Some of the most fascinating gems to emerge from the YouTube mines, in my opinion, anyway, are videos of recording and rehearsal sessions from the bands I love. In the era before ubiquitous video cameras and cellphones, the act of filming was less frequent and more specialized. A band might bring in a film crew or journalist to film them rehearsing, which meant lights, cameras, and lots of strangers milling around, destroying the intimacy of the session. Much of the video we see of our musical heroes are either professionally produced concert or music-video footage, or cellphone video of a concert.
But when you love the intricacies of the production and rehearsal process, nothing beats amateur home-made video, usually shot by one of the band members, or someone very close to them, like a family member. This is when you get to see what it’s like to work as a rock star – and I mean work. It may seem wonderful to be able to spend hundreds of hours in a studio, but this, to some degree, is still work under pressure. It may be the pressure of a looming tour, or the pressure of having to come up with a new album that the record company will accept.
One of my favorites is a video shot by Phil Collins in 1982 or so, featuring the members of Genesis, holed up in a farmhouse studio in Surrey, experimenting with sounds and riffs that would one day become Home By the Sea, for the eponymous 1983 album. Released as a DVD bonus video, it’s wonderfully informal. Phil himself walks around showing off his new VHS video camera (he emphasizes it’s not BetaMax). He captures Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and producer Hugh Padgham – who is the splitting image of David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, as they experiment with sounds and licks.
It’s remarkable to observe simultaneously the abundance of toys – keyboards stacked almost overlapping, guitars, amps and pedals, but all strewn around the room in an almost makeshift fashion. It’s equally fascinating to observe the lack of any trappings of stardom. Their cars, their clothes, even the food – just very basic. Phil himself seems as proud of the clunky 8-bit titles that he’s adding to the videos as he is of his drumming and his scratch vocals.
It’s so neat to be able to look back across time, to identify a sound or a riff just being experimented with, knowing that this will soon become part of another gigantic hit for the band.
Perhaps my favorite scene of all, though, is Hugh Padgham making an edit to one of the tunes. This was in the pre-digital world. Bands recorded on 2-inch tape. It was all linear. The more successful you were, the more tape you got to play with. There was no ProTools, Garage Band or DAWs back then. You had tape and you had razor blades. With the precision of a surgeon, he rolls the tape back and forth across the play heads, to find the exact moment – the exact fraction of a second, where the cut must be made. There’s no Undo button to fall back on. He makes the cuts with smooth draws of the razor blade, removes a section and sticks the tapes back together.
“At Abbey Road, they tape both sides,” someone mentions. “Oh,” says Padgham.
There are quite a few of these rehearsal/recording videos available on YouTube. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones often had hangers on as well as artists like Andy Warhol eager to capture this other side of the glamorous business of making music. But the Genesis tapes really make you feel like you are there, like a fly on the wall, watching great talent at work in the most unpretentious of ways.