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The making of "Babylon" : Rolling Stones chase the voodoo down


LOS ANGELES -- "My whole behavior with the Rolling Stones is governed by my first encounter with Keith" recalled producer Don Was. "He sent me a fax before we did "Voodoo Lounge" : "Be in Dublin in three weeks" I wrote back, "What are the songs?" And by fax he says, "That's for me to know and you to find out. Just remember, when you get to Dublin, improvise, adapt, and overcome. P. (expletive) S.: Don't paint yourself into a corner".

Sound advice, recalls Was, interviewed between sessions with the Stones for their latest disc, Bridges to Babylon. We were at Hollywood's Ocean Way, one of several L.A. studios where the band has recorded regularly since the mid-'60s. "Each guy has his own unique writing style", Was observed of the legendary Jagger/Richards tandem. "So there are evolving demos. Mick can sit down with a pad of paper and a guitar and deliver a song, but Keith needs to play with other musicians. He hammers out a song by playing it over repeated sittings, with at least Charlie sitting behind the drums. Then he improvises stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a period of time and culls from the best of those."

Hanging in Studio One, we were watching Mick and Keith discuss a new song, "Thief in the Night", which features a roots-rock groove and a descriptive Jagger vocal. "The rooms here hearken to an era when you wanted a room that sounded good because people were making real music in that room" Was pointed out.
As with the making of many a Stones album, the process was a mix of the familiar and the new. Besides the band (Mick, Keith, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood, Darryl Jones), there was a musician mafia of friends and collaborators on hand, including singer Bernard Fowler, drummer Jim Keltner, and guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Blondie Chaplin; Me'Shell Ndegocello, Wayne Shorter, Lili Haydn, and producers Babyface and the Dust Brothers were among the new ringers. Less well-known, but pivotal to the process, was Pierre De Beauport -- cryptically credited on Voodoo Lounge for "pre-production co-ordination & technical support".

"The first time Keith starts playing chords, Pierre is recording with a DAT" Was explained. "The moment that the notes drop from Keith's fingers, there's a certain feel that, over a period of time, might get passed over in favor of some new direction. But many times we'll find, as Allen Ginsberg said, "First thought, best thought". Keith will say, "Do you have the time I played this in Barbados?" and Pierre will find it immediately. We often find ideas that occurred only in the first moments that are pivotal to the song".

In fact, the Stones are a rock band that records a lot like a jazz band to the extent that they rely on unscripted musical encounters -- which heightens the responsibility of engineers Ed Cherney and Dan Bosworth. "It helps to have people who are alert and flexible" Was pointed out. "The minute anyone goes near an instrument, you'd better be running two-inch tape. There's a number of songs on the album that were recorded on the spur of the moment, where someone was smoking a cigarette, picked up a guitar, and the next thing you know, it's "Flip the switch!" Someone may pick up an instrument they weren't even playing before, and that's your magical take. You can't EVER stop paying attention".

(Posted by Fred Norris to the Sticky fingers journal )

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