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Posted: Fri May 01, 2015 7:32 pm
by Mike McCarthy
Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" is one of my favorite recordings -- a piece of true production art that I want to analyze right here, right now, before your very eyes.

[An aside .. I love the "Infatuation" video but I'm not going to review it. Suffice it to say that I found it hilarious and extremely well done in spite of its low budget. In fact, I usually love low video budgets because they force the director to get creative, as was the case here. Would the song have sold as well without this or some other video? I dunno. If our resident producer Tom Werman reads this piece I hope he'll speak to the matter. But I digress ...]

Follow this link ...
and form an overview of the piece. Then we'll talk details. However, before I get into the heart of the review I want first to tell you a story about this recording ...

One day in ... it must have been late 1988 ... I was on an airplane headed east out of Denver, traveling from the Golden MIDI studio in a high rise apartment in downtown Denver to my wife's and my computer consulting business in a high rise apartment in midtown Manhattan. I was in an aisle seat listening to a James Brown album on my Walkman through my low end broadcast engineer headphones, the album case resting on my unfolded tray table. We were somewhere over Kansas when the person seated to my right touched the album case with the index finger of his left hand to get my attention. With his right hand he made yapping mouth finger motions suggesting that he wanted to talk to me. Okay, fine, I love to talk about music. I stopped the tape, took off my headphones (I don't ever use earbuds and neither should you) and, with raised eyebrows, waited for him to begin.

He said that he was a drummer and that my headphones made him curious whether I too was in the music business. I said that I was in a strange little corner of it, running a small company that was pioneering the creation and distribution of MIDI cover sequences for computer bands, and that I was our producer. He said that he had played the drums on "Infatuation" and that he had a producer war story for me if I would like to hear it.

Well, sure. I like war stories. Who doesn't? I invited him to proceed. To this day I don't know whether his story is true. It sounded fishy at the time yet the drum track in the piece, which is substandard, is completely explained by his tale of woe which I will now repeat as if it had in fact been true ...


The drummer was from a small town in PA not far from where I-80 bisects the Delaware Water Gap, which straddles the PA/NJ state line. (His hometown was probably Tannersville but I really don't recall.) Anyway, for a couple of years he had been trying to break into session work in NYC. One day he got a call from ... drum roll please (pun not intentional) ... Rod Stewart's producer, who was recording at ... ... it may have been the Record Plant across the East River from midtown. Could my seatmate come to the studio immediately (as in right now) and work with a kit that was already set up?

Sure he could -- it was the break he had been working for. He jumped in his car and drove to the studio as fast as he dared, making it in a little less than an hour. The session was just he and the producer. He did a take. And then another. And then yet another. And so on, and on and on and on. The producer was never satisfied. He finally threw my seatmate out of the studio after five hours. My seatmate never worked in a NYC studio again, yet he swore that the track on the recording is one of his takes.

I have two reactions. First, five hours isn't a lot of time for getting drums tracked on what's expected to be a major studio piece. In fact, in an interview elsewhere on the internet our resident producer Tom Werman mentioned once having worked with a drummer for three days before he was satisfied with the drums work. Second, assuming the "Infatuations" drums track was in fact done by my seatmate, it really is substandard The general public won't hear the problem -- much of the drums work is actually quite good -- but the producer probably threw his hands up in despair over the drummer's high hat work, which truly doth suck, see below.

(What did I mean by quite good drums work? Well, I like my seatmate's basic simple style. It's hard to beat straight ahead drumming done by someone who has really good time. However, he didn't do his fills homework. He didn't pay enough attention to Ringo Starr, another straight ahead drummer, the best in the world.)


Get ready to listen to the piece again, this time stopping at some interesting moments that I will specify below. In the meantime, pay attention 007 because I first want to talk about the piece's overall song structure.

[Another aside ... My son, the former science fiction author and former Wired Magazine science columnist Wil McCarthy, deliberately named his son Quentin so that his son's nickname inevitably would be Q, this in honor of the Bond film head of the technical gadgets lab. But again I digress ...]

To begin with there are actually three intros. They start at the following points in time ...

0:00 -- Hammond synth patch with fast Leslie effect playing a swirling chord that is the telescoping of the notes of the coming second intro, but in a different register and with a different voicing, with a nice flourish at the end (in essence the same chord bumped up an octave) that overlaps the beginning of the second intro. I'd never seen this trick before, nor have I since. I like it but would never have thought of it on my own. For me it reveals an essential musical truth about the relationship between chords, arpeggios and melodies.

0:06 -- Fat synth bass playing a simple bounce riff, running on top of a scratch-guitar-like rhythm synth part. I love the combination but it soon disappears and is never heard again. The ecological niche that this part occupies is later filled by tick-tack guitar work. I like it that stuff too but I would have at least tried to keep the synth bass-and-rhythm-keyboard part as well. Perhaps the producer tried this and decided it made the piece too busy given everything else that's going on. What's left is very nice -- wonderful in fact -- but to my ear it clashes with the second intro. (But that's just me.)

0:14 -- Here begins the short (third) main intro, which ends at 0:23 in the sense that the vocals are added at that point, and all the musical characters therefore have been introduced. It is the end of the beginning. However, this intro doesn't really end in the sense that the machinery of the main intro continues to run. Part of that machinery is the bluesy rock guitar work that runs in counterpoint to the tick-tack guitar. (Which may be a sequenced synth part, I'm just not sure.)

... ...
... ...

Wait. Stop the presses. I just realized that the purpose of this review is to wake you up, not put you to sleep. I'd better close out that drummer back story now beginning with an assertion that this drummer's high hat work is atrocious. You will hear the sound of a closing high hat at the timecodes listed below. (On some of the snare hits it sounds to me as if the producer has used a noise gate to somehow trigger a sustain of the normal snare wires decay. Don't confuse this with the sound of a closing high hat. Why the producer did this I've no idea. If it was actually the drummer adding the illusion of a sustain through quiet hat work then the drummer's work is even worse than I've been thinking.)

Here are the high hat closing sounds give or take half a second ...


I really, really, really like this recording and have listened to it at least 250 times since discovering YouTube five years ago. However, it took me forever to perceive what little structure there is to the drummer's hat work. I realize now that the deep structure of the part isn't random, but it's in terrible taste (single hit high hat fills simply do not work), like wearing a shiny metallic yellow suit to a funeral. I cannot feel this part and therefore have not been able to commit it to memory even consciously much less subconsciously, which is the norm for my eidetic memory for music I like.

There. I feel better now -- much better. Back to the review ...

The producer likes synthesizers as much as he likes guitars. After the first chorus the tick-tack guitar part continues to run, but now it's supplemented with a high register techno synth part running in perfect counterpoint to the tick-tack. (As I write this I realize that both parts are sequenced.) This new part uses the same notes as the tick-tack but the melody is different, and the notes of the tick-tack are the notes of the early synth bass melody, which in turn are the notes of the opening Hammond chords. I don't know who this producer is -- haven't looked him up yet -- but he is a genius.

Synth horns make their initial appearance during the first chorus, at 1:53. From this point on the arrangement gradually gets busier and busier. I'm not going to dissect all the detail, all the contrasts, all the tensions and resolutions. To do so would take thousands of words. I will simply say that in a very real sense, the entire piece up to 2:30 has been an elaborate intro to the Jeff Beck guitar solo, which runs on top of all the wheels-within-wheels machinery the producer built for us so laboriously element by element earlier in the piece.

If the producer had opened with this part of the recording it would have been Darkest Africa, a jungle to be hacked away vine by musical vine if we were to make any progress in understanding the piece. Instead he educated us -- promoted us from one musical part to the next -- until we were able to function as adults in the busy mainline technopop world he created especially for us, the listeners and buyers.

Again, genius at work.

The outro begins at 3:40 and now the producer has a problem. He's had us in high earth orbit but now he has to bring us back to dry land safely -- and he's only got about twenty seconds in which to do it if he is to get significant radio airplay. Let's see how he pulls this off ...

... Well, of course. A fadeout while the full race Formula One instrumental machine continues to run in sixth gear at maximum RPMs, with Stewart reprising the vocal bits at the ends of the choruses. Anything else would be like suddenly denying a serious alkie the otherwise destructive chemical on which his life has come to depend, leading to delirium tremens followed by death.

But this is not just any fadeout. No, indeed. At 3:37, just before the fade, the producer adds a slow echo of Stewarts' singing the word "infatuation" to break the hypnotic trance. Then he forces us to listen as, beginning at 3:51, Stewart starts to play with vocal meter, with a feel that is every bit as sophisticated as James Brown's.

And now let's find out who this genius producer is ...

I google "personnel infatuation song stewart" ... and no producer is listed other than for the video, done by Michael Omartian, who is also credited with keys, percussion and backing vocals. (What percusssion? What backing vocals?) The song turns out to have been written by Rod Stewart, so I will guess that Stewart and Omartian co-produced the piece. And oh by the way the horns are real, not synth patches.

My respect for Rod Stewart has just risen enormously, and I will not forget the name Michael Omartian, whose audio and video work I will now be watching for.

Oh ... Percussion and backing vocals ... I get it, they're elsewhere on the album. (Face palm.)

Finally, I was never able to afford model trains, and anyway I never had the space for them, but I love to read about the subject. Rod Stewart is well known in the model railroading community for his very large HO layout, which he built himself. His career in the music business is quite irrelevant to them other than as an explanation of how he can afford to engage in this very expensive hobby on such a massive scale. This is his true life avocation, and when touring he spends his off hours in hotel rooms scratch-building houses, locomotives, factories, rolling stock and so on. In a parallel universe he is a major supplier of ... stuff ... to these hobbyists, who are a very interesting cross section of the First World.

Here's a quick profile of what put Stewart's setup on the cover of Model Railroader Magazine, written in 2011 by one of his surprised music fans ... ... el-trains/