woensdag 28 november 2012

Alexander "Skip" Spence: OAR

We hatched the original plans for our Alexander "Skip" Spence 'Oar' project well over a year ago. I had long wanted to release the album on Sundazed - having always been a fan of this particular record, and, of course, everything by Moby Grape. We were considering the Sundazed re-release of 'Oar' as being a way to restore the record to it's 'proper' sound, and also a way to further align and bolster our label with recordings of some of my heroes. After securing the rights to the record, we talked with Lynn Quinlan - a longtime fan and close friend of Skip's that had been lovingly devoting much of his time to helping Skip sort out and conquer various musical issues - publishing concerns, new recordings, etc.. He was enthused and anxious to help us with the release. David Rubinson (original Moby Grape producer who had mixed "Oar" in early '69 and penned the liner notes for the original album) and I had become friends many years ago - he too was on board to lend his help. And soon, we were speaking daily with Warner Bros.' Bill Bentley who was busy assembling his "More Oar" tribute album (Birdman BMR 023). Bill became a quick friend - we pooled resources, names and numbers, and decided we would release the two albums as much together as we possibly could. It's difficult to explain the importance (and endurance) of this album. For a better explanation than I could put together here, I'll direct you to [ Wall Of Sound ]- click on their record review section and look for "More Oar". The review is penned by Steve Turner (Mudhoney). However, it did just kind of recently occur to me that, by personally going through every note on the original "Oar" reels, (mastering the album, mixing the bonus tracks), I can lend a little bit of extra insight and info into certain areas of the making of the original record. Thus, this column. I also wanted it to be known that the Sundazed disc was created with a huge sense of community - more than I can remember on any other release. I'll expand upon that a bit as well. But first, I'll give the background on the recording of the album as I've pieced it together - other particulars of the sessions (and the intense period leading up to them) are detailed within the liners that accompany our disc. The 'Oar' sessions were recorded in early December 1968, in Nashville (at Skip's request). All the material was printed to 1/2 inch 3-track tape, a format which had long been rendered obsolete in the recording community. This format, however, would become part of the overall "sound" of the album. Skip " produced" the "Oar" sessions himself - he also played all instruments on the record, and sang all the parts. The first few days in the studio (in early December) were spent laying down the basic tracks to quite a few songs, the next two were spent overdubbing additional parts on them - guitars, drums, vocals, etc. - creating Skip's 'finished master' takes. But it's really December 12, 1968 - the very last day of the 'Oar' sessions - that intrigues me most. That was the day Skip went in and recorded 15 plus "songs". As the clock on his allotted studio time ran down, Skip was pouring it out. As far as I can discern (both from interviews and the little existing vintage paperwork), Skip spent the morning of December 12th completing overdubs on "All Come To Meet Her", finalizing the components for the master version as we know it. In the afternoon and evening of that same day, playing a Fender bass and singing live vocals, Skip recorded nearly non-stop. He then added a drum kit overdub to some of the tracks that evening. A busy day for sure. This one, intense day of recording was responsible for some of Oar's simplest, yet most texturally intricate moments. For folks familiar with the original album, this is where "Margaret-Tiger Rug" is culled from...it's also where and when "Grey/Afro" was recorded. And, all of the bonus tracks on the Sundazed disc were committed to tape that same day. Diverse? Wow. When I combed through the multi-tracks earlier this year (there are only two, jammed 1/2" reels), I was amazed to find that so much material existed - beyond what had already been included as bonus material on the Sony Music Special Products CD release from 1991 (out of print). Sitting unmarked at the end of "Master Reel #2" were an additional five songs, or snippets, or flashes of brilliance, whatever, that no one really remembered. These audio snapshots were obviously excised from lengthier pieces - that no longer existed. At the time of the original sessions, Skip (or maybe Rubinson, or engineer Mike Figlio - nobody can really recall) went through and scrapped all outtake recordings that were considered to be superfluous - but, every extra tidbit, every fragmentary recorded thought, verse, or chorus that did remain was intriguing, organized, carefully leadered off, and then, amazingly, forgotten. Lucky for us. It was in that last section of reel#2 that would yield some unbelievably precious moments; five, unheard vintage " Oar" recordings that would become the perfect bonus material for the Sundazed issue. With the Nashville sessions completed, the multi-tracks were delivered by Skip to Columbia staff producer, David Rubinson, in New York. David and engineer Don Meehan created the final master mixes found on the original Columbia album release - it is also this unique and incredible-sounding mastertape that we used for the body of the Sundazed disc (it was not used on the Special Products disc from '91). Much work went into this original mix. Since it was a 3-track recording, instruments had to be isolated and placed within the mix by using varied, (and pretty adventurous) EQ and compression techniques, most too technical to go into here. The big picture is; that's why this record sounds the way it does. And really interestingly, it appears that at sometime around the assembly of it's original issue, "Oar" was actually given consideration to be issued as a double-album set, as marked on the original multi-track reels. See the inset photo of the tape box legends (below) for the originally-proposed song line-up (keep in mind that some song titles were just working references at that point) for sides one through four. We wanted the liner notes that would accompany the Sundazed release had to be ultra-special. We asked our friend David Fricke (Rolling Stone senior editor) to pen the 'recording history' of the album. David and I have worked together on nearly all things Byrds and Moby Grape for Sony Music, and he's written incredible liner notes for Sundazed as well (ie: our Bryan MacLean release). Next up, West Coast Sundazed staffer Jud Cost agreed to add the 'color' in a second set of notes based upon interviews he conducted with a host of Skippy's music pals, ranging from Marty Balin (Jefferson Airplane), to all the original members of the Grape, as well as others. We also decided to find room to run David Rubinson's vintage album notes. And, Greil Marcus quickly gave us permission to use his incredibly intuitive review of "Oar" as it appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969. For finishing touches, we unearthed some truly fabulous, unseen photos from Sony's Photo Library. Then Skip died. Bill Bentley called us within fifteen minutes of Skip's passing. We were fully aware of the seriousness of Skip's condition, but still devastated by his death. By the end of that day, our "Oar" album took on a new life - it was now a tribute album as well. Within the following week, as you might expect, the phones at Sundazed started ringing non-stop, flooded with calls from our friends, press people, customers, retailers and distributors - all of them inquiring about "Oar". Rather than rush the albums out, both Bill Bentley's project and the Sundazed release were nudged back a bit on their release schedules in order to provide some respectful breathing room. Sundazed and Birdman issued their "Oar" albums last week - they're already rocketing out the doors and are gathering rave reviews. I thought it would be a completely bittersweet feeling, but instead we all feel very, very proud to be involved in Skip's musical history and part of the testament to his great talent. -Bob Irwin

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