Saturday, 27 February 2016

Isolated music tracks are an absolute delight for obsessives - The Band, Beach Boys, ZZ Top, Stones, Beatles...and Linda McCartney!

Capitol Records did something very strange in 1968 by releasing an album called Stack-O-Tracks featuring fifteen Beach Boys hits devoid of vocals. Early karaoke? An attempt to squeeze blood from a stone? As the band had fallen spectacularly from grace during the previous 18 months (for reasons which still escape me - I remained loyal) the album stiffed on both sides of the Atlantic - well, it would, wouldn't it. Because Brian Wilson left a huge amount of space for the band's gorgeous vocals, the backing tracks generally sound alarmingly sparse - it's hard to believe they were the bedrock of some of the greatest pop music ever created. I presume psychoactive substances must have had something to do with the decision to leave out voices as achingly beautiful as these:

There have been many "isolated tracks" from famous recordings posted on YouTube in recent years, focussing on various combinations of voices and instruments. I'm not sure who they're meant to appeal to - professional musicians, those trying to learn an instrument, music producers? In my case, although I'm too old and talentless to get any better at making music, I'm fascinated by how classic pop and rock songs were assembled - how this or that instrument or vocal part add to the magic. When I've tried to recreate old songs ("Brand New Cadillac". "Matchbox", "Secret Agent Man", "Walk of Life" etc.) I've ended up listening to them at least twenty times each, trying to figure out the constituent parts. Vocals and lead guitars are easy enough, but bass, drums, rhythm guitar and twiddly bits can get lost in the mix, especially in recordings that were monaural in the first place.

Music obsessives' train-spottery appetite for hearing records broken up into their constituent parts has been whetted over the years by the excellent Classic Albums television series. Here's a typical example, from the programme about The Band's eponymous second album:

Here, the surviving members of The Doors break down "Break On Through to the Other Side":

Back to pure isolated tracks, here are some of my favourites, starting with the vocals-only version of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", mainly for the astonishing performance of backing singer, Merry Clayton:

Now, Billy Gibbons's guitar on ZZ Top's John Lee Hooker homage (cough!), "La Grange":

Here's Mark Knopfler's guitar from "Sultans of Swing":

And Paul McCartney's bass on "Come Together":

For anyone who fancies a singalong at this point, here's the backing track for the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (I'll take the low part - I suspect I'd end up in A&E if I attempted to match Bobby Hatfield's falsetto):

I'll end with possibly the most famous - and most appreciated - example of an isolated vocal track. I'm talking about Linda McCartney's contribution to a live performance of "Hey Jude":

There's hope for us all. 


  1. I'd not heard Linda McCartney Sings before. Oh dear. Odd how musicians as talented as Macca and Lennon had a tin ear as far as their wives were concerned.

    1. It's so disrespectful to their fans - and I can barely imagine what professional musicians feel when faced with the excruciating efforts of pop stars' talentless other halves. Literally any black woman in the world could have done better - and most white ones. Here, for your further enjoyment, is what it might have sounded like had Linda and Yoko ever pooled their musical talent: