Live recordings the hard way
Since this is the CX recording issue, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the trouble that my friends and I used to go to getting early live concert recordings – for our own listening pleasure of course, not to sell!
The first concert I recorded was the Beach Boys at Festival Hall in the 60s. I still have the cassette tape of the show, carefully bootlegged on my mono Phillips cassette recorder with the microphone hung on a string around my neck! This method of recording worked really well. The Beachies weren’t too loud; in fact in some parts they were whisper quiet. The PA consisted of a couple of McLeans’ columns each side of the stage and some horns on the stage roof.
Since we were about half way down the hall the cassette’s mix sounds pretty good, even after all these years.
My friend LL was an audio purist, though, who frowned on cassettes as not really being Hi Fi enough for ‘serious’ recording, and he was determined to smuggle a reel-to-reel machine and a battery pack into the concert! I don’t mean a tiny little Nagra, either – it was a Sony with five inch reels, and it was the size of a small suitcase. We used to call it the Watergate model since all the reporters at the Nixon Watergate hearings seemed to have one.
“You’ll never get that past the guys on the door,” I said. “Sure I will, no problems,” he replied. And he did, too.
He tied a microphone around his neck like I had done, strapped the machine onto his back, wrapping it in a couple of sweaters, then put his jacket on over the top. He lurched through the entrance doors of Festival Hall with us, smiling and dribbling at the security staff, looking like Quasimodo in a Harris Tweed sports jacket.
“Is he alright?” one of the attendants asked me. “Does he need a wheelchair?”
I took him aside. “No, don’t worry, he’ll be OK once he hears the music,” I said. “He’s really quite normal, you know – apart from being a hunchback!”
LL played the part for all it was worth, rolling his eyes and drooling, gurgling “Music …music!” Any minute now, I thought, he won’t be able to stop himself from saying “The bells…the bells!”
The attendant led us down to our seats. There were a couple of tense moments when he patted LL on the back and said “Enjoy the show, mate.” I was sure he must be able to feel the tape recorder, but I guess he didn’t feel a hunchback every day and really had no idea what they felt like!
So how did his tape sound, I hear you ask, compared to my cassette? Was this hi-tech (for the 60s) worth it? Well, the recording was certainly sparklingly clean and clear. The Beach Boys would have sounded good, too, but unfortunately all you could hear on the tape was LL’s tuneless humming and singing drowning out the music!
Hi-tech or low-tech, obviously sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut!
In 1970 the same gang of us were ecstatic when we heard the news that the Stones were coming to play at the Kooyong Tennis Centre, an open-air stadium that was the traditional home of the Australian Open for many years.
We had all seen the band on the previous tours in ’64 and ’65, where they played the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, and despite the forecast 40+ degree heat for this show we were determined to see them this time too, and hopefully record the concert for posterity.
This was a risky gig to tape – as we sat watching the show, at least three people were hauled out by the bouncers, with mics and recorders trailing along behind them. But LL, leading his usual charmed recording life, had disguised the Sony by putting it at the bottom of an Esky, covered it with a plastic bag full of beer and ice, thereby managing to neatly combine recording and drinking in the one action.
In fact the recording nearly stops before it starts, since the first thing you hear on the tape is “Lookout – shit, you’ve just poured a beer over the tape deck!”
Nowadays thanks to nanny state OHS and promoter greed you can’t even bring your own water into a concert, let alone a slab of beer!
Oh happy days (Fry drifts off reminiscing. Ed)
And then, with an “Aye aye, ‘ere we go,” Mick and the boys launch into Brown Sugar, followed by the single’s flip side Bitch, both tracks featuring Bobby Keyes on Sax. Ragged, rough, but everyone’s mostly in tune and they rock along.
The whole of the stage was covered in a white cloth, hiding all the amps, with a canopy over the top to (unsuccessfully) protect the band from the heat. At one stage on the tape Mick says “God it’s ‘ot,” and later on “It’s not just ‘ot…it’s f**kin’ ‘ot!” as he throws a large basin of water over the front rows of the audience.
People tend to reminisce about this concert as if it was a major ‘tour de force’ show for the band but the reality of the tape recording tells a very different story. The mix, if there was one, was really bad. Mick Taylor the new guitarist was way too loud, and apart from Mick Jagger, were the only things you can really hear – the rest of the band might as well have stayed home!
My recollection of the PA system is of a whole lot of smallish grey boxes and not much bottom end grunt. This is borne out by the sound on tape – a lot of midrange honk and grating top end.
The songs grind on, some good, some plodding, and some sounding extremely unrehearsed. Gimme Shelter is followed by Keep Me Happy, then Tumbling Dice, Sweet Virginia, Honky Tonk Women which kick along pretty well, then All Down The Line, Midnite Rambler, and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
I imagine that somewhere in there must have been Satisfaction, but it doesn’t seem to have been preserved on tape. The concert finishes off with a very ragged version of Street Fightin’ Man that’s so sloppy and out of time that Mick stops everyone half way through the intro, and they start it again!
In retrospect, it wasn’t the best concert we’d ever seen – it dragged on a bit, plus the boys didn’t play particularly well, probably because of the heat or jetlag or too much Courage Export lager or too much Bob Hope. But listening to old tapes like this is rather like looking through an old photo album. We all look like badly dressed fools with too much hair in old pictures – well I do!
I like to think of these tapes as living acoustic souvenirs of the era, warts and all, rather than compare it to a pristine studio recording. Not that you could ever complain about Rolling Stones albums as being over-produced!
CX Magazine – Dec 2019 Entertainment technology news and issues for Australia and New Zealand – in print and free online www.juliusmedia.com
© CX Media
Lead image: Still from ‘The Rolling Stones. Brown Sugar, 1973 live Melbourne‘ [YouTube]
More reading on concert http://www.milesago.com/tours/stones73.htm and https://bit.ly/2QC2mpe
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