Sunday, September 11, 2016

Zachariah blow by blow

There's a famous-among-drummers scene from the early 70s film Zachariah— a “psychedelic” cowboy movie with a big musical component. It features a purported drum solo by Elvin Jones, which gets shared around the internet as an example of what a great drummer he was:

You can get a glimpse of what it was like to see Jones in action in the forgotten (and forgettable) 1970 movie, Zachariah. [In it,] Elvin Jones, a towering, massive, frozen-faced figure, strides into the saloon in an O. K. Corral outfit, settles in behind an enormous drum kit, and proceeds to spend 10 minutes exploring its possibilities. It’s a thrilling, classic few minutes of film, like the snippets from early talkies that preserve some of the performance style of Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith[.]

Unfortunately, no. You get to see him shoot a guy and move his arms a little bit in the presence of a drum set. The scene is actually so brutally edited, with another drummer playing much of the audio— the sound editors even have him playing over Elvin— that whatever it is, it is not a film of Elvin Jones playing a drum solo. As a representation of Jones's playing, it's much more akin to this:

Earl Palmer, the studio legend and the other drummer in question, says he was told there were problems with the original sound, and that he was asked to record some overdubs. They had him play along with the video, matching what Elvin was playing as best he could. But the scene is so crudely lashed-together, with so little regard for matching the audio with what's happening on screen, I suspect the filmmakers finally just edited it the way they wanted, and covered their tracks by layering in some more drumming noise. Obviously nobody present when cutting/mixing the final product thought they were dealing with an actual musical performance, and that they had any duty to preserve its integrity.

I don't blame Palmer, by the way. I hesitate to even refer to him by name, because he had an extremely difficult job, and his playing is not any more fairly represented here than is Elvin's. I can't believe that what we see in the final cut is something he would have approved of. In his biography Backbeat, Palmer calls it “The hardest session I ever did.”, and says he had to be talked into doing it:

Jimmy Haskell was the composer. [He was the] kind of guy [who] works the shit out of you, because he's aiming to please. He'll go past breaks, rush you, come in with the score half-written and write the rest right there. [...] 
Anyway, somehow or other the sound got messed up. The drum solo had to be played all over again. Jimmy told the producers, “Oh yeah, we can do that.” 
I said, “Wait a minute, I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to fucking do this, man.”

I wanted to figure out what the hell is happening on this thing, so I listened to it a number of times, and wrote up a cue sheet indicating what we're hearing, and when. It's the type of thing we do here. It turns out that in two minutes of a purported Elvin Jones drum solo, there are at least sixteen edits. There is never more than ten seconds at a time of Jones actually playing solo, and no more than 30 seconds total of just Elvin— including several very short snippets. There are at least four different drumming entities in the audio:

1. The unknown person who plays the rock vamp with the band, recorded pre-production.
2. The actor playing the drummer playing live (we probably only hear him for a moment, when he and Jones are trading places at the drum set).
3. Elvin Jones playing live.
4. Earl Palmer overdubbed, recorded during post-production. 

So here we are. Cue the video up to 1:25 (maybe open it in a new window) and follow along with my comments after the break:

1:25 - Musical performance starts, prerecorded audio of band playing a rootsy funk vamp, which the musicians on screen pretend to be playing.

1:48 - Another drummer is faded into the backing track.

1:58 - Yet another drummer is faded in, but very poorly synced, playing the same basic beat. Assume this is all in aide of the transition from pre-recorded audio to live audio of Elvin playing the drums as he's being filmed.

2:08 - Elvin approaches the drum set and starts hitting things while the other drummer is playing, then sits down and replaces him. A lot of noise ensues, not really in sync with the video; probably a mix of live audio of Elvin and the actor playing the other drummer, and probably some overdubbed Earl Palmer.

2:25 - Video and live audio are now synced, and we're seeing and hearing Elvin Jones playing the drums, for a moment, apparently without any other drummer in the mix.

2:35 - We hear Palmer playing over the top of Elvin. For awhile we hear both drummers simultaneously.

2:48 - A moment of mostly-Elvin, Palmer faded back.

2:50 - Palmer playing solo, little or no Elvin in mix.

2:54 - Both drummers.

2:57 - Elvin alone.

3:06 - Both drummers.

3:18 - Elvin faded out, just Palmer by 3:18

3:29 - Quick cut to Elvin, though there may be another edit before the next incident at 3:33. They do this again in a moment— they have Palmer overdub the big lick, with a quick crossfade at the end so you hear Elvin do the final cymbal crash.

3:33 - Ugly jump cut, big edit. We're probably hearing Palmer here.

3:40 - Definitely Palmer now; some other things happening I don't have the energy to try to figure out.

3:42 - Quick crossfade to Elvin at the end of the snare drum roll.

3:43 - Both drummers.

3:45 - Another ugly jump cut to (I think) Elvin, with both drummer on the tom tom fill before the next thing.

3:53 - Film makers float in random audio of Palmer going crazy over the top of Elvin, totally out of sync with what's happening visually.

4:05 - Quick cut to solo Elvin.

4:08 - Fiasco ends. Zachariah = not an Elvin Jones performance.

h/t to Tim Rap for the Earl Palmer info.


David Beaver said...

Wow. I had first seen this clip years ago and only heard of Earl Palmer's overdub some months back, but to see it "itemized" is astonishing. Well done. Such messes for occur when insufficient preparation meets uninformed technicians. I will never again view this clip with admiration for anyone but the courageous Earl Palmer.

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks! I had to figure it out. It's so appalling.

The filmmakers screwed everyone on this-- that mess is represented as Elvin's playing, Palmer has to have his name linked to it, who knows if sound and film editors had any remorse about participating in that kind of butchery.