Back To The Future

Elliott Murphy - Back To The Future

So, as both F. Scott Fitzgerald and I sincerely believe, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past …” and now I find myself right back to where I started forty-five years ago – once again enthralled with black vinyl records! And let me bear witness that these obscure round monoliths, these born-again reminders of a golden age of recorded music, sound just as good today as those of us who can remember when a twelve-inch LP was something close to the holy grail like to recall. I think, perhaps only with the exception Thomas Edison’s phonographic cylinders, I have lived through every major development of commercially available recorded music in all its forms. My grandparents even had a totally non-electric record player that I remember being about as tall as I was, and you had to wind the colossal thing up with a chrome handle to get it spinning. Their 78rpm 10″ record collection consisted mostly of John Phillip Souza marching songs and a few country and western records for my grandpa who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. When I was growing up in the 1950’s my parents, who both had showbiz ambitions (although only my father was able to act on his by becoming the producer of the original Aquashow) collected record “albums” that were a series of 7″ 45rpm records bound together in a book like package complete with pages of liner notes and photographs. I imagine that’s where the term “album” actually came from, like a photo album. But by the end of that affluent feel-good decade, the 12″ 33rpm had taken over and our living room hosted a substantial collection of Broadway musical soundtracks like “Oklahoma” and “My Fair Lady.” My mother Josephine, (who always preferred to be called just plain Jo like the Katherine Hepburn character in one of her favorite films Little Women) use to sing along to those records while she fixed me lunch when I came home from school. Magical and blessed memories! Thanks to my mom, I learned how to appreciate a timeless melody when she would sing “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which, by the way, had its Broadway premiere in 1949, the year I was born. My father was a natural born musician who could play any song on the piano and, like my mom, he too liked to sing around the house. Many a morning I’d hear him singing out “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from the Oklahoma soundtrack although, like me, he liked to sleep late so his mornings usually began after ten AM. In a way, I’m sure that whatever I have done musically must have had some connection to those classic Broadway musicals, many of which I actually saw on Broadway myself with my family. I clearly remember seeing Oklahoma (favorite song “Poor Jud Is Dead”), My Fair Lady (favorite song “Get Me To The Church On Time”), Take Me Along (the bouncy title track) and, of course, Bye Bye Birdie (I liked this one best because the story line concerned a rock star being drafted into the US Army and comedian Paul Lynde was hysterically funny). In some fashion, I like to think of my own songs as part of that tradition, a soundtrack to a never made musical or film. Every song should tell a story!

The last Broadway show I saw was (you guessed it) Springsteen On Broadway and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. Bruce told his story, his own sacred testament, with assured conviction and a tenderness toward his early life in New Jersey and connected the dots with a dozen or so of his most well-known life affirming songs. It was a One-Man show in the very best sense of the term – intimate, inclusive and entertaining. I have heard “Thunder Road” many times before but the night I saw Bruce perform it solo on Broadway my eyes teared up. After the show, I told him about a few of the one man shows I had seen on Broadway as a kid, especially Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, and I thought he had taken that tradition a step further and planted the rock ‘n roll flag on Broadway. If you get a chance to see Springsteen On Broadway (will it go on the road? I wonder …) don’t miss it. It’s about as authentic as it gets – one man with one guitar or piano sometimes joined by his wife and partner, the wonderful chanteuse Patti Springsteen, to create an evening you won’t forget. I haven’t …

What was I talking about? Right … vinyl! So, what I always like about vinyl is that by its very format it forces the listener to become part of an all-encompassing cultural experience much the same as films or theater. Maybe that’s the reason I was never a great fan of music videos, I preferred the videos that my own mind would produce when I listened to, say, “A Day in the Life.” A vinyl record is not something you put on while you do the dishes or talk on the phone and you wouldn’t watch a film that way either. Maybe that’s the difference between a great film and a TV show. When you listen to Side one of a Vinyl LP, you sit down, open your ears and mind, maybe even close your eyes (if you’re a true believer), and let the sound and words and images they form infiltrate your consciousness. And then, in about twenty-minutes or so, you get up and turn the record over and let it do its magic again. Get up and do it again as Jackson Browne one sang on his classic The Pretender album. And here’s the trick – the last song on side one better be so strong that it makes you want to do exactly that.

Once upon a time there use to be a job description called “sequencing” deep in the A&R department of record labels and, as it as the last creative step before the mixed down tapes of an album went to mastering, it was of the utmost important. My first album Aquashow was sequenced by a wonderful woman named Shelly Snow who was the assistant (and wife of) Polydor A&R chief Peter Siegel who produced the album. Shelly did a marvelous job by putting what were probably the two strongest cuts on the album “Last of the Rock Stars” and “How’s the Family” one right after the other on side one. And then she started side two with “Poise ‘n Pen” where I pounded out the piano myself finishing with “Don’t Go Away” … what could be a more perfect ending?

I learned from Shelly the importance of creative sequencing, that an album is more than just a collection of tracks and that the order you listen to the songs contained within creates the story-line of the album. Of course, there were always technical specifications to overcome as well, mainly that once you start putting more than twenty minutes of music per side you lose volume, gain distortion and risk the needle jumping off the record. What I really liked was that the mastering engineer would often scratch his initials onto the original master from which the mother or master stamper would produce all other copies. Many of my early albums have “RL” scribbled on the inner groove which stands for none other than Bob Ludwig, perhaps the most famous mastering engineer in modern times, who was chief engineer at Sterling Sound at the time.

Then came CDs and it was a whole other paradigm shifted because not only was there no side one or two, but you could fit up to seventy-four minutes of music on the damn things which tolled the death knell of double albums, which was an art-form all onto itself. Seventy-four minutes is almost twice as much time as on a single vinyl album so, of course, if you got the space you’ve got to fill it and often times this meant for over-long albums with too many songs that should have been saved for a vintage out take collection down the road. And I’m as guilty as anyone else. When I played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982 I visited the festival’s late great founder Claude Nobs at his Chalet in the Swiss mountains. Claude also was a VP at Warner Brothers Records and had just received some early prototype devices of the next step in consumer available recorded music – digital! I remember he had a prototype CD and some on a Beta VHS tape and something else as well. Claude said that digital music could withstand a nuclear war. He was probably right but who would be there to listen?

So, I lived with CDs for decades and was pleased that all of my early albums were re-released in that format. But when I started my own label, Murphyland Records, I literally woke up and smelled the coffee and decided that with our first release Prodigal Son I would make a classic length album that would also fit on a vinyl LP as well as a CD and that’s exactly what we did. And what was really thrilling was seeing the full-size cover of Prodigal Son, which, by the way was shot by my wife by the wharves of the Hudson River in NYC. Cover art is alive and well! It was almost like standing in front of the Mona Lisa without the bullet-proof glass in front of it.

The next phase for Murpyhyland Records will be to begin re-issues of a number of my albums from the last century in limited vinyl editions and we have now begun with 1983’s Party Girls & Broken Poets which was recorded in the shadow of the now-fallen World Trade Centers at Battery Sound. The recording was done during the same period when I was doing a weekly gig at Tramps on 15th Street in NYC and many of these songs were worked out on that little stage. At this time, I was hanging with legendary NY singer and former front-man of the New York Dolls, David Johansen and he was gracious enough to come down to the studio and put on some harp, backing vocals, and dog barking (yes!) on my song “Blues Responsibility.” David liked to cook and as we only lived a few blocks apart around Gramercy Park I would assist as best I could although I am (with the exception of the rare omelet and cheeseburgers) decidedly the world’s worst cook. While David was cooking, and most other times too, he liked to listen to old blues, especially Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith. And in “Blues Responsibility” I tell a bit of each of their stories.

Another valued guest appearance on the Party Girls & Broken Poets album was made by virtuoso bass and shakuhachi player and Violent Femmes member Brian Ritchie who added both slide guitar on “Blues Responsibility” and acoustic bass guitar on the title track. Brian looked me up when he was in New York touring with his band The Violent Femmes way back then and we’ve been friends ever since, although considering the fact that Brian lives in Tasmania (yes!) and I in Paris we don’t get much of a chance to hang out. Brian played bass with me on a number of European tours in the 1980’s and was featured on the live cuts of my Paris / New York album.

I was very excited when I found the original 2 track 2″ tapes of the Party Girls & Broken Poetssessions stored deep in a closet at my mother’s NYC apartment. And risking extra baggage charges brought them to Paris. But when we tried to transfer them to ProTools the results were terrible – warbling and dropouts all over the place. But Gaspard Murphy did not give up and he found Pouisson, a French specialist in restoring old tapes, who actually baked the tapes in a low heat oven for 48 hours. And the results were perfect! Gaspard was able to remix the album completely and the sonic results are truly astounding. We manufactured on 180g vinyl and I think even the staunchest audiophile would have to agree that the results are impressive.

Next up is Murph The Surf and Milwaukee and sometime after the summer we will continue with AprilBeauregard and Rainy Season.

Photo: Claudia Revidat