Queen and George Michael – “Somebody to Love”

Pic: “iPod headphones: hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.
Pic: “iPod headphones: hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.

While sat on the train this morning I found myself listening to this track when it came up on LastFM. I’ve been a big fan of this rendition ever since it was first played live in 1992 at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. I love the energy and the ‘live’ feel it has – and since the song in its original format was already a childhood favourite the whole package made a very lasting impression.  The experience of listening to this broadcast live was one of the many experiences that got me interested in all things sound-related.

Listening to the song again as an adult, one could bring up all kinds of conclusions about how the writer was feeling about sacrificing a lovelife for life in the rock ‘n’ roll circus, but i’ll leave that commentary either for another time or another (more expert) person to deal with.

What really got my attention this morning was just how patchy a production this recording seems. See, I’m living in a spoiled age where there are many technically great recordings to listen to, from several generations. Yet occasionally, a truly great song bursts onto the scene with huge energy, and the fact that anything was captured to tape at all is nothing short of a miracle.

This for me is one of those songs. The event, the musicians, the song and the soundstage are huge. Some really serious compromises had to be made to commit this song to tape. Yet it’s interesting to hear retropectively where the engineering and production placed the focus of attention. Was it the crowd? Nope. The singer? Nope. Was it… the guitars? Nah-ah. What about the piano or bass? Those neither.

The only instruments at dead-centre of the mix and the soundstage are… The hi-hat and snare drum. These completely dominate the track in a way I’ve never heard before in commercially successful releases. It’s just insane. Everything and everyone else sound like they were playing in a separate room, nay, stadium. And these two disembodied percussion instruments are presented so close to my face that I’m flinching with every beat, fearing I’ll be struck by a flying drumstick.

This made me wonder what the decision process must have been to get there… “Uh, Frank, we’ve run out of channels on the tape. What do we keep? The singer? The bass?”

“nah, it’s alright Jez.  They’ll come through from the stereo broadcast. Let’s give the drums a little more impact. What we really need is more fizz.”

“what? But won’t that sound wrong somehow?”

“maybe, but it’ll be a trademark…”

What the…??? Now don’t get me wrong here, Roger Taylor is a great drummer, and to my ear his HiHat technique did become something of a trademark of his during the 1980’s. But does it really need to take over the song to the point of masking the singers?

Sorry – I didn’t mean to criticise. But i still stand by the fact that i’d choose to mix it differently, which I think would transform the dynamic of the whole song. If i could mix from the (presumed) multitracks i’d also see if I couldn’t make some more out of the crowd and assembled on-stage chorus.

Am I being unfair?


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