Phil Ramone Made Crappy Music the Right Way
Phil Ramone, who died Saturday following an aneurysm, produced an astonishing number of albums it's not cool to enjoy. Wikipedia helpfully provides a category full of them. He was in on Rod Stewart's first pop standards album; he did the Sinead O'Connor album after the one Sinead O'Connor album; he did Frank Sinatra's late Duets albums, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli albums, The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain. He was nominated for a million Grammys, and won something like half-a-million, and for a certain kind of music fan that's a bad thing.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of the coverage after his death was not only positive but glowing.
Which is not to say that all or even most Phil-Ramone-produced albums have fallen into disrepute. Ram is the canonical Paul McCartney solo album; Blood on the Tracks is inviolable; Paul Simon is Paul Simon.
But he also produced "Spies Like Us," for instance, and Everything But The Girl, and Debbie Gibson, but not the Debbie Gibson album you're thinking about. He worked with his white-male-boomerish contemporaries deep into an era that finds white-male-boomerisms tiresome.
Which is what makes it hard to judge producers by their output, especially within the authenticity-constrained parameters we've developed for rock music. You can blame Paul McCartney for making "Spies Like Us" (and you can blame me for enjoying it), but can you blame Phil Ramone for making it sound really-pretty-good?
It's the classic tedious-grad-student-argument difference between art and craft: Phil Ramone was a craftsman, and he could (and would) make an album sound wonderful whether it was art or not--whether it was even supposed to be art or not. It doesn't matter whether you like "The Stranger"--his job was to make that guitar riff sound exactly like that guitar riff sounds, however many takes it took. It was to produce the best possible version of that album--according to his memoir we have him to thank or not-thank for the inclusion of "Just The Way You Are."
Production in the Phil Ramone sense--the craft sense--is directly opposed to a lot of ideas that have become artistic virtues (or at least artistic truisms) in the decades since he started working. It's not spontaneous, it's not punk, it's not about being struck by a muse or set on fire by a cause or idea.
But it doesn't matter whether you're fond of those ideas or not, or whether Phil Ramone believed in everything every artist he worked with said, or how long it took him to sand the mistakes off an album--the result is still a record you're going to have to listen to.
So I'm not glad for every one of the albums Phil Ramone produced or engineered or shepherded through production, but if his craftsmanship made great albums better, does it really matter that it also made terrible albums better-sounding? Does the art/craft question matter at all, once we have the finished works to judge? Phil Ramone was a very talented producer who worked on some albums I love. That works for me.
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