I originally wrote this at somerandomnerd.com in March 2012, but dug it out after getting into the 20th Anniversary re-release of the Stone Roses album again. More about that later…
This Cracked.com article on 10 mind blowing easter eggs hidden in famous albums got me thinking about some Stone Roses tracks. Now, anyone who has heard "The Stone Roses" album will probably be aware of a few things about track 4 (Don't Stop.) Firstly, it has a lot of backwards-sounding guitars. Secondly, it sounds a bit like track 3 (Waterfall)— in a backwards-sounding kind of way. In other words, you might describe it as "Waterfall, backwards." Which it kind of is – and kind of isn't.
A brief overview of the Stone Roses' backwards tracks.
Don't Stop isn't the only piece of "backwards music" that the Roses released. The first bit of experimentation was on their first single on Silvertone, Elephant Stone, which has a backwards version on the B-Side of the 12" single (titled "Full Fathom Five".) If you listen to it backwards, you hear that its a pretty straightforward backward version of the recording. (Specifically, the 7" mix.)
Their second, "Guernica", is on the b-side of the Made of Stone single (their second on Silvertone– released in February 1989, which would have been around the time the recording of the album was finishing up.) Like Full Fathom Five, it's a backwards version of the a-side, but with a slight difference; although it comes in with what sounds quite clearly like backwards guitars, joined by backwards drums and a backwards bassline, the lyrics aren't backwards. The lyrics sound quite nonsensical — at least, I've never been able to make any sense of them. But they are definitely sung, rather than reversed.
Don't Stop seems (to me, anyway) to take this idea a step further. The vocals are "forwards", and the lyrics make more sense than Guernica (or at least they seem to – of course, that might be a case of my being more familiar with them and having built up my own meaning after countless listens; I must have listened to the Stone Roses album more than any other I own. Probably more times than I've seen Star Wars– which is saying something…) But again, it's essentially a backwards version of Waterfall.
…Or is it? Because whichever one you play backwards, you can hear the other song. My guess is that both songs were written together, with the backwards lyric of one feeding into the other.
Finally, "Simone" is a track that appeared on the B-side to She Bangs The Drums, and is a backwards version of "Where Angels Play"— which itself appeared on the B-side of "I Wanna Be Adored", which means (if the information I've found online is complete and accurate) that the backwards version was released before the forwards version.
Backwards versions of backwards versions…
About fifteen years ago, I did something of an "analysis" of these songs. I distinctly remember taking a tape recording of the songs, opening the tape up with a screwdriver and reversing the tape in the hiding (so the "outside" became the "inside") and playing it back— and having my mind truly blown. It wasn't just that the music of Don't Stop sounded like Waterfall backwards – the lyrics sounded like Waterfall's lyrics backwards as well.
A couple of years later, I got a 4-track tape recorder, which made it much easier to listen to backwards music- the way a 4 track works is by isolating each of the tracks on a tape (side 1 left and right stereo, and side 2 left and right stereo.) You can then treat each track separately - record, play back, stereo pan, volume, EQ etc. Great for writing and recording.
It occurred to me that today, you could easily reverse a digital version of the track on your PC, so I thought that hearing the result would probably be far less impressive if you weren't interested enough to put the effort into hearing what they had done (which you would have to be if you were pulling tapes apart), or interested enough in music recording to own a 4-track recorder. In fact, you could probably just find the audio files out on the internet and not have to bother doing anything more than a bit of clicking. But after a little Googling, I realised that people just aren't as interested in the Stone Roses as they used to me (anyone who has heard of "One Love Story" will know that there used to be some people on the internet who were veryinterested in the Stone Roses… but that's a topic for another blog post.)
So, because it's quite easy to do, I pulled the tracks out of iTunes, into Audacity, and flipped them around to put onto my iPhone (I like having some odd things to listen to on the bus.) And it occurred to me that I could do something I couldn't easily do with tape recorders; with digital recordings, you can do "non-linear editing"; that is, you aren't limited to the linear timeline of the tape recording. That means you can easily shift one track forwards or backwards, relative to other tracks recorded at the same time. (Well, you can do that with tapes – but you need more than one tape recorder to playback, plus another one to record, and it all gets very complicated) So I figured that I could also put the forwards and backwards versions alongside each other as a stereo mix – for example, with Guernica playing backwards in one ear and Made of Stone in the other, to hear the differences between the tracks more clearly by pulling out one ear or the other.
Unfortunately, the stereo separation isn't perfect (I'm not sure if it's due to my incompetence, or a limitation of Audacity) - but it's good enough to get the idea.
(Note- this download is made available for educational/research purposes only, by clicking this link and listening this file you agree that you already own a legal version of both Made Of Stone and Guernica, won't tell anyone, please don't sue me etc. etc.)
Doing the same thing for Waterfall/Don't Stop wasn't quite as straightforward. It turned out that lining them up was a bit trickier than I had expected– the beats aren't very clear, so getting the timing right was tricky. Both versions of the track start out with a fade in, so you can't just snap the beginning of the recording – and the fade is slightly different on each of them as well.
Once I had got them both lined up at the point where the lyrics come in (with the line "Don't stop…"), I thought I'd cracked it… until I listened through from the beginning. The guitars (both backwards, remember) were out of sync – not just by a fraction of a beat, but a whole bar. This clearly wasn't working properly.
What I'd forgotten over the fourteen years or so since I was messing around with pieces of tape was that Don't Stop isn't just Waterfall backwards. The mix of the song has been shuffled around as well; it starts out with a fade into what sounds like an instrumental version of the first verse, with the lyrics coming in with the chorus line "She'll carry on through it all/She's a waterfall".
What I hadn't realised until I tried to line up the two different versions is that quite a lot more has been shuffled around; once I'd lined up a particular section of the lyrics, another part would be out by a beat or two, while another section of the song would be out by an entire bar. So, figuring it was probably going to be easier lining up tracks that were playing forwards instead of backwards, I tried flipping the whole thing – so at one point, I was trying to line up Waterfall with a backwards version of Don't Stop (ie. a backwards version of a backwards version of Waterfall.)
Two things I discovered in my investigation; firstly, "Don't Stop" played backwards noticeably speeds up at the end – which means that the actual song slows down as it gets going. This is something I hadn't noticed before – but listening back to the original, you can definitely hear it happening. Forwards, it slows down and feels like it is settling into a groove. Backwards, it feels like it is somehow losing control; its an interesting effect that I don't think you hear very often — but I think it's an effect that you can feel more than hear.
Secondly – and less usefully – Don't Stop has been slowed down. So unless I find the time to work out exactly how much slower it is, timestretch it by exactly the same amount and line it up with Waterfall, there isn't a forwards/backwards version to accompany the Made of Stone version.
(Again – educational purposes, don't download unless you already own etc. etc. But if you do manage to figure a way to match Waterfall and Don't Stop, I'd love to hear about it.)
Music recording technology and the impact on music
So, other than an insight into what people can do with a bit of time on their hands and perhaps an idea of what sort of things the Stone Roses might have spent 5 years messing around with while they were supposed to be recording their second album, why is this interesting?
Well, there is a debate about whether modern recording styles and technology are stripping certain human elements from modern recordings; drum machines, metronomes and MIDI meant that the easiest way to record is in perfect timing, making it impossible for the slight variations in tempo that come naturally – sometimes deliberately, but sometimes not – to human musicians.
For example, if you record in GarageBand, for example, you'll know that it's quite hard to deal with a recording that doesn't fit with where the software thinks the beats should be. It just makes any editing, overdubs, automating effects etc. much more complicated than it needs to be. After a few times, you start to see that it's easier to just fit your performance to GarageBand's timing than to deal with the hassles down the line of trying to make GarageBand fit to your own timing.
If you're recording a repetitive instrument part that lasts for 4 minutes and make a mistake, you can easily re-record it again (and spend another 5 minutes playing through, along with a bit of time to get ready again.) But, most likely with the rest of the band, the producers and anyone else in the studio sitting around with nothing else to do but watch you until you're finished – the pressure is going to build up, rather than go away. And – assuming your recording is already lined up with metronomic timing – you can always just grab a single 'clean' run through and loop it through the track. How many people would notice?
A couple of recording producers have told me about the painful recording process of pop acts just a few years ago, and how the process of recording vocals usually involves recording a line at a time until the delivery is just right. Now, every studio has Auto-Tune. There's nobody forcing anyone to use it – but for the sake of something that not many people will notice (or at least, not be aware of noticing), it must save a lot of time…
Plenty has been written about how technology is changing the music industry the internet has changed the way it is distributed and sold (and copied.) MP3s and iPods have changed the way we listen, letting us carry our entire collections in our pockets, and it saddens me that the art of the mix tape seems to have died out, being replaced by randomised selections from our music libraries, compiled on the fly by a computer. All of this changes the context of how we listen to music in a way that is quite apparent to anyone old enough to remember tapes, and the days before CDs. (If you're old enough to remember vinyl being the main format of music will be even more acutely aware of this.) But I'm not sure if as many people are paying attention to how technology is changing the actual music; the way it is written, performed, recorded and produced. When its used creatively, it opens up new possibilities. But it can just as easily be used in a way that closes things off, and makes the finished result — even of music that is performed live, without electronic instruments or sequencers — just a little bit less human.