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On Beyond Zebra played at the Pyramid Club, on New Yorks East Villages Avenue A, in 1986. The world didnt really notice. Although I was enjoying time at this persistently raucous place, I wouldnt have gone without the insistence of Robin Rose, the synthesizer player in the defunct Urban Verbs for whom I had produced an album in 1979. By now, he had traded patch cords for encaustic and was living in his painters studio a few blocks away. His knack for spotting new, offbeat artists was keen, and he knew the group personally from his Washington DC days.
I dont remember much about their music, except that it was delivered on the tiny stage by three raucous women singers supported by a drummer and a guitarist. One was a statuesquely tall bass player, one had the quickest stage wit Id heard in years, and the other, also voluble, played various things including timbales which fell off the stage at one point. Polite hellos were exchanged afterwards, and I never saw them play again, nor did I hear a demo tape.
A few years later, in 1989, Bitzi from Betty called. A memorable message and alliteration. On Beyond Zebra had been reborn as BETTY (thats spelled with all upper-case) and would I care to come to the Bottom Line to see them play? With just three people and machines on stage, they delivered one of the freshest acts I had seen in years, to an audience who were clearly with the program. The style varied somewhere between cabaret, polemic, dance club and farce, and the inter-song repartée was formidable. Après-gig hellos were productive this time, and led to a meeting at studio the following day.
The third degree to which I was subjected the next afternoon was more thorough than any big-budget artist had ever put me through. Most disconcerting was their knack, when three-on-one, of never interrupting each other, but picking up each others sentences without pause. BETTY was an integrated, three-headed beast. Schoolboy films of heavy interrogation by cartoon Nazis or hard-boiled detectives would place one at each side of the hapless victim so that he would be forced to turn his head back and forth as if at a tennis match. BETTY produced that situation perfectly instinctively. They liked Hilly Kristals Mud, which I had just finished mixing. I liked that.
Most people dont realize how much time is devoted to an album. For that matter, some artists dont. Over years of working practice, I had refined methods to where I could deliver pretty much anything in eight weeks with one or two off in the middle. Thats a big chunk of time, which is fine if you are getting paid. Liking BETTY, their music and their attitude so much, I offered to do the album on spec(ulation). This way, you make the album and then charge for the studio time if a deal with real money comes in from a major record company. If business doesnt bite, at least you have a CD you can enjoy. We started with an EP collection, Echo, Martini Talk, Go Ahead And Split, Mr Amoeba Man, Picnic Love Affair and Ms Snake to make a 22-minute presentation. That would be enough to show around.
We couldnt get arrested. A crisp, punchy little tape, cassettes of further songs from the shows, a producer successful with unusual acts, a top-grade stage presence, three bright and beautiful women with the most extrovert dress sense. Er, three strong, uncompromising women in the record business climate of 1990, er... We decided to just make the CD.
BETTY are not a conventional outfit, and a conventional CD with ten tracks would do nothing to exploit their apparently effortless theatrical flair. A big strength of their shows was (and continues to be) melding of song and speech which, while dangerously close to the knowing culture of cabaret (the C word as they put it), delivered a vigorous and pointed entertainment. Even though they used drum machines and synthesizers on stage, with the occasional technical pause for thought, the atmosphere was utterly spontaneous. If Alyson had an unanticipated battle with the drum machine, Amy and Bitzi could keep the crowd going as if the recalcitrant technology was just part of the show. The CD must capture this unusual skill and flow. There's something about the greatest music, even art in general, that feels as if it has just been invented, as if you are presently exploring along with the artist and discovering the same things at the same time. Beethoven and Bruce Springsteen lead you down the same rewarding path (among other even more contrasting greats).
The eventual CD works pretty much like their live set at the time. The crowd yelling Hello BETTY! at the beginning is from a couple of recordings made in 1991 at the now defunct Ballroom on 28th Street in New York. As you can hear (even given the production enhancement), the crowd went, er, wild. The central recording proceeded pretty much like any other album, one track at a time until we had the basketful. It still sounds completely fresh, even the purely spoken bits.
The music is often much more developed than was the act at the time. For example, Ms Snake on stage had a long spoken intro after Amy which always brought the house down. Even though many in the audience would have heard it before, she kept them going by always half-improvising while keeping to a familiar, comfortable pattern. That wouldnt work on record, so Snake Saga was built up behind Amys solo vocal. All the music was added to enhance her defining deliver, and, paradoxically, became one of the biggest production efforts on the CD. I particularly like the sound of the new lover at Balduccis, which is Amys live delivery, not that of a love-sick sheep.
Others contributed generously to the spirit, notably the Uptown Horns who played arrangements on Wolfwoman and Fun Girl. Like many independent productions where musical decisions are all made in the control room by the protagonists and not tempered by second-guessing a distant record company or idealized mass public preference, you hear the creative fun in the final result. This was a good time, and it shows.
Some of the songs are intense, and BETTYs studio character was no less. You have a real reference point when you work and develop the music when dealing with tough and uncompromising characters, a refreshing change from the pickn mix indecision of some artists. There were no holds barred. I have seen partners and relatives in the hothouse of the studio several times, and they are inevitably merciless which each other. Bitzi (who now goes as Elizabeth) and Amy Ziff were no exception.
When doing vocals on three microphones, we in the control room started recording a furious argument raging out in the studio, an old trick which is always good for a cheap laugh once the session has relaxed afterwards. Unfortunately, after a few minutes the verbals got so rough that we turned it off. As usual, Alyson, diplomats daughter, third sister (soul-wise), was available to mediate. We saw the internal personality dynamic of the group very clearly. Fortunately, its not usually in such uncomfortably sharp relief, and they were to settle down in future sessions. (For their own utterly frank analysis of how they relate and stay together, read or listen to the interview.)
The assembly and final mixing of the continuity bits like Mrs Goldbergs Critique and that skeptical individuals first Hello BETTY (no exclamation point until shed heard the show) was done one long Saturday, and it was only then that we heard this unusually integrated CD. The playback party was scheduled for 9pm at my loft two blocks from the studio.
At midnight the tape was ready to roll. As we had hoped, the whole 48 minutes flowed just like a live set, with the engaging mix of theatre and music that has returned in a new form nine years on with Carnival. Thanks to the delay, the anticipation was high and so was the crowd. Not for nothing were BETTY bartenders in their previous existences/day jobs. My hangover lasted a good two days. Felt great.
As with the EP a year earlier, there were no takers for the finished CD. The record business was passing through one of its most conservative phases, which relaxed later but too late for us. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. provided Alysons inspiration for our record companys title. The Man From B.E.T.T.Y. released Hello BETTY! and the efforts of the group went on eventually to sell 40 000 CDs on their own label without any major affiliation.
- MT December 1998
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