James Britt

Maximum R&D

Kicking off the Chinese Forehead wiki

August 2014

Back in 1979 in New York City I was in a band called Chinese Forehead.

I wrote the songs, sang, and played guitar. We performed at CBGB and TR3 and lasted, I think, less than a year.

No records were every made, but there were some live recordings plus a large amount of loft-studio recording of all kinds of maybe-songs and sonic experiments.

Because the whole point of the Internet is to allow anyone and everyone to lavishly document the most arcane of matters I’ve expanded the Chi4 site to include a wiki.

I have shoe-boxes of cassette tapes and a few open-reel tapes of things done either as a group or as some fraction of the group (cleverly done under the moniker of Not Chinese Forehead). All of it was done around 1979 to 1981.

Over the years I had transfered some tapes to digital, sorting through what we did. Mostly I focused on the live recordings. Some of that has gone up on Soundcloud and archive.org.

Releasing

After some discussion with some of my bandmates I’ve been going back through the tapes, with the goal of breaking things out to separate tracks, giving them some sort of sensible name, and uploading them to archive.org.

Along the way I plan on adding a wiki entry to offer at least basic comments on who did the piece with what equipment. Or something. Pointing out who played what might be the least interesting aspect of many of these tracks. Trying to recall what odd studio techniques were being used might be more fun.

(By the way, archive.org uses Amazon S3 and there’s an API available that makes automated uploading quite easy. I’ve been hacking together some tools to allow me to upload sets of files as well as generate corresponding wiki pages. I may write about that one day.)

Outside of the live band recordings most of the tracks were done by me, using multitrack recording. I had a propensity for changing up tapes speeds, using tape loops, placing microphones inside odd containers, mis-connecting effects pedals, and the like.

I have no idea how long this might take, or if I’ll even finish it.

I happen to like a lot of the noise on these tapes but I’m biased. I can listen past the tape hiss and the muddled sound that came from multiple shitty tape transfers, and the often half-assery of things done in a series of one-take overdubs.

I had never really given that much thought to what others might think of this because I assumed no on would ever hear it. Of course, that may still end up the case.

Pleasant surprises

As I was transferring the tapes I would watch the VU meter and occasionally listen in with headphones. It’s something of a time-consuming process, and many of the tapes, with their hit-or-miss labeling, were of assorted albums or stuff from the radio. Sitting and listening as they were transfered wasn’t good option.

Looking back I’m dumbfounded that we (or I, at least) were so indifferent to the quality of media and labeling of tapes. For better or worse we seemed to treat all of it as somewhat ephemeral. There’s a lot to be said for this; I think it helps keep you moving forward, focused on making something new today rather than being preoccupied with what you did yesterday.

I hadn’t listened to some of these recording in years. There were some tracks that I had forgotten about, things that I really liked but hadn’t heard in ten or more years. There’s one piece, a lengthy one, that at first I didn’t recognize at all, and I listened to it wondering from whose album it was. But suddenly there was a section that clearly identified it as mine. I was stunned.

There have been a few times where I could not initially figure out who was playing what instrument. For those recordings that are obviously jam sessions I assume that if I’m playing then I’m on either guitar or bass. For “studio” pieces (I had a Teac 3440 open-reel 4-track), though, I often played (more or less) drums as well. I’ve come to recognize certain motifs that appear in my playing, various interval schemes or rhythmic patterns, that allow me to identify with some certainty if I was playing this or that instrument.

Most of the pieces I just know are me because I remember doing them. Every so often I’ve come across something I don’t recall and I get to become a somewhat objective listener. It’s all the more exciting when I’m enjoying this guitar lead or that bass line wonder who was playing it, then suddenly realizing it was me.

Some riffs have stuck in my head for so long that they are like ghosts, forever reappearing in my brain; I’ve been working a few them into new material so they might finally have a proper home.

Grave digging

As I was writing about the wiki and the surprises I had I started to think about why I was even doing this, and whether it was even a good idea to be so interested in something done so long ago. There’s a part of it that feels unhealthy, the kind of thing you do when you’ve run out of ideas.

I’m going to wrap things up here, and return to the more philosophical aspects of this in a later post.