The Complicatist : Bradford Cox

Bradford Cox, on the virtues of surrendering to the song

by Gordon Campbell

CD reviews tend to be consumer guides, a few paragraphs that boil the music down to a buy/don’t buy advisory note. At The Complicatist, we’re pointed in the opposite direction. Each month, this column will be featuring a song or album or genre that’s as complicated as anyone cares to make it be. This month, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter talks about doowop.

On or off stage, Bradford Cox of the Atlanta band Deerhunter is a pretty imposing figure. Very tall and extremely thin, he suffers from a serious medical condition called Marfan Syndrome that also afflicted Joey Ramone and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and may well have killed Robert Johnson. Cox writes and sings all of the band’s sonically majestic, guitar driven material. Yet as the monthly mixes that can be downloaded for free from the Deerhunter website indicate, Cox also listens to a very wide range of vocal music.

When interviewed backstage just before Deerhunter’s gig last month at the San Francisco Bath-house in Wellington, Cox selected the 1953 doowop hit ‘Golden Teardrops’ by the Flamingos as a particular favourite. If they ring any bells at all, the Flamingos are best known for their hit version of ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’…so how come ‘Golden Teardrops’ is more of a focal point for him ?

Cox : Its like, dripping with melancholy. It has this vocal intro that’s just so…reverberous, It sounds so timelessly lovelorn. I think of it as being the DNA of all the doowop or girl group stuff that came after it – that branch of melancholy American pop music without any of the accessories. It is just the raw data. The vocal part, especially. If you eliminate all the excess, you come down here to the basic elements of what makes great music so special.

What’s also interesting to me is that so many of these [doowop] songs were created in what were like, music factories, by professional songwriters who had their formulas. Its not at all like what we [in Deerhunter] do, which utilizes almost redundant riffs and repetition and which builds layer upon layer, to achieve its effects. I feel the music of that era was a lot more in tune with something that was almost spiritual.

Campbell : Right. Often too, the architecture of the voices was built on the bedrock of old standards, on something say, like ‘You Belong To Me’ by the Duprees. Old songs and young voices…it really was a killer combination.

Cox : Definitely. The point is, the vocal was the bedrock. My dad sings in barbershop groups. He’s a vocalist, he sings bass. And I’ve explored different vocal ranges. In a rock band, I tend to sing in a very lazy range. But in those doowop groups, the vocalist came first and the instrumentation was muted to complement it. I might even sound like a dumb-ass for even presenting this as an analytical concept…but the way I see it, from the fifties and 60s and onward, accompaniment became more to the foreground and vocals became secondary. Even in those [later] instances where vocalists were to the foreground, it was to express individualism.

Whereas with doowop, the music was much more about collectivism. I mean, I don’t even know who the lead singer or main vocalist in the Flamingos was. It didn’t matter, because his voice was part of a choral effect. Later, ego and individualism came to mean loud rock guitars, loud drums, and the accompaniment overtook the idea of group vocals…

Campbell : It was also kind of miraculous, when you think that the warmth and the intricacy of those vocals was captured in tiny studios, on dinky little labels like End, or Old Town or Ember…

Cox : Or like Veejay, or Laurie. Generally, it had to do with mike placement and echo chambers. And with plate reverb, which were these giant things the size of pianos. You can’t really get that sound now, and most people depend on digital reverb or plug-in software to replicate those sounds, but they can’t really be emulated. A lot of it was in the dynamics. Vocals are an interesting element to record. In a lot of the doowop records that I’m interested in, the vocals were often recorded in groups around a [single] microphone. It was not an overdub situation. You had this real time interaction – between people who were looking at each other and knowing when to arc, and when to ebb. That creates a certain dynamic that can’t be reproduced by a compressor or some other piece of equipment.

Campbell : Interesting that you mention those 60s groups that came afterwards. Arguably, the harmony torch got picked up by the Beachboys, whose vocal training was grounded in a 1950s group called the Four Freshmen. Everybody likes the Beachboys on some level, but what’s your take on them ?

Cox : You can’t see it, but underneath this shirt I’m wearing a Beachboys T-shirt, for Smile. The Beachboys were a great example of a white vocal group that drew on the collective ego – and sure, one of them started pushing in a certain direction and to an extent, yes they were prepared to be his instrument. Pet Sounds, which was their breakthrough album and claim to cultural longevity, was a kind of a one-man show, with Brian Wilson multi-tracking all of the vocals.

In that sense, it is a kind of antithesis to the doowop records I was talking about – in that you don’t have four guys in a room whose common goal is to serve the song. You have this one guy, experimenting with his own voice. I relate to that to an extent, because most of the time when I write, I write by myself. With Deerhunter, I play all the parts – the guitar, drums and bass in a lonely, family cloning of yourself kind of way. But then Deerhunter is also exciting because its not finally about me. It is about the group, and the final interaction between all the instruments. I wouldn’t play the instruments the way all the other people in the band play their instruments. That is exciting, though it can also be a shock.

Campbell : So obviously, at some point, you’re able to let go of the songs. Even though you have all the parts written in your head, you have to watch the other guys take it somewhere else?

Cox : Of course. That happens all the time. Or maybe they start something and I take it somewhere else…

Campbell : Going back to where we started. You picked out “Golden Teardrops.” For people still on their trainer wheels when it comes to doowop, what else do you think is worth their while checking out ?

Cox : Among the white vocal groups, I’d say the Fleetwoods were incredible. And if you want to branch out beyond doo wop, there’s a really amazing single – and its maybe one of my favourite songs of all time – by an obscure guy called Thomas Wayne.

Campbell : You mean, ‘Tragedy?’

Cox : Yeah, ‘Tragedy.’ He was the brother of Johnny Cash’s guitarist [Luther Perkins].

Campbell : The Fleetwoods did a version of that song too, right?

Cox : Yeah. Thomas Wayne’s version is a lot more Memphis. Its more low fi. The atmosphere is just insane. And the Fleetwoods version while its not low fi, does have its own distinctive personality. It is really beautiful. It has a quite beautiful arrangement – by Gordon Campbell.

Footnote : The Flamingos version of “Golden Teardrops” can be accessed here.

and while you’re at it, its worth checking out the group’s lovely version of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ which can be heard in all of its righteous vinyl crackle here.

There’s also a pretty extraordinary 2007 version of the song by some anonymous young white guy with a great voice, here.

The Thomas Wayne hit single ‘Tragedy’ can be heard here.

The Fleetwoods are worth a whole separate story, with hits like ‘Mr Blue,’ ‘Come Softly To Me’ and “The Great Imposter‘ being the best places to start, especially if you can find the a capella versions. Trivia note : Gary Troxel, the male voice in the Fleetwoods, later became the losing complainant in a landmark US court case ( Troxel vs Granville, 2000) about child custody, when he and his wife sought mandatory access rights to the daughters of their son, who had committed suicide. In their court affidavit, the Troxels had argued that their granddaughters would benefit from having access to them, through the involvement in music that this contact would bring. Mr Blue, indeed.