MLK, among so many other things, was music.
The rhythm and melody that permeated Martin Luther King, Jr. was evident not only in the way that he moved and spoke, but in the way that he inspired musicality in others. One of the greatest orators of our time – or any other – King’s mastery of language made his speeches lyrical as well as life-affirming.
In his non-violent pursuit of civil rights equality, an a cappella delivery of MLK’s words were sufficient to stir deep passions – he didn’t sound like bagpipes or a cavalry bugle, but hearing his voice makes you immediately electrified, and once more strong for the fight.
“Pride” – An Emotional Ride
It’s no surprise, then, that his influence is imprinted within what people traditionally refer to as music – songs with singers, guitars, beats, bass, and keyboards. On the sampling front from Michael Jackson to Paul McCartney and Common, the Orb to Linkin Park and scores of others, MLK has served as a powerful sound source.
Arguably, one of the greatest-ever musical tributes to MLK stands out in the form of “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, U2’s masterpiece from the 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. Riveting from Moment One, “Pride” is one of those cosmic confluences that defines a classic: the beautifully rhythmic guitar work of the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.’s big beat is simultaneously complex and simply satisfying, Adam Clayton’s musing bass foundation. And then Bono’s incomparable voice comes, starting off in the verse’s quiet awe before soaring to the hair-raising heights of the chorus.
“Pride” is a structurally simple song, and this upward spiraling cycle gets broken only by the bridge. At the 1:40 mark appears what is certainly the most uncomplicated guitar solo arrangement ever recorded in the history of rock: eight consecutive repetitions of the same single note, exquisitely energized by the Edge’s unique battery of delay pedals and other effects.
If “Pride” is up your alley, then your experience of the song is 3:49 of perfection. Anywhere your ears land at any moment – vocals, guitar, bass drums – what you hear is deeply moving, and builds momentum as the song surges forward. The gang vocals that appear in the third chorus are the perfectly imperfect element that somehow takes “Pride” even higher, connecting band and listeners to the song’s history-changing hero – a campfire singalong where 1,000,000 people can easily join hands.
As did MLK himself, the song accomplishes so much in such a short span of time. And in yet another parallel, rather than diminishing, the power of “Pride” only grows with repeated exposure.
View from the Studio
One person with a unique perspective on U2’s musical monument to MLK is the New York City-based engineer/mixer Kevin Killen. Working alongside The Unforgettable Fire co-producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in his native Ireland, Killen was present for the numerous recording sessions that brought the song together.
As part of the engineering team that had recorded U2’s War record and Under a Blood Red Sky mini-LP live album, Killen had already been treated to a front-row seat of the band’s considerable capabilities. As is well-documented, The Unforgettable Fire’s first set of sessions took place at County Meath’s picturesque Slane Castle, enabled by a portable 24-track recording system supplied by Randy Ezratty’s mobile recording company Effanel Music. After a month of work at Slane, U2 and the rest of their crew relocated to the more controlled conditions of Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios to finish the record.
Before it could reach the pristine state we hear today, Killen reminds that “Pride” had to overcome some serious struggles before its completion at Windmill Lane. “There were two issues,” Killen recalls, taking a break from a mix session at Ezratty’s studio in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood. “Bono hadn’t settled on finished lyrics for the song, and so we were constantly looking at the arrangement to see if there was something about it that was preventing him from getting the words finalized. And Larry’s drum part was proving to be tricky, especially getting the roll right going into the chorus.
“But then Bono was finally able to get the lyrics the way he wanted, and execute the track. It wasn’t one particular word that was a problem, so much as he was just trying to get the exact sentiment to express. He knew what he was trying to say, but he was challenged just trying to get the right thing.”
The gestalt moment – when Bono found what he was looking for – was instantly apparent to everyone at Windmill Lane. “The first time he sang the finished lyrics everyone in the control room looked at each other and said, ‘That was definitely it,’” says Killen. “It was so obvious that he felt comfortable singing that lyric.”
The poetic final lines had arrived. They were written about the great Martin Luther King, Jr., but they could have been said by him just as easily (and indeed three of them were), in one of his unforgettable speeches: “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your pride.”
Much of “Pride” had already been recorded to that point – suddenly the moment had arrived to launch it to the next level. An AKG C12 mic was waiting for Bono, connected to the preamp of an SSL E Series console with an LA-2A compressor inserted across the buss output.
As the singer was approaching the mic in the live room, Killen stepped up to the proverbial plate in the control room, one hand at the ready on the remote for the Otari MTR 90 tape machine – the young engineer was poised to pop a punch-in that he’d never forget.
“He sang it in one take,” Killen says. “I remember punching it in on the tape machine: Every hair on my body stood up. It was such a spine-tingling moment. He said something so concisely, so perfectly, about MLK’s life.”
Killen had the extreme privilege that only an engineer, producer, and an artist’s bandmates can experience: to be there for the magic moments of a classic song’s studio recording, getting the very first listen of a sound that will reach millions of ears for years upon years.
And, of course, Killen wasn’t the only one whose spine tingled at the sound of “Pride (In the name of Love)”. Released as the lead single for The Unforgettable Fire in September 1984, it was the biggest hit yet for U2, breaking the top 5 in the U.K. and the Top 40 in the U.S. While its peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 was only #33, “Pride” was inexorably connected to turning U2 in what it is now – a very, very, very big rock group.
“When the band got here in 1984,” says Killen, “there was a very positive reaction to that track. And that was a very special period, stemming from the fact that the band were trying to do something different from their previous three releases.
“On that tour, they went from playing small 2,500-seat theaters to 4,000-seat theaters. Six months after that, they were playing arenas, so U2 saw their own career take off from that album release, up to a different level. And when you see them play ‘Pride’ live, you realize that it’s bass, drums, guitars, vocals, and no embellishments. It just works very well — very powerful, and very emotional.”
When great leaders emerge, their power to inspire action and art is a gift uniquely theirs to give the world. Growing up in Ireland, it’s reasonable to expect that Kevin Killen had no inkling that the life of Martin Luther King would help fulfill the aspiration held by so many in the music industry – to have a role in the making of a timeless song.
“At the time that we work on them, most engineers hope for songs to become classics,” says Killen, whose GRAMMY-winning career continues on, with hit records for clients including Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Jewel, Bon Jovi, Shawn Colvin, Shakira, Sugarland, Bryan Ferry, and Duncan Sheik. “When you get to be a part of one of them, or a number of them, it becomes pivotal in your career. You’re forever associated with the project, and that can never be taken away from you. Whether your participation was large or small, you’re always connected to it.
“When I sit and listen to ‘Pride’,” he continues, “I can remember that pivotal sequence of events that occurred when the song went from being difficult to record, to being realized. You look around the room, and realize you’ve captured a very special moment. That moment stays with you forever.”
Engineers and producers who crave that sensation need no small amount of luck to be in that right place, at the right time. But Kevin Killen knows that audio pros who are focused on the music can also turn their quest for a classic into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Obviously, we all want to work with an artist that has something to say,” he points out. “Our job is to somehow set the stage so they can truly express themselves in that environment, without judgment, and convey what they’re trying to get out there. If you can be a part of that process, it can be incredibly rewarding not just for yourself, but for the artist.”
In a magic case of things coming full circle, one light that made MLK shine so brightly was that he enabled many millions to express who they truly were, as well.
Equipped with his voice and views – and often aided by a microphone – Martin Luther King, Jr. engineered a movement that unequivocally impacted the world. U2 were among the many who have heard his call. They went on to reflect that spirit forever in a song.
No matter what your walk of life, the chance to somehow have a hand in a timeless work — or even an Earth-changing attitude — may be closer than you think. You too may create something that qualifies. All of us should certainly try.
– David Weiss
SOHO, MANHATTAN: Whether you know it or not, you’ve been listening to Jesse Harris a lot. For this NYC music man, the song — sung by him or somebody else — really is the thing, and his songs get around.
It was Harris’ pen that produced one of the most enduring singles of the millennium in Norah Jones’ three-time GRAMMY-winning “Don’t Know Why”, from the 2002 album Come Away with Me. Not surprisingly, he’s been busy ever since with a body of work applied to film, theater, TV campaigns and an esteemed list of singers for his songs that include Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Cat Power, Solomon Burke and Emmylou Harris.
While it seems Harris could simply wile away the hours churning out song ideas and checking in on his royalty statements, the fact is that he remains a prolific performer and solo artist in his own right. The end of the summer saw him releasing two albums with the nocturnally-themed Through the Night, his ninth full length, alongside of the instrumental Brazilian-folk-soul of Cosmo. He’s been touring globally in support of both of his latest babies, and two NYC shows are on the docket this week (December 10th at Zebulon playing Cosmo, followed by December 12th at Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2).
Unassuming about himself and his consistent success, our conversation with Harris provides a state-of-the-art update on top-tier songwriting careers. Do you have what it takes to get there? Before you make another sound yourself, listen up.
You’re wearing multiple hats with your activities. Do you identify yourself as a singer/songwriter? Producer? Performer? All of the above?
I’m all those things, although I usually say I’m a singer/songwriter, a producer, and a performer.
The term “singer/songwriter” is thrown around so often now that I think it’s worth taking another look. In your opinion, what does it actually mean today to be a singer/songwriter?
I think traditionally it connotes somebody who plays mostly acoustic guitar, and writes songs with lyrics that are in the folk rock traditions — and sings them in usually small clubs (laughs).
But a singer/songwriter these days can be into so many types of music. It’s not like the 1970’s where if someone said “singer/songwriter” you knew they were coming off of folk music like Bob Dylan, although there were a lot of them then who were influenced by jazz. Today Beck is a singer/songwriter and raps. Cat Power and Feist are singer/songwriters that are something else. There are a lot of different styles to a singer/songwriter now.
I think many people would see your career and say that you epitomize the possibilities of what a singer/songwriter can accomplish in the 21st Century. Where has being a singer/songwriter taken you, personally?
It’s taken me into a lot of different experiences — it’s taken me all over the world. But I think you mean in terms of having my songs performed by a lot of other artists, and that’s something I always wanted to do. In my first group (the duo Once Blue with Rebecca Martin) I wrote songs for the singer, and from early on I made that a criteria for my songs in writing them, that they would be flexible in that way.
Whether I epitomize something, I don’t know. It’s like anything else: certain things go well, other things are more difficult. I can’t say anything is perfectly ideal. A lot of songwriters write songs that only sound good when they sing them, but what I’m referring to is writing songs that can be covered, and have a life of their own.
How do you do accomplish that – create a song that you think might do well when it’s covered by someone else?
I think a lot is in the lyrics. But then it’s also in the melody — if there’s a concrete enough melody. There are a lot of people who are good enough singers, that write songs that don’t have a distinct melody, but they can pull them off because they’re good singers. A song that other people can sing has a melody that’s solid and discernable.
For example, on Through the Night, there’s one song that already has been covered. It’s a tune called “Way to Be,” a singer in Argentina translated it into Spanish. That’s a recent one in particular that I think can be sung by another person.
How were you approaching getting your songs covered when you got your publishing deal with Sony, in the 1990’s?
Nobody was really pitching my songs — I was pitching them myself to singers after Once Blue broke up. I met Norah Jones just on my own, we started a group together, and she started singing my songs in her group. That didn’t happen as a result of a business plan, and most of my songs that are sung by other people are from personal connections. That’s recently changed over the past year: More people know who I am, so they approach me and ask me.
And then you write something custom for them?
I’ve done that. But now people mostly want to co-write. In the ‘60’s, they’d call a writer and say, “Do you have a song for this artist?” Now people want to cowrite it. In order for me to say, “Yes”, I have to feel a connection to their music so we can do something good together. People want to co-write today because it’s so hard to make money – they want to have a co-share in the publishing.
What’s the business that goes up around a song once its been recorded, and becomes a hit or semi-hit?
It’s simple. You need someone to collect your publishing, and have your songs registered with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. That’s about it. These days, people try to license songs off of commercials for films – it’s a good way to make money off songs, because record sales and mechanical royalties are down. You can make money if a song gets played on the radio, but only certain songs get played on the radio. You can also make revenue if your songs are played in live performances, but that’s only in certain circumstances.
The current Corona TV campaign features “The Secret Sun” from Jesse Harris’ Through the Night.
What are the big things that you’d say you’ve learned as your career has continued to evolve?
I don’t know, I figure it out as I go along. I really do. I take it as it comes.
In the past four years, I’ve been producing a lot more albums. It seemed kind of natural, since I always produced my own records. I’ve found myself in situations where artists asked me to produce records because if people get a sense they like working with me via songwriting, they might get a sense that they want me to produce their music.
You put out two albums together at the end of the summer – Through the Night and the instrumental Cosmo – both of which we really enjoyed. Why do a simultaneous release like that?
Again, I didn’t plan it that way. I was going to make “Through the Night”, and in the midst of that when John Zorn asked me to make an album on his Tzadik label, I figured I’d make it instrumental. As it happened, those came out at the same time. I thought, “What’s the difference? Just let them come out together.”
In retrospect, did it make a difference?
Actually, it has! It’s been interesting, because I’ve been dividing my time between instrumental music and playing the songs from “Through the Night”. I promoted them together and made a couple of videos myself for them.
You’ve stayed true to NYC, remaining based in Manhattan. Are you set up to record in your home?
I don’t have a personal studio. For a demo, I don’t need anything more than to sing it and play it on guitar. I only need Garageband. In NYC, I like to record at the Magic Shop in SoHo: It’s close to my house, it’s got a great-sounding Neve board, and it’s got a great vibe.
In a certain sense, the NYC music business is healthy right now. There’s more opportunities for people to get their music out there, but it’s harder to make money from music, and artists have to really tour a lot – more than ever. I think the business is narrowing and it’s difficult, but at the same time it still seems to be flourishing, and NYC is absolutely a good place to be based out of. There are so many musicians here, clubs to play and people to work with that there’s a lot going on in NYC, absolutely.
That’s good to hear. Circling back to where we began, what timely advice would you like to leave your fellow singer/songwriters with?
I think that anybody who wants to do music just has to be able to immerse themselves in it, and be open to possibilities: You end up going in directions you didn’t think you would go in. If young singer/songwriters really want to do it, they can do it – it’s a matter of dedicating.
– David Weiss