Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stephen Stills - Just Roll Tape

With harmonies becoming such a staple with indie-rock factions as of late, I began to consider the origins. Yes, the recent Roger McGuinn show had something to do with the history lesson, as early Byrds is a great starting point for anyone wanting to move from Fleet Foxes right back to one of the first bands that started the whole thing.

And like everything that is great in rock, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to that first Crosby, Stills, and Nash debut. Then you’re set.

But I stopped there.

And I discovered a collection of Stephen Stills’ demos released a few years back under the title Just Roll Tape. Doing the cursory search of this package, I noticed that the date is off. According to a few Buffalo Springfield geeks, on April 28 1968, Stephen Stills was performing in Arizona with that band, not in front of the studio microphone like the title would suggest.

What is known is that, around that date at least (the band played their last show a few weeks later), Stephen was helping his girlfriend Judy Collins with the recording of one of her albums. After the session, Stills stayed around and offered the engineer a little bit of money to record a few demo songs he wanted laid on tape.

The master tapes that he used remained in the studio until it closed a decade later. Shortly before closing for good, one of the last clients was offered to snag some leftover tapes and he noticed a few labeled “Stephen Stills.”

For nearly twenty-five years, he tried to get Stills attention, but it wasn’t until he spoke to Graham Nash about them that the ball got rolling.

If you haven’t heard any late period CSN material lately-or Stills’ own solo material for that matter-you’re doing yourself a favor. Most of the songs are layered in cheese and sugar, so that fact that some lost, bare bones demo songs from 40 years ago didn’t necessarily mean that they’d see the light of day.

Thankfully, Stills was convinced to release the songs as-is, complete with plenty of tape hiss and guitar tunings right in the middle of the songs, in the case of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

Start with that one. It’s awesome, warts and all. There’s no debating that even at the age of 23, Stephen Stills was one hell of a guitar player, regardless of the lack of amplification.

It’s already suitable for a bigger studio. The song parts are there, the lyrics perfect, and all that’s needed is that “do do do do dooot….doot doot da doo da doot” bit at the end. The strange thing is that, now after hearing the demo of “Suite” on Just Roll Tape, the final product is, in my opinion, isn’t as good as that first run through. It’s honest, personal, and closer to the heart than the glad-handing end harmonies of the first song from Crosby Stills & Nash.

Just Roll Tape presents a bunch of familiar songs in this way, all the way up through material that appeared later on Stills’ first few solo releases in the early seventies. It’s a remarkable discovery, and if you’re a hipster that’s currently running with Fleet Foxes or Iron & Wine’s material, you should really check out the source material from four decades ago.

There’s one track, “Treetop Flyer,” that’s actually a demo from his 1991 release “Stills Alone,” a record that was released during that period of music when everyone including Eddie Fucking Money was releases “unplugged” albums for no real reason.

For Stephen Stills, though, solo acoustic versions were already part of his tapestry. And that “Treetop Flyer” number may sound a bit cleaner than the rest is just as critical to the story itself as it was the first song that made Stills want to consider performing music in the first place.

Just Roll Tape is revelatory, a demonstration that these were real works of art even before the beautiful harmonies were added and the surroundings became more professional. They’re perfect, even with a bit of dirt on their sleeve, and their raw state just happen to make the entire release probably the best solo work he’s done since leaving them on the shelf back in ’68.


Anonymous said...

Ive seen comments about the liability od the date as well. I could maybe put up some suggestions regarding that matter.First: He could have taken the plane from texas the night before after the gig (where they played)to her in New York. And figuring the sessions where in the morning he might just have made the plane back to the show in phoenix Arizona?

Seeing the sessions with judy was in new york, i found it weird because her album recorded during that time was recorded in Los Angeles.It could also be an "unreleased" session that never materialised to something. The previous Judy Collins album 'Wildflowers from 1967 was recorded in New York. Could it be that the tape is even older?

Todd Totale said...

Interesting points. Thanks for posting! Follow ups and conspiracy theories are welcomed!