October 24, 2010

The best thing they ever did

There's a cover of Guided by Voices' Game of Pricks on the new Telekinesis EP. Here's what Jim Greer, GBV's bass player, had to say about its recording:

By the time I got there Bob was playing guitar, as usual, running through a new song with Kevin two or three times until Kevin understood the structure, which was not overly-complicated. I didn't at first fully understand what was going on, which is to say that we were in fact already recording the song, and that this was the way we often recorded songs. When Bob was satisfied that Kevin had grasped the structure, he turned to Toby and said, "Okay, let's do the vocals." Toby had in fact been recording each of the two or three run-throughs, and I should emphasize that his was a song no one besides Bob had ever heard before. Bob put on a pair of headphones, picked up the mic, and sang in one take the entire song. He may have listened back once, and then, satisfied with the performance, handed them to me, and told me to record a bass line.

I'll admit to a slight panicky feeling, especially when I listened to the song through the headphones and could barely make out the chord progression under Bob's vocal, which was hypnotizing not just for the beauty of the melody but for the weirdly plangent lyrics. Everyone was watching me (I thought). Everyone was judging me (I thought). In fact no one was watching, and no one cared, but on my first run-through I flubbed badly a couple of the transitions. Bob picked up the guitar and ran through the structure standing in front of me, in double time. I got most of it, and had another go at recording. Somehow, I got through a mostly mistake-free take, and by the end had finally figured out what I wanted to do; but we were done. I don't mean just that I was done. The song was done. And when I heard the mix that Toby played back a few minutes later, I realized: the song was perfect.

The name of that particular song was "Game of Pricks," and it remains one of my favorite Guided By Voices songs. Several months later, after Alien Lanes was released, we were asked by the record company to re-record it as a possible single for radio play (those were strange days — anything seemed possible). The re-recorded version, done in a local studio, reflects the fact that we'd been playing the song live for quite a while already. In addition to the added intro section, which Bob came up with in the studio, we played it faster, tighter, and with a few more embellishments (harmonies at the end, additional layers of guitar). In my opinion, this version is worse than the original album cut. It's still really good: I mean, how badly can you butcher such a great song? But it's missing something unquantifiable. And it's that "something," that great unknown, that unsolvable mystery, whether born from spontaneity, authenticity, laziness, beer, or whatever socio-economic weather patterns were circling the sky that song-struck August night, which lies at the heart of anything worthwhile. It is my great hope that its source never be located.

original GBV version, plus covers by Jimmy Eat World and Owen Pallet (from the AV Club covers compilation)

No comments:

Post a Comment