credits includes engineering for Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Billy Cobham, The Dictators, Blue Öyster Cult and many others. “Paul was a great producer: thorough, businesslike and loose at the same time. They were very comfortable sessions that followed a pattern. We'd start working at nine or 10 in the morning. Paul would show Denny Seiwell, the drummer [who would later become an original member of Wings], and David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken, the guitar players who split the date, the song we'd be tracking that day. After rehearsing for several hours, we'd cut a version of the tune and then have a lunch break. After lunch, we'd listen to what we had and then record another couple of takes if it was necessary.
“We had a 3M MM-1000 16-track recorder and a homemade console at CBS. Studio B was a big room, about 40 or 50 feet long and 50 feet wide with a 40-foot-high ceiling. We didn't worry about bleeding at all. The setup was real tight and everyone had headsets. Paul was absolutely the best. I was impressed with his musicianship and command of the studio.”
Dixon Van Winkle remembers the Ram sessions well. A young staff member at A&R Recording in New York City at the time, Van Winkle had been on the job for about six months when McCartney and his wife, Linda, showed up after scheduling conflicts forced them out of CBS. “I was a setup man in those days,” says Van Winkle. “Phil Ramone was the king of large orchestral recordings in New York at the time. He didn't have that many guys around who had gone to music school and could read scores, which I was able to do. So I had some value to Phil, who asked me to work with him on the Ram sessions.”
A&R had four studios in Manhattan; A1 was located in the penthouse at 799 7th Ave. “A1 was one of those magical New York rooms — arguably the best of them all,” Van Winkle says. “Originally a CBS studio, it was large enough to handle a full orchestra and it sounded great. We had a warm, fat vacuum tube Altec console that had been custom-built with handmade sidecars and four Altec 604E speakers across the front room, each powered by a 75-watt McIntosh tube amplifier.
“Paul came over to A&R to track the orchestra, vocals and some other overdubs with Phil. But Phil had a scheduling conflict one day and Paul asked me to take over. Things went well, and then Paul asked me if I'd finish the record with him.
“Security was tight, and each day Paul and Linda would come up the back elevator with their kids and a playpen, which we set up in the front of the control room. I was a part-time nanny since Mary would often be crawling around the console and sitting on my lap! The interplay between Paul and Linda was sweet, especially when they were on-mic. Linda actually came up with some parts on her own — the entire backing vocals on ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ consists of the two of them — but when she needed a hand, Paul was great with her. We used a combination of U87s — if we were working on something smooth — and Shure SM57s for the rockier stuff throughout the album. Paul didn't care what mic you put on him, although he did like the U87. He's such a great singer. I know that the vocals they cut over at CBS are Paul singing live right off the floor with the rhythm section into an Electro-Voice RE20, which was a relatively new mic at the time. They recorded the telephone section [of the song] over at CBS, as well. That character voice was also Paul, with a simple highpass filter engaged to give the telephone effect.”
Although Van Winkle did not record the guitar parts that McCracken contributed to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” he remembers the guitarist well. “Everybody wanted Hugh on their sessions. He wasn't the best reader in town, but the parts he came up with were fantastic. I've heard lots of great guitar players over the years, and I'd say Hugh was in the top five.” Still an active player who can be heard on the current Alicia Keys record and other tracks, McCracken has distinct memories of working with McCartney.
“My answering service got a call asking me if I'd like to audition for Ram, but I was in Florida working on an Aretha Franklin record and didn't pick up the message until I got back into town,” says McCracken. “I was disappointed but happy that David had gotten the job.” Spinozza, who has gone on to enjoy a long and successful career in the music production business and in Broadway pits, now plays in the Hairspray orchestra. After working on “3 Legs” and several other Ram songs, Spinozza and McCartney parted ways. As McCracken recalls, his phone rang one afternoon and Linda McCartney was on the line.
“Linda asked me to hang on while she put Paul on the phone. Paul simply asked me if I could be in the studio the following morning at nine o'clock. I canceled the sessions I had and made the date.” After recording several tracks under McCartney's direct supervision, it came time to lay down basics for “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” “This song represented a breakthrough in our musical relationship,” McCracken says. “Paul is a genius. He sees and hears everything he wants, and would give specific instructions to me and the drummer. But he didn't know what he wanted the guitar part to be like on this song. I asked him to trust me and he did. After I came up with the parts, he was very pleased. For the rest of the record, Paul let me try things out before making any suggestions.”
“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” stems from the British musical theater and has the feel of an overture, with multiple sections that are independent of one another. “That's right,” agrees Van Winkle, “and there were some issues we had to deal with as a result. For example, if you listen carefully, you'll hear Paul gurgling right before the telephone voice comes in. That sound was his imitation of a British telephone ring. He was supposed to give the engineer a cue when he wanted the lowpass filter dropped in for the Admiral Halsey character. The engineer made the switch too early and the filter came in on one of the gurgles! Paul didn't care, though. To him, it was all about the feel of the music.”
The chart, written by George Martin, also posed some engineering challenges. “Everybody knows that George Martin loved experimenting as much as any of The Beatles did,” Van Winkle notes. “If you listen carefully to the trumpet solo that leads into the ‘Hands across the water’ section — which Marvin Stamm, who's still an active player in town, played — you'll hear Paul whistling. Underneath, there's a sound effect written out by George Martin for four French horns; it's a flutter-tongue, fast-fingering atonal little thing in the horns' low range.
“Our usual way of recording horns at A&R was to put a pair of mics either in the front or distant rear of the players. That was traditional at the time, based on the fact that the French horn is a reflective instrument and you want to capture it with some space. But that's not what Paul was used to. He wanted us to stick mics right up in the bell. Although the U87 was the mic we used on horns back then, it would have been too big, so we probably used AKG C-60s instead. At any rate, none of us could figure out the purpose of the chart at that section, but when the mix was completed, it all worked perfectly.
“We did have a little problem mixing some of the horn pads in other sections of the song because they often sat directly in the vocal range. We pulled them down and processed them, as I remember, and you can hardly tell what they are at some points.”
Recording the rain and thunder effects that help glue the first two sections together would be easy today, but it was no small feat in 1971. “I remember Paul telling me that Armin Steiner went out to the edge of a cliff to record that storm, and that it was Paul's idea to add the effect at that point in the track.”
Very few artists in 1971 had the clout to release a single comprising 12 discrete sections, but McCartney's artistic vision was so solidly commercial that no record execs would cross him. Still, Van Winkle was unprepared for the success of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”: “Despite Paul's charm and ability to pull off anything, I was surprised when the record went so big.”
The first single from the Ram sessions, “Another Day,” never made it onto the album. It was Van Winkle who decided that “Another Day” should be the first release: “We were sitting in Studio A2 one day listening to the takes and Paul asked me to pick the single. I had definite feelings about the record and was in love with ‘Another Day.’ Paul said, ‘Okay. “Another Day” it is.’ I mixed the track and David Crawford cut about 100 copies of it in a back room at A&R for the radio stations. The next day when I heard it on the air, I realized it was a disaster! We got carried away with the bass part, and when it hit the radio station's compressor, it pumped like crazy! I learned that lesson real quick! But we never remixed the song, and Paul never said anything about it.”
Based on Ram's success and the relationship they developed, McCartney asked Van Winkle to work with him on Red Rose Speedway, which was also recorded at A&R.
McCracken eventually worked in the studio with all of the former Beatles, and considers himself fortunate to have had the experience, even though his work with John Lennon brought him face to face with tragedy: “I first worked with John on ‘And So This Is Christmas.’ Like Paul, he was extremely intelligent and aware of what he wanted in the studio. But you'd never find two more diametrically opposed personalities. I was working on Double Fantasy at the time of his death. How long did it take me to recover from that night? I still haven't recovered.”