MUSIC PRODUCTION THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME
I was telling my friend Phil that I would like to throw a party and perform Stairway to Heaven, each of our friends playing a small part of the song, and never once practicing it as a group. After he called the police and I passed a sobriety test, I had the idea to record a version of the song as an exercise, to show what a piece of cake it is. As an exercise, doing 150 sit-ups would have been easier.
I started with the drums, which was the only part I was adept enough to play straight through. I have always been self-realistic about my own musical talents: mediocre bass player, decent drummer, on guitar I have an unhoned skill here and there. My voice is usually somewhere near on-key, with an almost uselessly limited range and horrible timbre. The one thing I do possess is a well-tuned musical ear, and I would rather have that than any of the other stuff. I can pick out each and every part of any arrangement, and hear thirds and fifths in my head for any melody line. Maybe all musicians can hear those things, I’m not sure.
I recorded the drums on a 4-track cassette deck with less than stellar microphones, and mixed them down to stereo on my 8-track digital recorder. Since the drums come in over halfway through the song, I had to keep a click track on the hi-hat for the whole first part of the song, and try not to make any noise while I read the NY Times. I had to base the click track on the song itself, since it increases in tempo throughout the song.
Then I recorded the acoustic guitar, and my fingers were close to bleeding after about a hundred takes.... As far as picking goes, guitar is the thing I have the LEAST success at.
I have a cheap MIDI keyboard that happened to have almost the exact flute sound at the beginning of the song (bassist John Paul Jones used real recorders, overdubbed). I had to record them one at a time- as a drummer my hands seem to have a supportive relationship, but using a keyboard they refuse to work together, and I end up playing the parts like a boss whose typist is out for the day.
Surprisingly, there is an electric piano in the song. My cheap electric piano, unsurprisingly, does not make a sound that sounds like an electric piano. So I had to play it on guitar, using a guitar synthesizer. I was spared the indignity of using the electric piano to play guitar parts.
I needed three spare tracks to deal with the guitar solo. Due to my prowess on the instrument, I had to play the lead break in a total of 16 different parts. Two of 16 consisted of only one note. Some of the fingering was so intricate that I had to try it several different ways, as I often do whenever fingering is involved. I did the slide guitar part using a small mayonnaise jar. I don’t know anything about playing the slide guitar, but thankfully I know quite a bit about mayonnaise.
Then it came time to sing the part at the end. Oddly enough I was able to hit most of the notes, fairly drunk, in falsetto by dropping a live hermit crab down my pants. On the minus side it hurt like hell, but on the plus side, the crab is no longer a hermit and seems to be quite happy there.
The vocal parts at the beginning and middle I recorded sober, without incident. The lyrics are sometimes unusual. The other day I saw a bustle in my hedgerow, and I got excited: It’s a spring clean for the May Queen! But it was only a raccoon. I was surprised that I knew all the lyrics just by osmosis. Although there is a note here and there off-key, I did not bother to fix them so that people would be able to tell my version from the original. Also I have some advice for all recording studio engineers: feed the cat before you record anything using a microphone. An unfed cat who, admittedly, sounded MARGINALLY better than I did in one small part in the second verse, was eventually edited out in the final mix.
Incidentally, what a pain in the neck is the part where a phalanx of 12-string electric guitars mark the end of the middle of the song, going into the guitar solo. A composition analyst in Wikipedia describes that the section’s “time signature switches between common time and several other time signatures: 3/4, 5/4 and finally 7/8.” In an interview in 1977, however, Jimmy Page says that, “for some unknown reason Bonzo couldn't get the timing right….”
PS: The song accompanies various random shots taken on vacation in Greece, California, Las Vegas and who knows where else. ~R
PPS: For some reason Google blogs cannot upload videos or MP3s, so here it is on YouTube: