There is an unconscionably cruel joke which asks, “Was Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?” to which the riposte is, “The world? He wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles!”
For those that aren’t aware, it’s a poke at Ringo because, while an open secret but officially and emphatically denied, Paul played drums on some of the Beatles’ tracks and producer George Martin had originally wanted to replace Ringo with a session drummer, named Andy White (and did, on some of the early singles), who it was said could keep stricter time.
While I feel some sympathy for poor Ringo, I also see a lesson in band interpersonal dynamics, artistic collaboration and bringing your best talents, well prepared and rehearsed, to any collaborative opportunity that comes your way. You can’t contribute, in an artistically meaningful way, if you don’t bring your artistry.
That’s not to say that Ringo had no artistry. The problem was it wasn’t enough. It is arguable that he wasn’t quite as match fit as the rest of the band, given their punishing stint in Hamburg, leading up to their success. During that period of time, they really honed their artistry. Ringo, on the other hand, joined quite late. It’s not certain that he had gelled, musically, quite as well with the band as he might have, given that additional time and the challenges of playing such a packed schedule of gigs.
When the artistic expression of the Beatles, as a musical unit, blossomed, it has to be said that while his band mates were in at the deep end, experimenting, writing, playing with new sounds, trying out unusual instrumentation and arrangements, exploring new musical constructs and wrestling the studio technology itself into use as another musical instrument, Ringo was largely content (if that’s the right word) to be a bystander.
Whether crowded out by the ambitions of his band mates (many of whom, like Paul, exhibited, shall we say, “Forthright leadership characteristics”) or he simply wasn’t interested in doing anything other than drumming, we may never know. What was clear was that his drumming, now recognised as having its own signature sound, was, at the time, considered to be insufficiently tight and polished for prime time. He didn’t appear to be able to respond, initially, by lifting his game. Perhaps he did, later.
When an artistic collaborator (or three) is in full flight, especially if breaking entirely new artistic ground, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get a look in. Finding a place to contribute your own artistry can be quite a battle. Convincing your collaborators, carried away as they are by the euphoria of creating something new, different and never before heard, to let you add your own touches must have been nearly impossible. On the occasions when you were handed the spotlight and microphone, presenting a sub-standard song or performance doubles the trouble. How much harder would it be to make a meaningful contribution in future if, having been given the opportunity, you did not reach the same standard as your collaborators?
As fond as you might be of Ringo, you can’t class “Octopus’s Garden” at the same standard as “A Day in the Life”. The toneless, tuneless, flat footed, hesitant performance delivered on vocals, in the song “With a Little Help from My Friends”, can’t match the sublime sonic experience of “Eleanor Rigby”. Even the title of the tune speaks to the need to carry Ringo along, like a fifth wheel. At least, that is how it was presented to us, the audience.
The thing with artistic collaborations is that if you are with brilliant artists, who are really hitting their stride, you must contribute at the same level. The only viable choice is to bring your “A” game. If you haven’t prepared, rehearsed and polished your artistry for this moment, more fool you. The only contributions that you can offer which will matter are those that are as brilliant, or even more brilliant, than those of your collaborators. Fortunately, there are many dimensions along which you can shine, but you cannot turn up and fail to shine in any dimension.
How often do you see sullen, surly, resentful band members, grumbling about being shut out of the writing or recording (or production) process, but who, when given the chance, have nothing of substance to offer. Sometimes, their own egos have blinded them to the fact that they need to practice more, find their own voice, to explore their artistry, looking for something original to offer, or just concentrate on the task at hand, rather than playing the part of the rock star. When the task gets serious, you have to have something serious to offer, to say and to contribute. You have to play an active part in the work of creating something worth noticing. If you want to create something worth talking about, the standard required of you is even higher.
You won’t reach the quality bar by turning up late, with an entourage of distracting, peripheral hangers-on, high on drugs, drunk, exuding toxic attitude, with your gear less than fully prepared and without an imaginative, original idea in your head. If you’re too wasted to keep time and follow direction, you’re a total liability and far from contributing to the artistic endeavour, you’re a hindrance. Being clueless or without an imaginative contribution in your head is as bad as showing up wasted.
All of that readiness that you need to bring takes dedication and methodical preparation. If you want to be taken as a serious, capable, artistic collaborator, when the time comes, you have to prepare with focus and purpose. The time to do this is long before the collaboration takes place. Blow it and there is no sympathy for you when you complain about being cut out of the project, passed over and ignored. You might even lose your writing credit, which can really hurt financially.
I think there was a lot of less-than-prepared behaviour exhibited by the Beatles, in the studio. You can see it on documentary film. Sometimes, they are not ready to create. They’re wasted. They’re there, but not quite present. They aren’t giving their best work and their ideas seem to have run dry. OK, they had been worked to death and were struggling to cope with significant, new relationships in their lives and with fame and wealth, but that was the task. That was what they wanted. It was all predicated on their artistry and sometimes that seems to have been forgotten.
In that vacuum, a formidable creative force, like Paul McCartney, will fill the void. What choice did he have? Abandon the project? Should he have burnt through the money and corporate support, indulging the insecurities and habits of his colleagues? None of that was viable. He had to get it done. If the other band members didn’t have songs to bring to the session, if they weren’t ready to play as well as required or they were devoid of novel, artistic ideas to contribute to the sound and the production finish of the recording, whose problem was that?
In the very same studios, for the same record company, not so many years later, a similar drama played out with The Pink Floyd. As a musical unit, this band functioned best and was most commercially successful when the individual members were (again) match fit from years of playing together, but bringing their best things into the studio. In those days, they were encouraging of each other, left each other space to create and generally worked purposely on their goal of making a formidable, collaborative artistic statement. That was The Dark Side of the Moon, a record that still sells well. Then they lost their way.
Some members lost interest in contributing. They would waste time in the studio (or not even turn up), looking for a clue and an idea. Having had such a massive success, the pressure to follow it must have been enormous. In the vacuum of contributions, Roger Waters stepped in and subsequently stepped on every other contribution that was offered.
Somehow, Roger felt that he was a bigger part of the band’s success than he really was. That’s not to say his contribution was not vitally necessary. It was. Rather, it is to say that so was everybody else’s and he was crowding their contributions out. Suddenly, Rick Wright didn’t have any tunes or parts to offer. David Gilmour had to argue to stamp his signature sound on the band’s signature sound. Nick Mason stopped messing with avant-garde tape loops. Yes, they were undoubtedly individually traumatised by the fate of Syd Barrett and by fame and wealth, but again, this was the project. A lot was lost.
In this band dynamic, it was clear that having an idea and being prepared to contribute was essential, but also that when people were prepared to contribute, there had to be space left to allow them to flourish. As a contributor to the collaboration, you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t, if you weren’t Roger. If you were Roger, there didn’t seem to be anybody that could get through to him, to point out when his contributions were and were not up to the required standard. His output became a melange of the sublime and execrable (and I say this as a fan of over forty years’ standing).
When Roger left, the balance between David, Nick and Rick was somewhat restored, artistically, but there was a gigantic hole left behind by Roger which was, in my view, never completely filled. Other musicians in subsequent collaborations were treated as second class. The lyrics never recovered their acid and bite. While David Gilmour, in fact, played the bass instead of Roger, on some Pink Floyd tracks, the poly-rhythms were gone. The venom and anger behind the bass parts was gone. It sounded like Pink Floyd, but it was as if a tribute band were playing the parts, instead of the remaining original members.
They say that a bass player is just a bass player, as if they are generic, featureless, indistinguishable and interchangeable, but I beg to differ. What the bass player does can often stamp an indelible mark on the overall sound of the band. Playing like the original bass player is not the same as being the original bass player, because the approach, imagination and attitude are different and the replacement player never quite extrapolates correctly from their predecessor, or stamps the band’s sound with their own distinctive mark, to the same extent as who they replaced. The latter Pink Floyd, regrettably, recorded and sounded like a three-piece with session player accompaniments.
I like Poly Sampson a lot and her lyrics are very good, very polished and very accomplished, but she does not write with the same agonising pain as a boy who lost his father, pointlessly, in a war, for no legitimately defensible reason and never quite got over the loss. Her cynicism and world weariness, fuelled as it is by her own painful experiences, will never reach those seething heights (depths) and that is no fault of her own. Who would wish such events on anybody else’s life? It’s such a pity that the line up that gave us The Dark Side of the Moon couldn’t find a way to accommodate each other, artistically. Almost, but nobody had the cigar. They never could figure out which one’s Pink.
Queen was an altogether healthier artistic collaboration, in that for significant periods of time, four outstandingly brilliant musicians gave their finest contributions, all of which were unique and new, to create a collaborative brew that, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed. Imagine the challenge of rising to the heights of a Freddie Mercury, but rise they all did. Each one had major hits that they wrote for the band. Queen was at its best when they were all contributing as much as they could and more than anybody else would.
Again, it descended, for a while, into acrimony, ego, and absence from agreed recording dates, conflicting artistic directions and visions and lifestyle choice nonsense. Their cohesion fell apart. Ironically, it was Freddie getting ill that pulled it all back together, for a while and some fine music was made. If any band found a way to be passionate about their art, strut around individually like insufferable peacocks, yet carve out spaces to showcase each other’s best work, it was Queen. What’s the lesson? They came prepared to be brilliant, they were brilliant and they made room to allow their collaborators to shine. When that was gone, it was gone forever. This is not a soufflé that can be reheated, even with three of the remaining members fully committed to the project and certainly not with only two, I regret to say. Even with Adam Lambert on the mic, the band failed to recognise the signature contribution of the bass player.
The best musical collaborations are like a lively conversation. It might be banter, a debate, a heated argument, an uproarious party, the telling of a tragic tale or similar to any number of real life conversations you may have observed or participated in, only musical. Skilful musical collaborations recognise that the integrity of this musical conversation has to be captured and delivered to an audience, so that they can feel involved in it and care enough about it too. If you break that aspect of the music (i.e. it’s conversational form), you give audiences less of a reason to notice, engage with and talk about the music. Like any conversation, there has to be space for every contributor to have their say. Above all, the conversation has to be interesting.
Most artistic collaborations, musical or otherwise, require that each contributor leave space for the contributions of the others and to encourage each other to place their best work in the gaps. In order to achieve that, it’s worth leaving one’s ego at home. Be assertive, but don’t become Artzilla. We’ve all been in the studio with Guitarzilla, Drumzilla, Synthzilla, Basszilla or Vocalzilla. It’s not a very fun place to be, when that happens and certainly not conducive to producing your joint best work.
As a solo artist, you have particular challenges. If you have no musical collaborators, you flirt with your musical conversation beginning to sound like a boring, didactic lecture, rather than a “call and response” interaction. We’ve all been to those concerts too, where the solo artist plays at you, for several hours, without letting up on their intensity, leaving your ears bleeding and your brain bored to tears. All you wanted was some sonic variation, some timbral differences and some alternative melodic lines, produced from a different mind and imagination. Yes, the solo artist might be brilliant, but you get to the point where you can’t eat a whole one.
How can a solo artist produce a work that sounds like a successful, artistic collaboration? Leave spaces. Fill it with the contributions of casual collaborators, if you can, or else get into the mind set of pretending to be different collaborators, writing lines from their point of view. This approach requires that you split your personality, to some degree, and learn to play and write like several different people, but I think you can get there, with some application and effort. It’s no different, I think, to an author, writing a novel, but learning to write from the point of view of several disparate and entirely fictional characters. There will always be something of the author themselves, in each character, but the art of writing fiction is being able to play these different roles and put words and thoughts into the mouths and minds of their characters, in such a way as to be convincing. Musical fiction is similar, I believe.
As a solo musician, the analogy is being able to play different roles and parts in the musical conversation you create, in such a way that the audience forgets it’s just you making all the music. You have to learn to be a distinctive guitar player, bass player, singer, and what have you. The important thing is to simulate that “give and take” which characterises a lively, interesting conversation, but musically. Mozart achieved it. Being a solo musical artist is a little like writing an opera in which you, alone, will perform all the different parts, but as if you were an entire opera company.
Ultimately, a good musical collaboration is all about delicately balancing surprise and familiarity, while maintaining the desired density of musical ideas. All music is about expectation. Either you provide what was predicted, or you confound the expectation. In a well-loved piece of music, it’s all about keeping the listener on their toes, yet singing along and a good artistic collaboration can make it easier to deliver that repetition and surprise.
So, if an opportunity for a musical collaboration (or any other artistic collaboration) comes your way, always come prepared to create, with your best ideas. Don’t play the victim. Don’t cruise while others do the hard, creative work and then complain they weren’t as lazy and demotivated as you were. Be as brilliant as the people you’re working with, but encourage as you would wish to be encouraged.
If you do, only good things can come of it.