2021/04/29

Beato Finds What He's Looking For

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Veteran record producer and audio engineer Rick Beato helped lay more of the groundwork for Cultural Ground Zero theory - at least in the music sphere - than any other pop culture observer. In particular, he contributed the crucial datum that rock & roll died in 1996

The cause of death Beato noted in rock's obituary was the genre's final divorce from its blues roots. Digital crutches sold as innovations, like Auto-Tune and quantization, reduced rock album production to an assembly line process. As happens all too often, the tools intended to improve rock record-making instead stripped out all the humanity, and thus all the art.

Rick convincingly defined the flaws that characterize post-Ground Zero music. In so doing, he raised the question of what the quintessential pre-Ground Zero song sounds like. What is the standard that independent artists seeking to recapture what was lost should work toward?

Helpfully for counterculture artists, Rick supplied the answer in a recent video.

Disclaimer: Yes, I'm well aware that U2 deservedly gets grief these days for descending into woke self-parody. I've called them out more than once myself and cited their undercooked 1997 album Pop as symptomatic of Ground Zero music.

But before they became a punchline to jokes about cultural irrelevance, U2 spent the 80s on a musical march from victory to victory. Their records helped lift the culture out of 70s pessimism by, foremost among their achievements, restoring Christianity to pop culture. Like it or not, U2 have done more to keep Christ in the public consciousness than all the cringe Christian publishers and film studios combined.

The band's subsequent fall to the Death Cult doesn't negate their early work spreading the Gospel, but it does make their apostasy all the more tragic.

Which is why it's fitting that the track Beato identifies as the direct antithesis of post-Ground Zero bug music is in fact a Gospel song.

You may hate U2, but give this video a watch. You will learn something valuable.


Highlights:
  • Edge's guitar style is far more complex than meets the ear and deliberately organic in ways that Current Year Auto-Tuned, geometrically perfect audio engineering could never reproduce.
  • Ditto with Larry's drumming. Beato has pointed out that quantizing removes the tension that's essential to blues rhythm. Not only is there tension between the drum and bass, there's tension between each of Larry's limbs.
  • Flying in the face of modern pre-programmed basslines, Adam Clayton effectively jams throughout the song, changing his bassline with every chorus.
  • In diametric opposition to contemporary Auto-Tuned, pitch-corrected vocals, Bono's vocal track isn't doubled. It's done in one take, and it's actually slowed down a half-step instead of recorded slower and sped up. In a crowning touch, Bono's voice supplies notes that Edge purposefully leaves out, meaning that the vocals complete the guitar chords.

Whether or not U2 is your jam, you have to admit they're not hacks being led around the studio by lazy producers - at least in regard to their 80s material. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is a magnum opus produced by inspired craftsmen coming into the height of their powers.

Creators just as talented are out there right now, working in obscurity. They'll never be the Biggest Band in the World; no one will, but emerging neopatronage and increasing public disgust with mainstream entertainment is giving them a chance to find their audience.


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28 comments:

  1. I know boomers who still hate U2 over Edge's comments at the RnR Hall of Fame induction of the Clash, so I do hold a soft spot for them, even if they've become a parody of themselves.

    One of the things that they did which was invaluable was re-attach postpunk to the roots of rock when they were in danger of being ejected. Punk was an attempt to return to tradition, meme aside, and postpunk was tipping close into falling into gibbering nonsense.

    This song, like most of theirs from this time, is different. You can hear gospel, country, traditional Celtic, and blues, in their best material, all coming together to form a whole. This video accurately describes exactly how they did it.

    I would also like to mention that most Irish artists from the '70s to the '90s usually have very blatant ties to Christianity in their sound, even if not explicit. You listen to a band like The Undertones, who came from Northern Ireland during the worst of times, and there is a very optimistic and hopeful spirit to their sound, which is just comprised of silly pop songs about chocolate, girls, and the summer. That Irish spirit was invaluable to a time when rock was leaning towards a more nihilistic trend. Sure, every now and then you got a Sinead O'Connor, but it was rare.

    Also, I'd add, as someone who played drums, that Larry's beat is Meg White levels of "Getting out of the way of the song" that really annoy virtuosos. He could easily play all sorts of fills, but the fact that he chooses the bass drum is because it keeps the momentum moving without taking attention away from the melody or distracting from the smooth transition into the bridge and chorus. There are slow songs that benefit from good usage of toms (Blur's "Blue Jeans" being one of my favorites) but this is a song where the point is being taken by Edge, and he lets him have it. This goes double for Adam switching the bassline to keep attention on the chorus.

    Songwriting is a craft, after all. It's only too bad that young bands these says won't be rewarded for mastering it.

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    1. Having been a bassist back in the day, it's always good to hear from another member of the rhythm section.

      Your Meg White reference is right on the money. Like Meg, Larry is pretty much self-taught. As the video shows, he makes choices few other drummers would under similar conditions, and it totally changes the song's sonic landscape.

      Btw, not until I watched this video did I understand why I could never quite figure out Adam's bassline.

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    2. "I know boomers who still hate U2 over Edge's comments at the RnR Hall of Fame induction of the Clash"

      Just re-watched his speech. Yeah, pointing out that the Clash were a better rock band than the Beatles ruffled some Boomer feathers. Mostly because you can't argue with the way he framed the statement. Beatles = pop. The Clash = rock.

      You can tell Edge's admiration is genuine, too. Bono once said that if the Clash had stayed together, U2 would be hauling their gear.

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  2. Loved U2 when I was younger, and yes, loved this song when it came out. But at the time I was a young punk leaning agnostic and wasn't paying attention to lyrics. Now that I've come back to the church, and see how much of the world is run by the enemy, it's tiresome to have to look so hard for a speck of Christian identity in the media that isn't ironic.


    So while I concede that musically this is one of the best songs of all time, it's frustrating that with all the ambiguity in the lyrics, and the years that have passed since it came out, U2 won't come out and explicitly say what the song is about. The lyrics as written imply that Christ hasn't satisfied him.

    Happy for you to tell me I'm wrong, and explain how the lyrics are in fact pro-Christ.

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    1. Bono has said that every U2 song is about the search for God.

      "I have climbed the highest mountains
      I have run through the fields
      Only to be with You"

      "Yeah, I'd break bread and wine
      If there was a church I could receive in
      Cause I need it now"

      "Lookin' for to fill that God-shaped hole"

      It's not that finding God didn't satisfy the song's protagonist. It's that he hasn't fully entered into relationship with God yet.

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  3. As a Gen-Xer myself, I thought U2's decline started after The Joshua Tree. Everything since Rattle and Hum was out of touch with their roots, and from Zooropa, most work was done by the producer.

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    1. The band did 2 tours on the Joshua Tree, and milking the same material that long had them creatively burned out. I understand fans who wish U2's artistic growth had stopped ca. 1988, but that would have just led to a breakup.

      It was Achtung Baby that proved U2 was more than a one-note 80s band. They successfully reinvented their sound - a feat few acts can claim. Not only did they pull off a successful experimental phase, they crafted their best album (arguably *the* best album) out of it.

      Then they followed up with a mishmash of unfinished tracks from the prior album and a rushed too-little-too-late effort that had them on the ropes for a while.

      Everybody says that All That You Can't Leave Behind was U2's triumphant return to form, and they're right. What they get wrong is saying it hearkens back to The Joshua Tree. Sonically, it's much closer to Achtung Baby.

      U2 learned the wrong lessons from Pop and ATYCLB and have been trying to remake The Joshua Tree ever since, leading to ever-deeper creative stagnation.

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    2. Your opinion mirrors mine. I thought The Joshua Tree was brilliant, then they lost it, then Achtung Baby blew my mind from the first notes. Then they lost it again for awhile, kind of got it back with ATYCLB, and have done nothing worth noting since.

      The Wikipedia article on The Joshua Tree is very interesting. Quick summary: the album reflects their new-found interest in blues and roots music, both American and Irish. Their own musical background had been basically limited to 70's punk rock. This is kind of funny to me personally, as at the time I was exploring my new-found interest in punk rock and its 80's descendants, including early U2.

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    3. Which led to critics unfairly taking the band to task for "likening themselves to" classic American acts like Elvis and B.B. King when they were really paying homage.

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  4. I love Beato's commentary. His in-depth understanding is masterful, and he explains it so well.

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    1. That's the mark of a true master. Doing is one thing. Being able to explain how it's done in layman's terms is a rare quality.

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  5. Beato's thesis holds up well under scrutiny -- the music industry has figured out that they don't need independent bands to make money. The bands are just names and faces for advertising. The music is factory generated, using the electronic studio as mass production, quantifying music as the product instead of the expression.
    Welcome to the 21st century of the performing arts...

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    1. If music is just a commodity, I can get it anywhere and for practically free. That doesn't sound like a viable business plan for the long term, but it could keep one in hookers and blow for a while.

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  6. Rick is really good at what he does. He has great segments on quantizing, and demonstrates how taking a classic drummer performance like John Bonham in Led Zeppelin and subjecting it to modern computer quantization, how it saps the beat of all humanity. His is probably the most in depth and informative channel I've found on Youtube.

    Sadly enough he has had to contend with DMCA takedowns. He is providing an incredible service for these artists and only bringing them to a new audience, but the algorithm don't care. Yet another way in which computers are destroying art and humanity.

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    1. Small-souled bugmen will tell you the algorithms have evolved beyond our ability to keep up with them instead of admitting they're simply broken.

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    2. Ah yes, the super smart magical pieces of code that are smarter than us poor mortals, who created the pieces of code in the first place. Back when these things were mere tools and not worshipped as gods, we were a lot more skeptical (realistic) about what the machine was telling us. Garbage in, garbage out indeed.

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    3. Assume that the algorithm and takedowns are working as intended. It certainly isn't unlikely that studios want to memory hole anything even semi-good to remove any comparison of modern soulless slop to older, better music and no one remembers the people who made it.

      The artists featured by Beato should be knocking down agent and studio exec doors to have their stuff featured on Rick's channel. Get on social media and blogs and scream about how Rick can't even get a Fair Use clip past YT and the studios and agents don't care.

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    4. Rick appears to have worked something out with U2, since he'd previously lamented about obstacles to featuring their music on What Makes this Song Great?

      U2 have an advantage over most other artists in this respect, since they regained their masters when they bought their record label back in the 90s. In a way, they're the biggest indie band ever.

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  7. Achtung Baby in my opinion is the greatest rock album ever. Not a single weak song and the production is better than it has ever been. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois helped to engineer the sound on that album and it shows. If you heard Zoo Station today, you could as well think it was released yesterday. It sounds that good and demonstrates how little difference audio engineering has been able to make in the past 30 years.

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    1. The Joshua Tree has its diehard admirers, and I love the album, but has its flaws. A throwaway track or two on the back half and overall murkier sound quality win it the silver medal behind Achtung Baby.

      I was just listening to AB earlier. Amazingly for a concept album, every song could have been a single. That feat is even more impressive considering that it set the template for all future U2 albums. You've got the tone-setting opener, the power ballad showcasing Edge's newest pedal, the seamy love song, and they're all solid. Even the quirky slow one is interesting - something they haven't managed since.

      Achtung Baby isn't the best rock album ever made, though. U2 know they came within a hair of the holy grail, and it's been eating them ever since. Their continual attempts to remake it led to their creative stagnation.

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    2. Johsua Tree is also marvelous and contains my favorite U2 track, "Where the Streets Have No Name". It might be the most uplifting rock song ever, especially with the longer guitar intro on the live versions. But Achtung Baby might still the most succesful creative reimaginig any band has done to date.

      U2 know they came within a hair of the holy grail, and it's been eating them ever since. Their continual attempts to remake it led to their creative stagnation.

      Now, that I think about it, this is very true. AB and the following Zoo TV tour were their creative peak, even Bono's voice had matured to it's height. Pop and the PopMart Tour were set to be Achtung Baby 2.0, but turned out to be 0.5 There are cool songs on Pop, but it's still a lakcluster. Bono's voice had declined at that point and would only continue to decline. Considering all this, there is some creepy magic to ground zero theory.

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  8. Ground Zero is about where I started drifting hard into alternative and metal. And I said of metal some years back that whatever the artist's intended message, it actually had themes. Good, evil, light, dark, drama. So rock and roll can be gospel with ragged edges, or the blues singer who sold his soul, but it can't be beige pap from the non-moral counter-universe of the bugmen.
    Surprise, surprise.

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    1. This is why rock music has always had an appeal to men over every genre, and probably why it was deliberately neutered.

      Think of any of the best rock albums, and you will get some sense of what gets men going. Whether it be hair metal, punk, blues, or alternative, it connects because it reaches that primal feeling of men sharing pieces of themselves through action--songwriting.

      Don't get me wrong, hip hop and dance has its appeal, but it's a very different sort of appeal. Especially if it's watered down modern stuff.

      But rock?

      If you tell me you can listen to Unsatisfied by The Replacements and not GET it then I'd have to call you a liar or somewhat effeminate. There's a way the genre speaks to men that can't really be matched by any other genre.

      And that's why it had to go.

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    2. This is why the rising popularity of hip-hop among Zoomers is troubling.

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    3. Well have a look at it from this angle.
      Motorhead album: I am a hard drinking, hard living, good-timing womanizer you don't f* with. Hip-hop album: I am a hard drinking, hard living, good-timing womanizer you don't f* with.
      I don't really know what that says about anything much, it's just a thought.

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    4. It's not so much the lyrical content but the musical content. Hip hop doesn't have much to it beyond sampling, beats, and robotic repetition. It's very limited in what it can get across.

      Hip hop can be good music, but it's far more limited in what they can get across with the genre.

      Meanwhile, a Motorhead song like Bomber is a blues punk number that sound very different from songs they wrote 20 years later.

      There is just much more you can do in the genre.

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    5. yeah the beats-sample-lyrics thing was a sort of a folk music for urban kids who couldn't afford instruments or instruction. I don't like the genre but I kind of appreciate its origins. But it depends on other musicians, genres and eras to generate the spare parts it builds itself from. I think the cheapness of it is why the corporate music people like it. A kid playing tunes on a rubber band is charming, a billion dollar corporation deciding That's What Music Is Now is sort of gross.

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