photo of Pacific High Recording - 1971
Side Two of Blows Against the Empire, sometimes referred to as the "Blows Suite" or BATE, was mixed by Graham Nash and me - with Paul Kantner ripped and ready behind us, at Pacific High Recording (PHR) in 1970. It has been said in some places (and is inferred in an early interview with Paul) that Graham Nash mixed it at Wally Heider's, but hey... what's wrong is wrong no matter who said it. Here's the hard cold fact: It began and it ended - not at Heider's at all.
As to how it started, check Paul's words, "It happened like this. I wanted to make some tasty demos to show everybody what the song was about and there was an innovative studio, Pacific High Recording, right behind the Fillmore West, off Market Street. For some unexplained reason Grace chose to help me by playing this very grand, Grace style piano, near totally off the top of her head. Very little rehearsal. She just sort of joined in and followed my chords beautifully. There were many miscues and mistakes but they blended in well in the free-form modal tone structure that was the heart of the piece. All big, rich chords, both rhythmic and elegantly elegiac at the same time. She does a thing playing octaves with her left hand and rich chords with her right hand that always impressed me. ..."
And here's how it happened to end. Paul and I had been trying to get good mixes at Heider's but it wasn't happening. I had worked at Heider's both in LA and SF, but PHR was special. This is where I'd recorded and mixed "Mexico", and this is where Paul had recorded the original guitar and vocal track for the Blows suite - with Grace's majestic playing on the studio's rebuilt early 20th century Steinway Concert C Grand Piano. And I knew for certain that PHR's new stereo echo chamber was the biggest and the creamiest in SF, especially for acoustic instruments and vocals. So Paul and I decided to go there - this time so that Graham, who hadn't been hanging around at the Heider mixes, could try to produce a mix. We spent the next 2 days in the studio/control room and we began by listening to the tracks over and over and over looking for the key into the mix. It was slow-going for quite awhile. Paul had some tape clips of off-TV sounds and I also had a stash of tape oddities I'd brought from Hollywood, along with my own experiments with some of these elements, and some ongoing "music concrete" works (about 2 minutes of one of these had already become a part of XM). I started fooling around with some of this material - looking for ways to process it, like cramming sound through Dolby A units incorrectly in record process mode, or applying reverse echo, or differing speeds, and then trying different combinations of all this on multitrack tape. Out in the studio Graham started messing around with the Hammond Organ and Leslie speaker and I recorded that and mixed it in. At one point Paul and I went out and we all mumbled and moaned "home" into a Neuman M49 microphone. This all somehow created the event we needed to get over the feeling that the whole suite couldn't be mixed because it wasn't done. Now it was done - again. We went at the mix and Graham refined the final blend of the vocal/acoustic guitar/piano tracks that would weave the main pieces together with a strong sonic center that was crucial. He mixed these tracks and I mixed the other instruments and sound effects. Each mix would be the entire suite at once - no stopping, straight shot from Sunrise to "Well?" - I mixed standing up, also readjusting echo, pan positions, EQ and effects as we rolled onward through the music - sometimes missing cues, keeping drums up on one mix, trying them down the next to let guitars drive and punch; pure grass fire blur mixing; gems and changes everywhere, the whole gorgeous phantasm spilling forward and threatening to come apart at any moment. Stoked by headphones and a pair of JBL 4320 studio monitors, we learned and rehearsed and evolved until that moment when everything was suddenly in place and we were sailing through a mix with energy and beauty balanced in a fantastic sonic gumbo. With all our heads blown nearly off, we made a go for it and unfurled Paul's heroic anthem in its final form.
That was the way it happened.