I recently listened to a 2020 BBC radio documentary on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Very interesting in several respects, two of which I’ll mention today.

  1. The production didn’t always make it clear who was speaking at any given time, but one guy made the fascinating comment that, in the Beatles, George was to the guitar what Ringo was to the drums: he didn’t play many solos, and when he did they tended to be worked out carefully in advance for the purpose of enhancing the songs. No guitar hero stuff; no drum hero stuff. (Of course, Ringo famously played only one solo in his career as a Beatle.)
  2. There’s an excerpt from an interview with Harrison during which he remarks on his dismay when he first heard Phil Spector’s production of “Wah-Wah”: “I hated it.” Then, he says, he got used to it, came to like it. But at another moment in the documentary, the engineer Ken Scott, who participated in the making of All Things Must Pass, talks about getting together with Harrison thirty years later to work on an anniversary edition of the album. They sat down to listen to it and simply laughed out loud at how bad it sounded. The interviewer didn’t like hearing this. He loves the sound of Spector’s production. He says it sounds contemporary. Yeah, I silently replied, contemporary crap. Compare Spector’s wall-of-crap sound with the demo that Harrison did with just his guitar and Klaus Voorman’s bass. The latter is infinitely superior.

Or so I think, and I don’t believe I am alone. You could make a plausible case that modern pop-music production on average makes songs worse than they would be if recorded as simply as possible. And that might help account for the otherwise odd fact that record labels reliably make money — not tons of money, grant you, but a profit — through releasing outtakes, alternative arrangements, and demos: those versions sound better.

Example: Flowers in the Dirt is one of Paul McCartney’s better solo recordings, but the finished record is a pale shadow of the acoustic demos Paul made with Elvis Costello. Those demos are, I think, the very finest work Paul has done in his post-Beatles career.

Example: Listen to the album version of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi.” Good song, right? Now listen to the mostly-acoustic version, a sparer, simpler performance with a classic blues walking bass. Fantastic song.

Example: The Daniel Lanois-produced version of Dylan’s “Most of the Time,” from Oh Mercy. Cool — but not nearly as cool as this acoustic version, which sounds like it could’ve come straight from Blood on the Tracks.

Example: Noel Gallagher was doing a run-through of a song at a studio in Dublin — he didn’t even know he was being recorded — and, with just his voice, his acoustic guitar, and a supporting piano player, happened to come up with the performance of his career.

And wasn’t this the appeal of MTV Unplugged? — and also why some performers didn’t want to do it? Take away the studio tricks and you’re left with … you. Not everyone passed the test, but those who did created some magic. Nirvana is the most famous case, not unjustifiably, but there were some other cool surprises also — for instance, it was while watching Unplugged that a lot of us discovered that 10,000 Maniacs was a great band. (Even though they look like some assistant professors of English at your local university, playing music to distract themselves from the terrors of their upcoming tenure decisions.)