Normally when I write these ‘albums you should own’, I’m writing about an album by a performer. Today is rather different – I’m discussing a compilation album featuring performers as diverse as Bobby Vee, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis and the Monkees. Nonetheless, there is an overall artistic voice to the album, but it’s not a performer, or even a songwriter or producer (although he does take on all those roles at various points during the album) – it’s the arranger, Jack Nitzsche.
The job of the arranger, like that of the professional songwriter, is very much a dying art in these days of the self-contained band, and many people reading this will have no idea what an arranger does, so a brief explanation is in order. An arranger is someone who takes a song and works out what instrument will play what part. This may sound like a trivial job, but in fact it’s the single most important step in the progression from a song to a finished record. Every time you have heard an instrument playing something other than the simple vocal melody or strummed chords to a song, what you’ve heard is the work of an arranger – either a formal arranger, or (more usually these days) a producer or band member taking on that role. An arranger will come up with a bass-line, string parts, decide when the music should build and when it should fall off, decide when there should be a solitary flugelhorn and when there should be a barrage of electric guitars.
Many of the best arrangers in the last few decades have doubled as producers – like George Martin or Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones – and the job of arranger as a separate job is mostly a historical one, with most of the most accomplished arrangers (like, say, Nelson Riddle or Fletcher Henderson) having their success in the big band era. Jack Nitzsche is one of the few arrangers who made a very successful career in the rock era. While he did other work, both as a performer (having a hit with the instrumental The Lonely Surfer ) and as a composer of film scores (he wrote the music for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest among others) as well as being an occasional member of Crazy Horse, Nitzsche’s main claim to fame was as an arranger, working with artists such as Neil Young, The Tubes, the Neville Brothers and others.
But he’s best known for, in essence, being Phil Spector. Nitzsche arranged almost every hit record Spector produced (with the exception of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, which was done in a deliberate imitation of NItzsche’s style when Nitzsche couldn’t fit it into his schedule) and he, not Spector, was responsible for the ‘Spector sound’. While Spector produced some fine records after stopping working with Nitzsche (such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies Man) none of them had the ‘Spector sound’. Nitzsche, by contrast, was able to make ‘Phil Spector’ records with or without Spector, as well as having the ability to create great records in other styles.
This stylistic variation is evident in the first two songs in this compilation. The opener, Hard Workin’ Man, is a song written by Nitzsche and Ry Cooder and performed by Captain Beefheart for a film soundtrack. Essentially a rewrite of Mannish Boy but in the style of Howlin’ Wolf rather than Muddy Waters, it’s a metrically distended driving blues driven by percussion like hammers on metal, and shows that even the slickest LA session musicians can make ‘authentic’ Chess-style Chicago blues if directed by an arranger who understands the genre. This is then followed by Nitzsche’s own Surf Finger, an instrumental that is very much in the style that Brian Wilson would use a few years later for the Pet Sounds instrumentals, all reverbed guitar and echoing percussion.
Much of the rest of the album is in the ‘Spector’ style, some of it (such as the Righteous Brothers’ magnificent Just Once In My Life, a good contender for most powerful single of all time) actually made with Spector, but much done in collaboration with others. Some of these tracks will be familiar, like Merry Clayton’s It’s In His Kiss or Frankie Laine’s I’m Gonna Be Strong, both oldies staples to this day. But others are revelatory. Baby I’m So Glad It’s Raining by the Satisfactions (a song so rare it had to be mastered for this release from a crackly acetate) is a magnificent over-the-top grandiose ballad of the type the Ronettes were known for , building from a quiet arpeggiated guitar/harpsichord in the verses through the bridge to a chorus which sounds like every instrument in the world is there. As Long As You’re Here by Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful sounds like the Spoonful turned up to eleven, with jew’s harp solos and gigantic overblown arrangements reminiscent of The Modern Folk Quartet (Spector’s attempt to create his own Lovin’ Spoonful soundalike band). And Don’t Touch Me There by art-punk band The Tubes is just magnificent, Nitzsche pastiching himself absolutely deadpan while the band sing:
The smell of burning leather as we hold each other tight
As our rivets rub together crashing sparks into the night
This moment of forever, darling if you really care
Don’t touch me there
There are also a couple of examples of the country-rock that Nitzsche became known for in the 70s, including the original of I Don’t Wanna Talk About It by Crazy Horse (later a hit in a soundalike version by Rod Stewart). The best of these is a version of Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield song Mr Soul by the Everly Brothers, arranged in the style that Nitzsche would later use for Young’s first solo album. Slowed right down, with wailing soulful female backing vocals, steel guitar, wood block percussion and picked mandolins, it’s a magnificent example of the arranger’s art.
On top of that there are a few songs, like the Monkees’ Porpoise Song and the Turtles’ You Know What I Mean that are classics of sixties bubblegum pop, and a few oddball tracks like a collaboration between John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis.
Not everything on the album works, but the highlights are so stunningly good that this compilation is one of my all-time favourite albums. On top of that, anyone listening to it will be able to hear the common threads that run throughout Nitzsche’s work, no matter what the genre and no matter who the performer or ostensible producer, and will get a better idea of what an arranger does, and the importance of good arrangements to a good record, and may get an idea of what is missing from a lot of substandard records.