The LIVE SOUND MIXING
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The Hunchback of Festival Hall
All Rights Reserved © 1996 Duncan R Fry
I saw a cartoon the other day about digging up old rock stars to go touring again, and this Frankensteinization (Jeez - keep it simple, Dunk. Ed) reminded me that one band who could almost fit this recipe for success would be the Beach Boys, except for one thing - they're not dead!
But they are one of the few surviving relics of a bygone age that haven't slipped this mortal coil and drifted away into that big Fender stack in the sky, and most of them are still alive and kicking (although it was cruelly rumoured on their last tour here that wheelchair access for the stage is now a part of the rider!).
I was a bit of a Beach Boys fan when I was younger, since their music conjured up dreams of a Californian nirvana where life was one endless round of surf, sun, hooters, and a fast convertible with a big throbber under the hood! Sort of like Baywatch is now! However the last time they toured Australia, I passed on it. Trouble was, having seen their disaster of a show the previous time they were here, with Brian Wilson roaming around the stage like he had all the lights on but nobody home, I couldn't bring myself to cough up the bucks to see them this time round.
However, a couple of friends who are die hard Beach Boys fans did go and see the show, and to be fair, although they were expecting the worst, they came away from the show very impressed.
They weren't so impressed with having to put up with interminable special guest appearances from everyone and their dog, plus the complete cast of Neighbours*, but they said that the Beach Boys, when they finally came on, were very good. Looking old, but nicely buffed up and given a couple of coats of tan gloss, they ripped through a two hour set of all their hits and some lesser known album tracks.
Their vocal harmonies were excellent, my buddies said, although they sometimes sounded a little too 'enhanced'. Still, if other bands can use harmony machines to give them the Beach Boys sounds, I guess it's only fair to let the real Beach Boys do the same!
The first time I saw the Beach Boys was April 1970, on their second Australian tour, at Festival Hall in Melbourne. I went with the same two friends, Leigh and Bruce (Your only two friends, Dunk? Ed) and, what's more, I still have a cassette tape of the show, carefully bootlegged on an early 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; the PA consisted of a couple of 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.
Incidentally, I tried the same method quite a few concerts in those days. Until the Rolling Stones brought out 'Get Yer Ya Ya's Out', live albums from rock artists were very rare. In fact the Stones one was only released after a bootleg live album called 'Live'r Than You'll Ever Be' sold so many copies in the States that it rocketed up the album charts there! If you ever get offered a copy at a flea market, don't hesitate to buy it. I've already knocked back several worthwhile offers for my copy.
So, in the 60's, if you wanted a live tape you had to do it yourself. I did a ripper of a tape at the Led Zeppelin Live at Kooyong tennis centre outdoor concert in February 1970. You couldn't book seats for the show - once the gates were opened it was open slather, so those of us with our little cassette recorders formed a flying wedge to bag seats down the front facing one of the speaker stacks. By crikey, it was so loud there, on the tape you can still hear everyone squeal with pain when John Bonham wanders out on stage and does a roll around the kit.
At the Who and Small Faces concerts this method was less successful. Sitting in the front row for all four shows (I was a real Who fan), I got carried away and set the recording levels way too high, and ended up with a couple of 90 minute cassettes of nothing but very bad distortion. Had I been able to see into the future I could have let Lou Reed use them for his "Music from Metal Machine" album. Yes, they were that bad!
You had to be careful about this style of recording. I remember sitting in the crowd at Kooyong again, for a Stones concert, and luckily this time I wasn't wired for sound, which was just as well since the bouncers heaved out at least three people who were trying to tape the show. The trick was not to get noticed, to keep everything under cover.
My friend Leigh was an audio purist, who frowned on cassettes as not really being Hi Fi enough for 'serious' recording, and so he was determined to smuggle a reel to reel machine and a battery pack into the Beach Boys concert! I don't mean a tiny little Nagra, either! It was a Sony professional, with 5" reels, and it was the size of a small suitcase.
"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 put the microphone around his neck like me, strapped the machine on his back, wrapped some sweaters around it, then put on his jacket on over the top. He lurched through the entrance doors of Festival Hall with us, smiling and dribbling at the bouncers, 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!" Leigh 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 Leigh on the back and said "Enjoy the show, mate." We were 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!
I should point out that we weren't intending to make fun of the spinally disadvantaged; it was just that with the publication of Terry Southern's soft-core porn classic 'Candy', smuggled in by mail order from the USA, we had, like the heroine, acquired a hunchback fetish of enormous proportions!
So how did the tape sound, I hear you ask? Was this Hi-Tech (for 1970) worth it? Well, the recording was certainly sparklingly clean and clear. The Beach Boys would probably have sounded good, too, but unfortunately all you could hear on the tape was Leigh's tuneless humming and singing drowning out the music!
The moral to this story? Well, Hi-Tech or Low-Tech, sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut!
*Neighbours: An Australian soap opera with hordes of fanatical devotees in the UK
A shorter version of this story first appeared in Connections magazine