The Power Of Production

File this under Yet Another Candidate For A Saying To Be Known As “Baruth’s Law” After My Death: Enthusiasm for the accoutrements of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner. Consider, if you will, auto racing. I have never met a front-running talent who truly cared in any way whatsoever about the brand, layout, “DNA”, or “heritage” of the car he was driving. Nor are these people historians of their sport. The people who make history rarely read it. Conversely, any time I meet someone who blabs on and on about their intimate connection with Porsche or Ferrari or Shelby, they are absolutely garbage behind the wheel. To some degree, I can personally attest to the way this process works; I started off as a Volkswagen fanatic ham-handing my way around Ohio roads, obsessed with the difference between 8-valve and 16-valve GTIs, but I ended it as a fellow who can match data with any but the very best racers and who is also entirely indifferent to the particulars of what I’m driving or where I drive it. Achievement in a subject is the mortal enemy of contentment within it.

Music is not an exception to Baruth’s Law — in fact, it aligns with the Law so closely that we can use it to detect a flagging of ability in musicians. It is no coincidence that men like Slash and Jimmy Page become progressively more obsessed with their guitars as their musical drive and creativity gradually fades. The Jimmy Page who recorded the “Stairway” solo with a beat-up Telecaster in a hallway is not the same fellow as the Jimmy Page who used a TransPerformance-equipped Gibson Custom Shop R7 Goldtop to play the Zep reunion show thirty-four years later. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. John Mayer was obsessive about his gear from the beginning, featuring a Novax Expression on the cover of “Room For Squares” and then moving to an intimate relationship with the Fender Custom Shop before developing the love-it-or-hate-it Silver Sky with Paul Reed Smith. Those exceptions, however, are few and far between.

What causes the death of enthusiasm as proficiency increases? I suspect that it is a variant of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” trope. As kids, we want to believe in the superiority of a particular car, bike, or guitar; as we actually learn to operate these devices we begin to see them as tools with limitations to be overcome. You start by pulling Excalibur from a stone, but after ten years of close-quarters combat you find yourself cursing the thing for having too shallow of a blood groove. About twelve years ago I caught the gig of a very talented seventy-something bluesman who had made his name playing Les Pauls but who on this particular evening was sporting a beat-up PRS CE bolt-neck. “Why aren’t you playing the Les Paul?” I asked him. “Don’t you miss the tone?”

“Ah, fuck tone,” he spat, “the Gibson is too damn heavy for my old shoulder. And it never did sound that good anyway.” Which made me wonder: If equipment doesn’t matter, and tone doesn’t matter, what’s left? The answer, of course, is production.

Here’s the song “You Can’t Hide Love”, written by noted R&B creative Skip Scarborough and originally performed by the band “Creative Source”. I doubt you’ve heard it before, unless you’re a fan of the rapper Cesar Comanche who sampled it for “Hands High”. I am also certain that most of you, upon hearing it, will look around for the sudden appearance of Anchorman Ron Burgundy. Yet a few of my readers might recognize the lyrics, even if they barely recognize the tune. That’s because although Creative Source didn’t last long, and their records didn’t sell particularly well, this tune caught the ear of Maurice white, the driving force behind Earth, Wind, and Fire. Looking for some material to round out the end of EWF’s ambitious live/studio double album, Gratitude, White created a new arrangement and production for “You Can’t Hide Love,” renaming it the more efficient “Can’t Hide Love” in the process. Let’s check it out.

This is still, legally speaking, the same song as the one above — but can you see why the first one was a hippie-era throwaway and the second became an R&B standard? White added a horn line to the beginning, making this one of two famous soul songs from this decade where the defining horn theme was added by a producer after the song was written. (The other: Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love”.) The Gratitude album spent time on top of two different Billboard charts, while “Can’t Hide Love” went to #11 on the Billboard R&B chart and obtained a Grammy nomination for vocal arrangement.

Forty years ago, people weren’t as shy about jumping onto the cover-song bandwagon, so “Can’t Hide Love” was immediately picked up by a few artists, including Carmen McRae:

Listening to this, there’s no evidence that Ms. McRae ever heard the Creative Source version. A few years later, Dionne Warwick brought out her own take:

This one is notable for the solid-gold Yacht Rock credentials of the studio musicians involved: Steve Gadd on drums, Jeff Porcaro on bass, Steve Lukather and Jay Graydon on guitar. Unfortunately, the deviation from Maurice White’s template don’t help the song, and the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts.

“Can’t Hide Love” has been covered about a dozen times on major-label recordings and hundreds of times on YouTube. Last week, while my son and I were on another one of our five-hour skatepark roundtrips, we listened to, and ranked, about twenty of the YouTube performances. What fascinated me is that none of the covers — and I mean not one — fails to incorporate significant parts of the EWF version. The original Creative Source track might as well not exist. The way I like to think of it is this: When Skip was writing the song, he had a nearly infinite number of possibilities for its performance. The Creative Source version represented one potential “timeline” for the song, but it was not definitive. Then Maurice White got a hold of it and basically collapsed the waveform, quantum-computing style. There is now only one way to perform “Can’t Hide Love”. That’s the power of production: it collapses the limitless possibilities of a particular song into profitable but limited realities.

The best proof of this: sometimes the covers are so “on the nose” that they might as well be identical, as is shown here. In particular, the drumming is almost always beat-for-beat.

After listening to about twenty different covers, John gave his award for “Best Cover” to this drum-centric rendition above. “It has the most changes to it,” he noted. He also noted that it was virtually the only cover version that didn’t let the beat drag. “If you want people to listen to you, I think your new version has to sound faster than the old one.” And although John is a novice bass player who already owns two instruments and is likely to inherit everything from a Fodera Yin-Yang to a Carvin B24 Elite, he didn’t care much about the kinds of basses being played in the songs. “It matters a lot more how they sound,” he offered. Which makes me think that he will quickly progress past me in his development as a musician. I’m still very interested in the tools; I’m still very much an enthusiast; when it comes to music I still am, and always will be, third-rate.

21 Replies to “The Power Of Production”

  1. AvatarFred Lee

    Exception to “John’s Rule”: I think even Curt Smith acknowledged that Michael Andrews’ slower and simpler cover of Mad World is superior to the Tears For Fears original.

    Good article. I think another aspect is just that there is only so much time in the day. Being an enthusiast is time consuming. Being proficient is time consuming. Having a life is time consuming. You can pick two of those things, but probably not all three.

    When I was dating, I used to marvel at the profiles of ladies whose hobbies were running, biking, skiing, traveling, windsurfing, hiking, and feeding the homeless. But the reality is that they cannot bend time. If those are all their hobbies, then they’re really bad at all of them.

    Likewise the enthusiast who immerses himself in motorsports history. The hours spent reading the forums, buying and poring over books, etc.. is time not working on driving skills.

    I am decidedly a cycling enthusiast. I love spending all weekend tearing down and rebuilding one of my many, many bicycles. I’ll consider the weekend a success even if I just get a test-ride in the driveway with a new groupset. But (partially) as a result I’m nowhere near the cyclist that someone who spends the whole weekend doing structured workouts is.

    My conclusion at this point in life is you have time to do two, maybe three things pretty well. For many of us work is one of those things. Being a parent is one more. Lots of people sacrifice good work or good parenting to focus on their hobby. Not many can do all three, and nobody can do all three and a fourth as well.

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      Leo Fender couldn’t play guitar or bass. Laurens Hammond was so profoundly tone deaf that he’s been described as “amusical”.

      Recognizing one’s limitations can be liberating. Bob Seger’s career improved when he decided that he wasn’t a good enough guitar player to be the next Jimi Hendrix and concentrated on his songwriting. The same is probably true for every great luthier and amp/gear builder. Dave Friedman is better at building amps than he is at playing guitar. Paul Reed Smith is a better luthier than guitarist.

      Sometimes you have to recognize what you are good at and what you aren’t good at. I’m much better at tinkering than I am at practicing harmonica. If I had spent the last 5 years practicing playing, I’d probably be able to demo the Harmonicaster myself, but then I wouldn’t have it to demonstrate.

  2. AvatarDavid Florida

    For roughly the one millionth time, I find myself muttering “it’s not the tool, it’s the man.” Thanks, Jack, this was a great piece.

  3. AvatarHop

    These were all the Baruthian Laws I could turn up. Not in order…

    1st Law: As the length of an online discussion or comment thread regarding the Camaro grows, the possibility of someone mentioning a Mustang approaches 1.

    2nd Law: As the length of a discussion concerning automobiles and fuel availability increases, the possibility of some Manhattanite or Portland-dweller making an absolutely uniform, uninformed, completely ridiculous statement regarding mass transit approaches 1.

    3rd Law: Enthusiasm for the accouterments of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner.

    4th Law: Never use buttons when you can use a knob.

    • AvatarTyler

      @Hop: you forgot my favorite, the circle-shaped Venn diagram of Hayabusa owners and fans of Wu Tang Clan. Could also make an argument for the less-quotable but more broadly applicable “money and breeding” vs. “white trash” conclusion of the Audi equal-pay analysis.

  4. Avatardave

    I doubt you’ve heard it before, unless you’re a fan of the rapper Cesar Comanche who sampled it for “Hands High”

    Cesar Comanche is not a producer and thus did not sample anything. The Hands High sample is from the legendary producer and Duke University faculty member 9th Wonder. It was also sampled by equally legendary producer Pete Rock for Pete’s Jazz.

  5. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    There are numerous examples when a cover is more popular with some folks than an original artist’s version. For myself this would include Hendix’s cover of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, Johnny Cash covering NIN’s Hurt and almost any bluegrass cover of rock/metal/pop songs, the first group that got my attention was the following

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      Even Dylan does Hendrix’s arrangement when he does Watchtower live. He’s said that Jimi made the song his own.

      • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

        I wasn’t aware of that. I’m glad he recognized the talent of Hendrix and was willing to incorporate it into his playing.

  6. AvatarTyler

    I’ll amend the observation re: creation vs. production: the true professional’s workflow is iterative (see: the spoof video for Nathaniel Rateliffe’s “I shall never grow old”). And they have done Their Thing so many times that, as you say, they become utterly agnostic as to the means, and their “instincts” seem preternatural, where in fact they simply develop a bunch of alternatives and cycle through them very quickly to pick out opportunities to make choices that have worked in the past.

    I’ve found that the “fast-riser” frauds in the workplace deploy a variant of this:
    (1) lay claim to a process by getting control of the easiest-to-understand and most-accessible data it generates,
    (2) fire it into a prettified report to higher-ups month after month and emphasize that the “observed trend” is the cause of some other big problem while making no effort analyze the relationship between the two (referring to anyone who raises an objection about causality or data quality to be “making the perfect the enemy of the good” or “being 20/80 instead of 80/20”),
    (3) demand resources to address the “identified gap”, critically including a new tool which will paper over the original data, and if necessary recommending that some old-timers who call bullshit get taken out behind the woodshed.

    As long as you get promoted within a year or two, it’s genius. All of the adulation and rewards accorded actual talent, 8.6% of the work.

    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      The spam filter doesn’t like too many YouTube links but Janis Joplin’s performance deserves more than just a link.

  7. AvatarDaniel Sharpe

    It’s interesting. I used to think bands were lame if they covered a song, especially a popular one. That changed about 10 years ago when Seether covered Pearl jam’s “immortality”. Not far behind was Five Finger Death punch with “Bad Company”. In my opinion both far superior than their originals.

    I’m not sure how much my opinion counts when much of my listening is still EDM, and many DJs/producers still use samples/covers from popular music.

  8. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    I’m sure that Skip Scarborough didn’t mind Maurice White turning his song into a hit. Songwriters live on residuals.

    I remember Arlo Guthrie introducing City of New Orleans in concert by mentioning how Steve Goodman had no objection to him making a hit out of it. He also joked about how he could be playing there or he could be playing on his porch, it didn’t matter much to him, but it did to his manager.

  9. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    Don Nix wrote Going Down but everyone from Freddie King to Jeff Beck (including Nix’s own ’72 version) has used Leon Russell’s arrangement for King. You’ll even find Russell listed as the writer of the song in some sources.

    Don Nix isn’t as well known as he should be. The same can be said about Roy Head.

  10. AvatarRick T.

    I always thought it was interesting that “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was successful with three very different versions:

    Marvin Gaye
    Gladys Knight
    Creedence Clearwater Revival

  11. AvatarEric L.

    Unrelated. Did you read the newest Neal Stephenson book, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.? It’s no Anathem, but it’s well worth the price of admission. Nicole Galland’s (who??) influence leads to a few irritating hand-holding sessions on quantum mechanics.

    Also, much belated props for quoting The Diamond Age a few months ago. That one refuses to age, which is kind of disturbing.


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