Another passing this week — and much like Gary Gygax’s a few days ago, younger days come back to me in a rush. But not in a direct way, and not because of what you might think.
Norman Smith’s life was arguably that of many of his generation’s in England — a man whose youth was defined by the Depression followed by World War II, and who then spent the rest of his life working away to support himself and his family, while pursuing interests along the way as well as living his life. Those interests, though, were centered around music — and in a major way. As the article I’ve linked describes, and as heaven knows how many posts and discussions of his life and work have resulted from his passing have indicated, he happened to be a staff engineer when the Beatles came down to audition at EMI and found himself working with one George Martin recording the band’s work for years.
To pull out one key part from that link, which emphasizes the role of the engineer in a way not always understood (think, for instance, how the look of a film is the work of a cinematographer and production designer more than a director):
…it was Mr. Smith’s role to choose the equipment and techniques used to capture individual sounds in the studio and then to weave them into a finished recording. In the Beatles’ case, he favored sounds that were more stark than those typically heard in the ornamented and reverberation-drenched songs on popular radio.
“Norman thought the actual Beatles’ sound, playing together in the room, was great, and he wanted to preserve that,” Mr. Kehew said. “And that was really different from other records at the time.”
And for this reason alone his passing would be duly noted; any time early Beatles songs are heard, he’s the guy who helped make it sound the way it did, as much as the band and Martin were involved. To draw another comparison — Steve Albini describes himself as an engineer more than as a producer, his interest lying in how best to make the band sound. If you like the Beatles, you also like what Smith did with and for them — that’s part and parcel.
But my connection with Smith isn’t for this reason — it’s for another British quartet, and another album entirely. As further noted in the article, while Martin continued to work with the Beatles, he did so after 1966 as a free agent, while Smith, whose cachet was clear enough to EMI by that point, gained Martin’s senior role at EMI, and he started putting that clout to good use with a number of acts, including one in particular.
Flash forward two decades — I’m in senior year of high school, I’ve recently picked up my first CD player (in fact, it would have been almost twenty years ago today, because it was a combination of birthday and work money) and I’m starting to pick up CDs a lot as well, including the Beatles, appropriately enough. There’s a classmate I’m quite sweet on, whose boyfriend has gotten her into Pink Floyd. Following this line of thought with alacrity, I start investigating the band more than I have — I had Dark Side of the Moon on cassette by that point, and was hip deep in my one (and thank god, only) year of listening almost exclusively to classic rock radio, so I was interested in finding out more about this band.
I’d also started to hear about this person called Syd Barrett — okay then — and that he had been the former lead singer of the band. Keep in mind as well that this was during the Momentary Lapse of Reason era of Pink Floyd, where David Gilmour and Nick Mason had wrested the rights to the name from Roger Waters and had embarked on a monster tour; I didn’t go see it but I was a target audience member if ever there was one. So I’d been getting a crash course on the band in general, and figured I might want to start scarfing up all these albums I’d heard about. One by one I did, and somewhere along the line I got The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
There’s no great moment of sudden revelation upon first hearing that album, I should say — nothing is firm in my memory like it would be with other things, instead it was one of many bands and performers who I first heard that year (Joy Division, the Sugarcubes, Love and Rockets) who got my attention. But something about that album did stand out, does still. Context helps here — remember, this is a multinational corporation happily out to see if they can strike gold again with another English rock and roll four piece, with the help of a trusted producer backing them. This isn’t an indie recording on the cheap, though there would have always been that pressure to start scoring some hits (and they’d already had a couple of singles getting them some attention). Syd himself had already put together a passel of songs to draw on, including some established live favorites. A combination of talent, gumption, connections, ambition, and a hunch.
If you haven’t heard Piper, I strongly suggest getting hold of it in whatever way seems best to you. There’s a fancy as hell 40th anniversary edition that came out last year, with stereo and mono mixes, and the advantage of having them both is that you can hear Smith’s ear for detail, even in a slightly different but still hands-on role, as well as the band’s performance in general. In fact that’s the point; just as Smith helped make the Beatles sound the way they did, he helped Syd-era Pink Floyd sound like it did — drawing on the experience of working with the Beatles to know what the studio could do while bringing a new band’s own interests to the fore as well.
The end result was, is, dazzling. It’s a defining record in what became known as psychedelia, and for once all the mythmakers are right to heap praise on an album that ended resonating more than its initial commercial profile ultimately would have suggested. However, as with all genre names, that’s a term that limits as much as it describes, so approach Piper instead with an open mind towards what’s on offer: wry and whimsical lyrics, unusual arrangements, swirling keyboards and guitar parts, Barrett’s multiple ‘voices’ on the album (no one lead vocal of his quite sounds like the other, a remarkable inhabiting of roles), a sense of a tight-enough band that wanted to try out a few different things beyond what most rock bands were expected to sound like, even if they weren’t as avant-garde as they might have wished.
It’s a dazzling, kaleidoscopic album, and with Barrett’s ear for memorable core words and music as the anchor, that’s why it still works, and Smith’s role in overseeing it is crucial. His stamp is all over it because he might not have made every sonic decision, but he made every sonic decision sound great, from the crackling Morse code opening of “Astronomy Domine” to the crashing collage and confusion of ringing clocks and a distorted looped laugh that concludes “Bike” and everything in between. It ain’t hip-hop by any stretch of the imagination but there’s a line there, certainly one that helpfully grew out of Smith’s work with Martin and the Beatles, that feeds into performer/producer pop/bleeding edge dynamics since then, and the kind of sonic disorientation that we’ve all ended up thrilling to in later times had one of its crypto-sources here, as more and more people thought about what could be done — and it’s the sometimes slavish recreation of this album’s sound in particular which makes so many of the efforts following worshipfully in its wake seem so flat, since they bring nothing new to the table, where with different technologies and other sonic ideas, that combination of band and producer/engineer could have created something else completely different that Piper‘s many followers could never have touched, hidebound as they are.
Of course, Smith himself was a bit hidebound, but an honest sentimentalist — he was professional and open-minded enough to do a stellar job for bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, dedicated enough to his own earlier loves to score a craggy-voiced big band-era throwback one-off hit in the early seventies with “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” A good balance, and a great footnote of fame to a different kind of music career, which in the long running years of Dre, RZA, Missy, Timbaland, the Neptunes, Kanye and many more who effortlessly cross between producer and performer must seem like a minor footnote indeed. A Norman (or Norma) Smith right now might be serving in Afghanistan who may yet do something with others in England in future years to surprise us (music, not very likely — culturally, though, who knows?). Here’s to him or her, and here’s to a forebear who made a permanent mark.