Good Art is a Fucking Miracle

It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve spent so much time lately fetishing on one of the very first albums I ever owned and has been listened to death by stoners for nearly my entire lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m confident in my decision to use this recording as a primary reference in producing the album I’m working on in that it is pretty much unanimously considered one of the greatest of all time and also in that it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up after half a century.

It’s an absurdly high bar and I have to remind myself that, while there’s no question that David Gilmour has talent, he was about half my age now when he began tracking the first recording of the sessions that became Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd was very well rehearsed for most of these songs, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the takes were strong when the tape started rolling. But what Gilmour couldn’t be performing and perfecting night after night was the double-tracking involved in this first track, Us and Them.

Try it. You can do it with your phone and any recording app. Sing just one or two lines from a song you’re intimately familiar with and then play it back and try to sing along exactly, every breath and phrase, in tune, so that you almost can’t tell which one you’re singing live and which one is recorded. Now listen to Us and Them. It was a new, hip technique in 1973, made possible by the development of multitrack recording. It was so popular that one of the wizards there at Abbey Road, Ken Townsend, rigged up a way to imitate it electronically so another well-rehearsed artist wouldn’t have to do it. John Lennon found it as frustrating as I’m finding it.

There have been hundreds of variations on Townsend’s technique, which basically just adds an echo with the pitch slightly altered, but none of them have convincingly replicated something as basic as singing along. Most people find it challenging. It comes more easily to others.

So, although it feels like giving up, this is a detail of a track that was following the reference quite closely that is going to depart from the reference.

There are dozens of details like that, and another thing I have to remind myself is that there’s a point where inspiration can become imitation. It may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s rarely art.

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