When my son Cameron was about six or seven, he began nosing around in my Beatles books, and saw some of the recording credits. “How could Paul play bass, piano, and organ on the same song?” he asked. “He didn’t have six hands.” Most people with a passing interest in record-making are aware of the concept of overdubs, but I’ll throw out a quick description…
In the early days of recording, the idea was to capture a performance as it happened. The band set up, the recording engineer plopped down a microphone, and they played. If there was a screw-up, they took it from the top. If a singer or instrumentalist needed to be louder, they moved closer to the microphone.
Beginning in the 1960s, thanks primarily to The Beatles’ studio innovations, the whole philosophy behind recording changed. It was no longer about capturing a performance as it happened, but building the perfect version of a song. Bits and pieces of numerous takes were edited together, and additional vocals and instruments were added via multi-track tape recorders. The typical method for a post-mid 60s rock band would be to record a “basic track” or “rhythm track” (drums, bass, a couple of guitars) onto one or two “tracks” (individual recording spaces) of the tape machine. Then additional tracks (guitar solos, percussion, keyboards, miscellaneous texturing, lead and backing vocals) would be “overdubbed” on top of the basic track. On a single-track recorder, like your old VCR or portable cassette player, the new recording would simply erase the old. But on a multi-track recording, everything remains audible. Picture an overhead projector from your early school days — each track would be the sonic version one of those transparent sheets you could lay down on the projector surface, combining to create the full image projected on the screen.
The tracks would then be mixed, ensuring the proper balance of sounds. The Beatles worked their magic with only four-track recorders. If they needed more room, they mixed the in-progress song back down to one or two tracks (“bouncing” it, as they put it), and made the necessary additions on the newly-opened tracks. The process could be repeated, but the loss of fidelity would become noticeable.
By the Use Your Illusion era, 48-track digital (no tape) recorders were the order of the day. With reduction (“bounce”) mixes resulting in no loss of audio quality, overdubs could be almost infinite, and even a single note or word could simply be “punched in.”
As evidenced above, the term “track” itself has a multitude of uses — it can refer to an available space on a recording, a single instrumental or vocal overdub, a basic foundation recording…or even a finished song as it appears on an album, just to add to the confusion.
Continuing our look at the development of the Use Your Illusion material…
Summer 1989 — Eight weeks of writing, work-shopping and rehearsal for the new album were scheduled in Chicago, a seemingly random location chosen by Axl and Izzy. Then neither of them showed up for most of that time. The trio of Slash, McKagan, and Adler attempted to work out ideas in the absence of their two chief writers and arrangers, but Slash called that whole period a “waste of time” that yielded a few finished tunes and a “handful of rudimentary ideas” that they had brought with them from L.A. in the first place. According to the hazy recollections of their autobiographies, Slash and Duff figure the songs that came together in Chicago included “Bad Apples,” “Garden Of Eden,” “Get In The Ring,” the final version of “Civil War,” “Pretty Tied Up” (originally an Izzy song that they finished off in his absence), and “Estranged” (when Axl finally deigned to show up).
February 1990 — Against the wishes the other band members, Axl insisted on hiring a keyboard player to fatten out the sound and assist with the epic synth orchestras he was hearing in his head for his ballads. Dizzy Reed, formerly of L.A. bar band The Wild, became the sixth member of GN’R. (Also, like a wise old uncle, Mick Jagger advised Axl that using keyboards onstage helped keep your vocals on pitch.)
By the rules of rock & roll, adding a keyboard player where there wasn’t one to begin with is the first slip on the greasy slope of musical bloat. What’s next? Backup singers? A horn section? Elaborate stage effects?
Spring 1990 — After the disastrous Chicago “pre-production” sessions, according to Slash, most of the final arrangements of the Illusion tracks were worked out “in literally two nights” on acoustic guitars when all band members finally got together in one room for the first time in months. Songs that had been kicking around the band forever (see previous entry) were given a fresh going-over, old fragments were pieced together and fleshed out, becoming new songs, and Axl finally began his rough draft of the lyrics. At the end of this phase, they had thirty-six demos.
All they needed to do now was get themselves organized enough to take this material into the recording studio. Easier said than done: Slash was still a heroin addict. Duff was a raging alcoholic, guzzling by his conservative estimate a gallon of Stoli vodka per day. Steven Adler was both a heroin addict and an alcoholic, and had more than a passing interest in crack cocaine as well. Izzy, after a decade of living like these guys, had gone clean and sober and was keeping contact with his bandmates to a bare minimum. (At this point, he would often mail in cassettes of riff ideas and demos to the band office rather than show up to sessions.) Axl was Axl, and operated on no schedule other than his own whims.
They did manage to start recording in good faith with Appetite producer Mike Clink, making several passes at “Civil War,” before it became clear that drummer Steven Adler could no longer play. Recording sessions were put on indefinite hold until the situation could sorted out.
June 1990 — GN’R fired Steven Adler for drug-induced incompetence. He was replaced by veteran drummer Matt Sorum, a hard-hitter who kept solid time with no frills or complications. Sourm had played for more bands than anyone could count since the mid-70s, but was most recently the touring drummer for The Cult. The lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between Adler and the rest of the band kept dozens of lawyers employed through the 1990s.
Slash said the first song recorded with Sorum was the Bob Dylan song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” but Slash’s autobiography is (understandably) fuzzy on firm dates — it must have been recorded in a damned jiffy compared to everything else, because it came out on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise/NASCAR turkey Days of Thunder on June 26. (“Knockin’” had been played in concert since 1987, so they knew it pretty well at this point.)
July 1990 — “Civil War” was released to little fanfare as part of the charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, in support of Romanian orphans. It was the final appearance on a Guns N’ Roses song by Steven Adler. (According to one of the band’s counter-lawsuits, the drum track was pieced together by Mike Clink from over sixty different takes because Adler’s playing had deteriorated so much.)
September 1990 — The backing tracks are laid down at A&M Studios, Los Angeles. “Thirty-six [basic] tracks in thirty-six days” as Slash described it, bashed out by the core band with Clink behind the soundboard. These early sessions are pretty much the end of Izzy Stradlin’s recording career with Guns N’ Roses. Slash figured Izzy was there “one day out of three,” and it seems much of his rhythm guitar work was simply lifted from his mailed-in, four-track demo tapes. A close perusal of the songwriting credits on the finished albums shows that, despite being “Mr. Invisible” (as the rest of the band called him), Stradlin had a prominent role in creating the foundation of the Illusions’ strongest songs. “I have a few [songs] on there…” he told a journalist at the time, then almost dismissively followed it up by adding, “…but they all get mixed together. Once they’re on tape with Axl singing and Slash playing guitar, I just look at it as Guns N’ Roses stuff.”
The vocal-less tracks were given preliminary mixes by legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain (Stones, Bowie, Springsteen, many, many others), which were rejected as “too slick.” Another attempt was made by legendary engineer #2 Bill Price (Sex Pistols), and these proved rawer and more primitive — satisfactory. The project was already “over-budget, over-time, over everything,” in Price’s words.
His mixes provided the foundation for the copious, almost suffocating, overdubs that are the hallmark of the Use Your Illusions. Continue reading