|Posted by powerpopclassics on August 8, 2016 at 6:05 PM|
I wrote the basic tune of “Almost Gone” in Columbia, Missouri back in 1983. My inspiration was hearing “Someday Man” by The Monkees one random day, and noticing that its initial chord changes and the changes in “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty were practically the same. Very consciously, I sat down with my guitar and attempted to find a way to use a similar chord structure to create a new song for The Trend. What I came up with was fast, loud, catchy…and lyrically terrible. The title was “She Don’t Like the Shirts I Wear.” It was scribbled out, hastily recorded onto a TDK cassette, and today, is very likely located in one of several trash bags full of tapes slowly melting away in the attic over my garage.
A few months after making that tape, I had a less-than-pleasant conversation with a very pretty Mizzou girl who was upset with me. Things deteriorated to that point that she eventually blurted out, “You don’t own this world of mine.” She was absolutely correct. Her words stung me because I deserved to hear them. After about a week of reflecting on that conversation, among other thoughts, it hit me that “You Don’t Own This World of Mine” needed to replace "She Don't Like the Shirts I Wear" as the hook of my newest song. Such a drastic title change also required me to come up with an entirely new set of lyrics. Since I was the one to whom those words were directed, the theme of the song had to be written from the other person's point of view.
It was not a song that developed easily. While the tune was always the same, the lyrics took many rewrites over a period of years, all under the shortened title "This World of Mine." Eventually, in 1992, I recorded a demo of it, as a punk influenced, up-tempo power pop song, at Jon Sousan's Ambience Studio in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Unfortunately, just a few days after I completed the recording, I wanted to change it around, but could not afford to. I was broke, and too ashamed to send it anywhere. So I gave up on the song and concentrated on projects that were much easier to put together.
Then, last summer, I found (and immediately bought) an original Colgems vinyl copy of "Someday Man" by The Monkees in a very cool used record store in Seaside, Florida. Because I was on vacation, I had time to think about just how much I loved that song, and I laughed to myself about my failed attempt to write a different melody using a similar chord structure. And then that melody came back to me, but slower. Instead of blasting through the phrase "You don't own this world of mine," it was a slower, more reflective thought, which became "You used to own this world of mine." And it stayed in my head. And stayed. And stayed. It needed some form of closure at the end of the chorus, but not complete closure. The lyrics “I’m almost gone” came from another forgotten song called “And the Time Ticks On” that had only two good lines in it. I used them both.
It all fell together when Abigail came home from Ole Miss this past spring to see Marie in the high school musical. While we were all sitting around talking, Marie broke into a Voca Bella song composed by Leadbelly, “Bring a Little Water, Silvy,” which Abigail also knew. They sang it together, and sounded great. Then they held out the last note. I was knocked out. I asked them to hold that note as an "ah" again. And then again. That’s when it hit me. Abigail and Marie needed to be the primary voices behind a wall of backing vocals in “Almost Gone,” layered very much like 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” or Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
As the song became less punky, the countermelody became more important. With an electric piano supporting the song, I tried out styles of several of my favorite keyboardists. After playing the initial riff as much like Benmont Tench as possible, I felt that the bulk of the song should be very conservative, like Richard Carpenter. Then I thought to myself, “You know, Richard Carpenter would put an oboe in this song.” So, I had no choice but to score an oboe part. The idea of an oboe caused me to also dig out my vinyl copy of “Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy and study it. The ‘80’s timbre of the Dream Academy’s production made me want to add a sustained low synthesizer to the normal bass guitar at the bottom of everything. So, in my mind, the instrumentation was set: Electric piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer doubling the bass, oboe, and a zillion layers of backing vocals.
At this point, it was time to play the song for my longtime co-producer, Don Smith. Immediately, Don came up with a number of suggestions in order to create space within the song. Several unneeded vocal repeats were deleted at Don’s suggestion. Instead of those repeats, effective pauses replaced them. Don also believed that I needed to be less worried about whether the song would “fit” into any particular concept, and that its length should not be pre-determined. Finally, and very importantly, Don practically demanded that I play the acoustic guitar rhythm part a little lazy, almost grunge-like.
The recording process for this song was unlike anything I have ever done before. Because Abigail and Marie were going to record with me, I asked Ben to play the synthesizer part. He reluctantly agreed. As my vintage ‘80’s Roland MC-500 ran a click track, I yelled out the notes to Ben. He played them into the MC-500, which captured everything. We did this at home, with my plan being to use the click from the MC-500 as the guide at the studio, which meant that the synthesizer part was already synchronized to it. Ben’s part would already be in the can before we even arrived at the studio. As I explained this to Ben, he rolled his eyes and reminded me that he was doing this as a favor to me, and to hurry up because I was disturbing a basketball game he was watching on TV.
I finished my scribbles on the oboe score, and decided that it was time to find the perfect player for the upcoming session. With the help of Beth Luscombe, who has played viola on two of my previous recordings, I tracked down Shelly Sublett, an oboist for the Memphis Symphony. She graciously agreed to play, so I immediately went to work entering the score into the computer program to make it look like real sheet music!
On May 26, 2016, with Ben’s synthesizer part securely in my Roland MC-500, Abigail, Marie and I, along with Don Smith, Robert Hall, and Shelly Sublett entered Music + Arts Studios in Memphis, ready to get to work. The brilliant Dawn Hopkins engineered our two days of recording. After Dawn transferred the click and Ben’s synthesizer part from my Roland to the multi-track, the girls, in unison, sang a minute of “ah” on nine different pitches, with 10 overdubs per pitch. (On two of the lower pitches, I joined them, until Dawn advised me that they sounded better without me!) As they continued to “ah” for hours, they staggered their breathing on each take. Dawn meticulously then edited out each breath. The multiple tracks of each pitch were mixed together so that the volume of each note could be controlled by a separate fader on the mixing board. We did it this way because a couple of years ago, Dennis Nail sent me a documentary on 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” that explained how 10cc “played” the mixing board to finalize the backing vocal parts. That ‘70’s technology seemed perfect for this song, and hearing Dawn’s layering of my daughters' voices was a true highlight of my life.
Of course, as with every single recording I have made in Memphis, Don Smith served double duty, playing bass and co-producing with me. And my good friend Robert Hall provided the perfect drum part. Direct and simple, yet tasteful. Shelly’s oboe is exquisite, tugging at the heart on each entrance. She played it perfectly during her first take, yet she felt that a change of reed could bring about a more haunting sound. So we did it again, and she was happier. We used her second take, even though she recorded two more.
The mix is Dawn’s, even though I “played” the notes of the backing vocal, raising and lowering my girls’ layered voices according to the changed chords in the song. Don manually handled the echo throughout the song. All three of us were managing the volumes as the song played on. No automation. Live mixing, just like in the late ‘70’s. It was a true joy to control my daughters’ vocals, while Dawn, right next to me, was bringing out “just enough” of Ben’s synthesizer part to make the bottom end have a little “wow” in it.
Even though I wanted to spread the word about this track from the moment we finished mixing it at the end of May, I have patiently waited until now, as it is included on International Pop Overthrow Volume 19. The promo copies of the new IPO are now out. I just received my own copy, and I must thank David Bash for once again including me in the impressive line-up he has assembled! The iTunes single should be available a week from tomorrow. I am truly excited about this release, more for the credits of the backing vocalists and the synthesizer player than I am for myself!
John T. McMullan
August 8, 2016