Getting It Right the First Time

Oh man — I got to open for Television last night in San Francisco, accompanying storyteller Dennis Driscoll. These days the band includes original members Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca, and Fred Smith, plus Jimmy Rip filling in quite capably for original guitarist Richard Lloyd. They’ve been doing shows where they play their debut album, Marquee Moon, in its entirety (though they mixed and matched songs last night).

Television recorded other cool records, including a lovely 1992 reunion album. But Marquee Moon is one of those instances in which an artist’s aesthetic is etched in stone from the beginning. The two-guitar interplay … the abstract, almost architectural arrangements … the contrasts between stiff and loose time … Verlaine’s free-floating rhythm and quavering 16th-note-triple vibrato—all were present from the get-go 36 frickin’ years ago.

Of course this picture of Television sucks—I took it! L-R: Fred Smith, Billy Ficca, Tom Verlaine, Jimmy Rip.

Of course this picture of Television sucks—I took it! L-R: Fred Smith, Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip, with a little bit of Billy Ficca’s hair in the background.

I couldn’t help comparing Television’s artistic arc to that of their contemporaries, Talking Heads. Sure, the latter’s debut, Talking Heads ’77, is a classic, but had the band stopped recording after its release, we’d have only a vague inkling of what the group would become. More than once Jerry Harrison has told me that today’s bands rarely have the luxury of defining themselves over the course of several albums as Talking Heads did, slowly finding their audience and refining their sound. Today’s music business demands spectacular success from the start. A latter-day Talking Heads (if you can imagine such a thing) wouldn’t have the luxury of recording three albums before releasing a bona-fide hit like Remain in Light.

Most great musicians evolve over time—imagine how we’d regard the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Prince, or Dylan if they’d thrown in the towel after one album. That, I think, seems intuitive to most of us. The talent is there—it simply needs time to reach its apogee.

But artists who seem to materialize fully formed mystify and fascinate me. I’m not just talking about Mozart syndrome, prodigies who display phenomenal talent while very young. Mozart grew artistically throughout his brief life. His juvenile works barely hint at the later masterpieces.

On the other hand, consider Charlie Christian, whose style was fully realized from his first recordings with Benny Goodman in 1939, soon after the guitarist’s 23rd birthday. At his initial audition/gig, this kid from Oklahoma was mocked by the Goodman band hipsters for his hick cowboy clothes—until he blew them off the bandstand with 20 consecutive choruses of “Rose Room.” It was the most radical guitar sound the musicians had ever heard. From his first sessions to his last a mere two-and-half years later, Christian’s style never evolved. It was perfect from Day 1.

Dig it! (Charlie’s solo starts at 1:10.)

Another fascinating case: I’ve always had a soft spot for Cheap Trick, though I don’t know their music exhaustively. Like many listeners, I relate more to the relatively raw live versions of their hits on the Budokan album than to the tepid studio originals. The Budokan version of “I Want You to Want Me” has so much more power and passion than the slow, limp, overdub-laden version on In Color. But it wasn’t till 1996’s Sex, America, Cheap Trick compilation that I encountered the original demo of “I Want You to Want Me.” And holy crap—it’s simply one of the most perfect rock and roll tracks ever.

Wow. No overdubs. Monster groove. Fabulous lead vocal. A perfect distillation of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles. With all due respect to this long-running and hard-working band, I don’t believe they ever again nailed it quite like this.

Since I’m already probably picking fights, I may as well blurt out that I view the first Doors album and Are You Experienced? in a similar light. Not that Strange Days and Electric Ladyland aren’t great—just that both Hendrix and the Doors entered the public consciousness with their artistry fully formed, and that they never recorded anything that wasn’t implicit in those initial recordings.

Why do some artists just seem to come out of the chute fully mature, while others need time to realize their potential? And which ones would you include on a “Getting It Right the First Time” list?

38 comments to Getting It Right the First Time

  • jeremy

    Maybe a lot of it is to do with timing; just because the public didn’t previously know of some musician doesn’t mean that they’ve not been working towards their sound for years before. But then finally some opportunity might present itself – like the era of punk/new wave in the mid-70s – and those people finally have an audience ready for them. I mean Television were around years before Marquee Moon made it to vinyl, weren’t they?

    But also it could be the chemistry of new people getting together – still finding their way around each other; unique combinations of people making for unique music. Unfortunately once they get more slick, they can become more homogenized (the right first timers); OR they realise what each bring to the party, and are able to evolve into something even better (the slow burners).

    Off the top of my head, here are some more who got it right first time (who luckily didn’t get too homogenized too quickly): Dire Straits, Stooges, Roxy Music, your mate Polly, New York Dolls, The Smiths, Buzzcocks…

  • Joe, nice meeting you last night.As to your question, I assume it’s a matter of intensity and intention, but sometimes those things happen in combination with an emerging scene/social apparatus.The examples you cited as fully formed have/had tremendous talent,but also the abiding ability to PRACTICE,very often devotedly, and alone, before stepping into their destinies.I’ve been watching interviews with Richard Lloyd today,and although he’s sometimes considered spacey,I find his sense of purpose and history to be revealing;a man who put himself through many changes in order to release whatever has been abiding within.
    You really sounded great at the gig.Thanks for the music. What kind of flat-wounds?……love

    • joe

      The pleasure was mine, Al. Thanks for the kind words.

      These days I love Thomastik-Infeld and Pyramid flatwounds with an .011 on top. I usually go with the Pyramids, because they’re a little brighter, and not quite such a large leap from the tone of roundwounds. Both options are surrealistically expensive.

  • Though he has made great records since, it was all there on Bill Frisell’s first “In Line.” I heard him for the first time live with Percy Jones’ Stone Tiger power trio with Dougie Bowne on drums, before that record came out, at a little club in NY and he was already unlike anything I had heard before.

  • vami

    The Modern Lovers
    Violent Femmes
    The Stone Roses

  • You accompanied Dennis? So great! Awesome guy. Did you guys do “Shitline”? It’s a great story.

    • joe

      Are you kidding? That was our big closer! 🙂

      • Not kidding! I love Dennis’s work, and he is in my experience a great guy. He ran an awesome restaurant in NYC for a while (Old Devil Moon, RIP). “Shitline” always cracks me up, and I think of it anytime I see anyone swimming in a river.

        • joe

          Dennis played in a band I was in many years ago, but he’d left before I started, and we never met—or so I’d believed. I’d forgotten that a mutual friend had taken me to his restaurant many years ago.

          Yup, he was super-cool. 🙂

          • jeremy

            excuse me for joining your tangent, but that’s not the same Dennis Driscoll who played a cop in the video to the Pogues’ Fairy Tale Of New York, is it?

          • joe

            Yes — that’s Dennis!

          • jeremy

            wow, it really is a small world. not that I ever met him, but I used to correspond with him about 20 years ago on a BBS forum; he’d always tell me when Iggy had eaten at his restaurant. 🙂

            now back to the thread…!

  • NotSoFast

    I think for some there is less filter on their self-expression – on their brain to instrument. All of them are coming from some unique place. The ones that take longer I think have to get past the filters or have to discover things that resonate by chance. I’ll bet Charlie Christian had that sound in his head and just had to figure out how to make the guitar “do” it. Simplification of course – I’m sure he learned along the way like everyone else.

    But maybe he learned in less chronological time – Charlie can’t stop playing because he’s got to hear that sound. It sounds good to us. It probably sounded even better to him because he’s tuned to it. He feels it.

    But what do I know? What a great question to ask artists of that caliber if you get to interview them.

  • Shizmab Abaye

    For a real long time I put Led Zeppelin in that category. Outside of “Stairway to Heaven”, and OK “Kashmir” I still do.

    Interesting you mention the Doors. There is a real case of a group whose creative well was only so deep in addition to suffering the excesses of fame and commercialization. On their last recording with Jim M. (LA Woman) their long time producer abandoned them and they pulled it together themselves organically, producing a much better result than anyone could have expected.

    • joe

      Interesting thought about Zep! Yeah, a lot of the template is there from the first album. God knows the lyrics never improved! But so much of my Zep-awe concerns the sheer sonics of their records, and Page’s production genius. And that evolved so over the course of the first four albums, especially between I and II.

      LOL — you could argue that the Doors made their case not just with the first album, but the first 30 seconds of the first album! But yeah, there are flashes of brilliance on all their albums, along with frustrating amounts of dross.

  • NicPic

    The Hughes/Thrall LP back in 1982 was one for Me…It’s just a shame they got little or no airplay…Pat Thrall really shines on that album and Glenn Hughes had the perfect voice to go with the vibe of that record. The sound quality was one for Me that kind of set a standard for the way albums were made back then. My friend and I always referred to it as “The Grand Canyon Sound” I think also it’s Glenn Hughes best version of “Coast to Coast” not to be confused with the Scopions version of Coast’. Two totally different compostitions.

    • mwseniff

      Pat Thrall has been a big fave of mine since the Automatic Man albums. Best of all is his work with Stomu Yamashta’s band Go especially the 2 LP album Go “Live in Paris” I could listen to it everyday if there wasn’t other music vying for my listening time. Pat Thrall’s unique range of tones and sounds fills the place of gutar, keys and synth at times. He was born the day after me on August 26, 1953 making him 60 this year here’s to a long life for him.

      • NicPic

        WOW! didnt realize he was that long in the tooth,,I love Pat Thrall..I actually think the combo of Hughes/Thrall or with Pat Travers was dynomite, and very iconic for Me. He’s a notable influence on Me as well as many others…When I listen to that Hughes/Thrall LP…I swear Joe Satriani took a few ideas from Pat…But,who wouldnt…He’s an awesome player and engineer who, in My view never gets the credit he deserves…Much like Michael Landau,Carl Verheyen…and a host of others that simply dont get the notariety and ink they deserve…

      • Oinkus

        Crossing the Line is one of my all time favorites, shame Al Dimeola plays the live lead I thought ? Love the fills he does in Snortin Whiskey , that harmonized diminished run in the solo is just plain nasty too.

      • Peter

        For some of a certain age, the introduction to Pat Thrall was his 1973 instruction book “Improvising Rock Guitar” and its accompanying flexi-disc.

  • Dan

    Two examples come to mind for me- Julian Swales of Kitchens Of Distinction and J Mascis. Both have that quality of sounding somehow familiar and yet different at the same time.

  • mwseniff

    Captain Beefheart is probably the prime example of this he had the music in his head before he ever put a band together. The sound has a coherence over the many years he recorded before finally giving up music due to the corporate music business models.

    I think Devo fits this pretty well too they pretty much hit it on the first album and basically elaborated on it after that.

    I also think Pere Ubu pretty much defined their sound on the first album “The Modern Dance” although Rocket from the Tombs preceded that it was very different. David Thomas has a very unique sound and his lyrics are very distinctive whatever band he puts together.

    Finally I think Hot Tuna is very much defined on their first release which was a live album. Live pretty much defines Hot Tuna IMHO they have so much energy and power on stage that they can capture the attention of all ages. I’ve seen them more times than I can count and was always thoroughly entertained and awed at the prowess of Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (Jack Casady is a huge influence on my guitar playing even tho’ he’s a bassist). The music of Hot Tuna is so different from the Jefferson Airplane that I feel it is more like a first than a second band for them. If you have never seen them live you really owe it to yourself to do so it is very instructive to anyone that plays live.

  • Peter

    Though they evolved considerably over time, the sound that most people associate with The Byrds (and Roger/Jim McGuinn’s electric 12 string) is almost fully realized on their first single and subsequent album.

    The Sex Pistols’ first single, “Anarchy In The UK”, is a complete manifesto. The sound (and the fury) is apparent even on their early demos. Likewise The Ramones’ first record and even earlier demo tapes.

    Steve Winwood also seemed to arrive fully formed. From his first recordings

    By the way, I hadn’t seen the Charming Riff blog entry before. Those isolated youtubes of Johnny Marr are stunning.

  • Dan

    In Television’s case it seems like the ideas were there from the get go but they seemed to eliminate some obvious influences from the earliest demos. The Eno demo of ‘Marquee Moon’ has some very clear VU touches:

    Maybe that was Eno though. Also Fred Smith’s influence on the evolution of the sound might be more drastic than many give him credit for.

  • w.r.

    From the 90’s era, Rage Against The Machine came out of the chute with a well conceived self-titled debut that seems to fit on this thread. Tom Morello had several more tricks up his sleeve but it was pretty much all there as a band and as an artistic statement.

  • Matt McG

    Django Reinhardt, I think, more than almost anyone else. The earliest Hot Club recordings in 1934, and he’s already playing everything he became famous for. And he’d barely been playing guitar for what, 4 years? [After switching from banjo]

    From about 30 seconds on, everything is there already. The speed, the tremolo stuff, chromatic scales, the distinctive bends, etc.

    • NotSoFast

      Yeah, Django is a great example. On Steve Winwood, while he was there from the start I’ve read comments from him on how hard he practiced to sound like that (both instrumentally and vocally). He said he was trying to sing like Ray Charles. Maybe that says something – some of these people were trying to emulate their heroes but what came out is influenced by who they are.

  • smgear

    Interesting topic. I’m actually having trouble thinking of too many bands/artists that I really love where I didn’t care for their early work, although I agree with a lot of the examples given earlier where the band may have only had one ‘great’ album early on. But that makes perfect sense to me. In the old label system, the first major release was usually the culmination of honing and refining the original compositions and performances over a couple years, so that first release is already a ‘best of’ of sorts. From that point, it seems that about 1/3 of the bands (making up arbitrary numbers here) adopt the practice of ‘writing in the studio’ which can produce some cool stuff, but tends to produce only one or two good tunes per album surrounded by a bunch of filler. Another third tries to ‘explore new territory’ which can result in some cool stuff if the principal writer and producer are both extremely talented, but it often displays their shortcomings instead of reinforcing what originally made them engaging. The last third sticks to what they know, but then risks repeating themselves and/or boring listeners.

    So of those bands/artists that have been lucky enough to have a string of releases (that I personally enjoy), I can only think of a couple examples where I didn’t connect until a few albums down the road. Eels – Wonderful Glorious, Jack White – Blunderbuss come to mind. What puzzles me more is that last segment where the music is great, but it’s all too samey after a couple albums. It’s that uncomfortable fan position of saying, “I love your music, I want more, but play something different this time”. Of course when they try to be different, then I often respond with a disappointed ‘meh’. I think a lot of artists might do better in the long run to just produce their one or two good albums and then walk away. I think in some ways, our minds are only capable of holding a top 10 – 20 tune list per artist in our heads and once that is filled, it doesn’t matter how good the new material is. I think my two favorite ‘song writers’ of the last couple decades are Tom Waits and Ryan Adams and to be honest, the new albums only get one or two listens, even though they’re arguably as good as any of the former.

    Meh, whadyagonnado…..

  • mngiza

    The brilliant “Van Halen” debut album was not improved upon.

  • mwseniff

    Joe as per your section about Cheap Trick I sort of disagree. Cheap Trick used to be a bar band that did the central midwest circuit (Chicago and downstate Illinois) back in the early 70’s. I used to see them mostly at a club called the Red Lion in Bloomington, Illinois and they were basically a cover band doing lots of Beatles tunes as well as other 60’s and even some 50’s tunes like Chuck Berry stuff. They were a very good cover band but a cover band nonetheless Rick Nielsen wasn’t yet doing the mad stage antics back then in the beginning but he was slowly working up to it over the couple of years I saw them there. But I will say that they showed a lot of talent and promise if they did the hard work required (which they obviously did). It was no big surprise to anyone that saw them back then that they made it, but they grew into what the became. But I am an old guy these days heck REO Speedwagon (yuck!!) played the dance at my high school during the class night before I was a freshman in June of 1967, they had a couple of public address horns like you’d use for voice announcements for a PA and they were so loud they were unintelligible only a big dull roar for a sound.
    While I agree there are bands that have a well developed sound or even a vision most bands are the product of hard work and the will to practice even if they sucked at the last practice session. IMHO gumption and sticking to it is what makes folks a success rather than some sort of gift (usually those considered gifted just worked really hard and didn’t give up).

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