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Jan 112008

A band pays its dues and gets to spend more time than ever before in the studio. The lap of luxury! While the musicians jam out side 2 filler right on the studio floor and the singer sits in a corner, scribbling out lyrics, Oliver might as well be preparing his bandmates for a long hiatus. While the band loads up every possible tracks with exotic overdubs afforded by the studio’s equipment, Oliver might as well be asking the manager at the cool record store where he’s worked for the last 15 years for a leave of absence. The question is, who’s going to get that call to play the role of Oliver?

Oliver: A multi-instrumental, supporting musician usually added in preparation of a band’s breakthrough or reunion tour. With the promise of larger crowds expecting faithful renditions of the hits, Oliver affords the band the ability to replicate the key studio overdubs that would not otherwise be performed live or that would require an official band member to abandon his or her usual instrument, thereby leaving another hole in the music. Oliver differs from the traditional “backing” or “ghost” musician in that he is positioned among the official band members, the only differences between himself and the official band members being that he’s not photographed with the band, may never record with them, and gets much less tail.

Although the need for this Oliver character is borne out of a band’s deepening “studio era,” he typically makes his first appearance when the band emerges to bring its new double album on The Road! Who’s gonna play that extra keyboard part on your new single when you hit the road? Oliver. Who’s gonna strum that third, 128-String Guitar part that sounds just right on the record? Oliver? Who’s gonna hop over to bass so that the bassist can take a turn at the piano? Not the singer, but Oliver. Who’s gonna whip out a harmonica and catch a few rays of spotlight for a solo on that cover of “I’m a Man”? That’s right, the mysterious new guy on board for the tour.



  25 Responses to “Oliver”

  1. BigSteve

    The comment that Rabbit has never been an official member of the Who reminds me of the time a year or two ago when Townshend announced pubicly that he and Roger had talked about it and they had decided to make drummer Zak Starkey a full member of the Who. When Zak was asked for a (presumably grateful) comment, he replied that this was the first he had heard of it, and that actually he was fine with his sideman status and wanted to keep his options open. D’oh! Pete had to post a sheepish retraction on his website. Doesn’t he drum with Oasis too?

    The whole being a member of a band thing has been changing for some time now. Witness the preponderance of ‘collectives’ and ‘projects’ and artist names that seem to be a band but are actually just an individual working with whoever is needed at the time. A group of guys staying together as a band for years and years, like say U2, seems to be an anachronism.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    There are still plenty of bands with consistent memberships. Even big, sprawling underground bands like The Mekons have a reliable core of established band members. Throw an Oliver into the mix and you’d spot him in a hurry.

    When that Chicago-area producer, Jim McSomeone (or McSomebody or something like that) worked with both Wilco and Sonic Youth he bypassed an Oliver apprenticeship, didn’t he? I recall him immediately showing up in press photos. I guess already being the producer allows one to bypass certain hierarchical conventions.

  3. alexmagic

    I guess those press photos are meant to be the equivalent, but bands really should be required to hold formal press conferences when they add a new member who has been signed to an exclusive deal.

    The leader of the band, or their spokesperson, could make the announcement. The new member could be given an official jersey with the band’s logo on it to take some photos, and then the new member and the band could field some questions from the press. The team jersey could be replaced with a branded hat if the band wears suits, or make-up if the band is KISS.

    This kind of thing would help avoid awkward situations like the Who one BigSteve mentions, and it would help clarify when someone really was being added to the line-up and wasn’t just being brought up with a ten-day contract. I figure, under this system, Billy Preston would have gotten an actual press conference at some point, while you would have had to read about Jimmy Nicol in the transactions column. I don’t know where The Guy Who Plays Bass For The Stones fits into this.

  4. jim o’rourke. and yes it does.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Thanks, Shawnkilroy. My apologies to our readers of Irish descent for screwing up the construction of O’Rourke’s half-remembered name.

    Alexmagic, I love the thought of a new member of Devo wearing the Haz-Mat jumpsuit with a white button-up shirt and tie peeking through.

  6. saturnismine

    if guys staying in a band together for a length of time is an anachronism, then I guess it’s ready to make a comeback.

    in the longer picture, i think that the notion of:

    “rocknroll band! all for one and one for all! we’re in this together, dudes! WHATABOUT THE BAND, MAN???”

    is a relatively recent invention that is short lived.

    think of the even older jazz view, voiced best by fictional jazz hero “del paxton” in That Think You Do. he says something like “bands? bands come and go. play with whoever’s around.”. though it’s an older view, it’s basically the credo of the collective.

    then think of all the personnel changes in bands that are seemingly “stable”, singular entities (even the Stones!). the one iconic band that didn’t have any personell changes, the beatles, jammed with hundreds of session musicians, had billy preston on board, and played each others instruments on more than a few occasions….all very “collective”-like.

  7. saturnismine

    still, mod, you’re right to point out that there *are* bands that remain intact for lengths of time. and treasure them, i do.

    didn’t steve marriott play oliver in a big time london production of it? wasn’t he a star or at least well-known in england during his childhood?


  8. BigSteve

    A couple more observations. When Mr Mod brought up the Mekons, I thought he’d missed my point, which was supposed to be that bands don’t stay intact for long periods of time. I thought, “Well, yeah but Mekons are not a recent band.” Then I realized that if you were a recent band, you wouldn’t have had a chance to be around a long time, even if you wanted to just for the sake of proving me wrong. Duh, Steve.

    Also Pere Ubu, a ‘band’ that has had numerous personnel changes and only one consistent member, actually has on its website an elaborate set of protocols (http://www.ubuprojex.net/protocols.html) that detail, among other things, what are the conditions and responsibilities of Ubu membership status. If you are interested, note especially the concept of the project year, the penny/pound principle, and ‘Ubu time.’ I also find interesting this the part about how things operate: “So, yes, Pere Ubu operates by Rule. And, no, Pere Ubu is NOT a democracy. We are, if anything, a Republic. In Pere Ubu you are responsible for yourself. We are a collection of moderately responsible adults who choose to work together as independent agents, pooling our talents and sharing in the rewards of whatever our talents are worth in the marketplace. We are all independent contractors. No one is an employee. This goes for crew & band & management.” So in one sense David Thomas is Ubu, but there can be no Olivers.

    And as a child Steve Marriott played the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, as did Davy Jones of the Monkees.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    I see what you’re saying regarding the “Duh,” Steve:) I know I was going way back for them, but I was also thinking of bands I don’t find that interesting who’ve been around about 10 years with pretty much the same lineup: Green Day and other popular bands of that ilk.

    I love Pere Ubu’s protocols almost as much as their music. I think you have a good reading of the Oliver-free state in which they operate.

  10. saturnismine

    By the way, I think Andy Fairweather Low might be a pretty good example of an Oliver, joining in on various Floyd related projects as he did.

  11. I’m confused, what does this have to do with “Good Morning Starshine”?

  12. saturnismine

    see the mod’s points about the talking heads.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    Saturnismine wrote:

    By the way, I think Andy Fairweather Low might be a pretty good example of an Oliver, joining in on various Floyd related projects as he did.


    By the way, Sat, you’ve reminded me of Talking Heads’ flirtation with nearly a full-band Oliver scenario circa the period with Bernie Worrell, OJ Simpson, et al. Those sidepeople were practically band members, maybe pointing to BigSteve’s dream of the modern-day collective.

  14. BigSteve

    Is the “multi-instrumental” part of the definition essential? What about bands getting “chick singers” for a tour? This used to be more common than it is now. The recent touring versions of Roxy Music had them, but I don’t think they achieve semi-Oliver status in the same way Chris Spedding does as second guitarist. On the other hand, I think he doesn’t play anything but guitar. Is that sexist? Is getting chick singers sexist, or just calling them that?

  15. BigSteve

    Fairweather-Low was Clapton’s Oliver too.

    On a tangent, he made one album as the main singer/songwriter in a band called The Local Boys in the early 80s. I loved that record, but it went nowhere. Tim Gorman, who had played keyboards with the Who, was also in that band. It kind of all session guys (the studio version of an Oliver I guess?). Maybe the Local Boys were the first all-Oliver band.

  16. Mr. Moderator

    The multi-instrumental element is pretty important but not necessary. Oliver can play one instrument, as is the case with Rabbit Bundrick, but it should be an instrument that’s not already part of the live band. It helps, too, if that sound was a later addition to the band’s sound, such as the synth (or whatever it is, technically) that enters on Who’s Next. Townshend plays keyboards on records, but there’s no way the band could have handled him putting down his ax to play piano or synth on an entire song.

    I don’t think “chick singers” count because they’re obviously assigned a backup role. They’re on a little riser, off to the side, gussied up a bit, getting their props. Oliver needs to be on stage in a more integrated yet vague way. “Who’s that guy?” fans may ask. “When did he join?”

    I consider Spedding more of a sideman/hired gun in the roles you have in mind. It’s along the lines of bringing in Adrian Belew or paying Roger Clemens $24 million to join your team in June. If you’re a music fan, you know who Spedding is, his appearance as a guest on the tour has been played up in the press, etc. Maybe guys like Spedding and Belew are a path an Oliver can aspire to. Johnny Marr is in that category now too.

    I’m thinking now about Tom Petty’s reliance on an Oliver. Before Howie Epstein died, he was almost becoming an Oliver after the fact. He’d switch around from bass to guitar, he sang most of the backing vocals… He and Scott Thurston were almost interchangeable, no?

  17. Mr. Moderator

    An Oliver Supergroup…now that’s a marvel to behold!

    Speaking of Clapton, Ray Cooper is in that elevated sideman/hired gun category these days, right?

  18. hrrundivbakshi

    I’m surprised nobody (especially Senor 2000) has mentioned Chuck Leavell. A permanent member of the Stones touring crew, who replaced a limelight-shunning-but-supposedly-spiritually-integral, music-only, semi-member of the band!

    Mick: Keith, face facts… it just hasn’t been the same since Ian Stewart died.

    Keith: You’re right — it almost feels like the *soul* has gone out of our music.

    Mick: Not to mention how much more bickering we get into without Stu to help balance things out.

    Keith: Yeah… I never realized how vital he was to the spirit of our band.

    Mick: I miss him so much.

    Keith: Well, we gotta get *somebody* to play keys on this tour.

    Mick and Keith (in unison): Chuck Leavell!

  19. Mr. Moderator

    Leavell is a great call.

  20. saturnismine

    mod wrote:

    “By the way, Sat, you’ve reminded me of Talking Heads’ flirtation with nearly a full-band Oliver scenario circa the period with Bernie Worrell, OJ Simpson, et al. Those sidepeople were practically band members, maybe pointing to BigSteve’s dream of the modern-day collective.”

    yes!! bringing up the heads in this context was precisely my intention. but i didn’t want to cock-BLOCK you, I wanted to cock-GUIDE you on this one, since i knew you’d deliver the goods (o.j. simpson! nice). and i also wasn’t sure: didn’t the founders of the group suggest in the press that they would like to “tie the knot” with their p-funk friends only to leave them at the altar when they decided not to tour in support of “stop making sense”, and record “little creatures” as a four piece?

    I can’t remember, but i think, years later, either worrel or nona hendryx…SOMEONE from that crew, griped that the heads were all screwed up and uptight about “the band”…didn’t know whether to make them members or not, and didn’t understand the more ‘easy come easy go’ concept that is the side musician’s credo.

  21. A few thoughts:
    Technically, Ronnie Wood was an Oliver in the Stones for a long while – he wasn’t made a ‘vested member’ ’til around Steel Wheels, I think. Just ‘cuz you’re in the pix & vids, doesn’t mean you’re wetting your beak as much as your band mates.

    In some situations, the ‘Olivers’ might have a choice between being an Oliver or a full-fledged member. A pal who had joined a fairly successful indie band for a tour was given that option when said band signed a bigger label deal for the next rekkid and they wanted him to remain in the fold. He opted for member status.

    ‘Scuse me while I drop this name: I’m pals with Scott McOi. I gather that the members of R.E.M. see him as much more than their (sports metaphor alert) utility guy that can pretty much sing or play any part. I think they value his opinion mightily. And even though his R.E.M. gig has led him to play with some reputable folks, I reckon he’d be working as many gigs as he could handle if he were just kicking around a local scene – Scott just loves playing. And he’s probably one of the most decent guys in rock, too. (Sports metaphor alert) A GREAT guy in the clubhouse, to be sure.

    Couple more notes – Re: Scott Thurston. I THINK he signed on with the Heartbreakers for the second leg of the Full Moon Fever tour in 1990. And he played with a late incarnation of Ike & Tina Turner, and the Motels, too.

    Re: Chuck Levell. He’s a great example of a band really relying on their ‘Oliver.’ If you’ve seen them live since he joined the band, you may have noticed that not only does Chuck count-off every tune, but as the band is jamming on the outro, he makes eye contact with EVERYONE to alert them the end is neigh. Can’t imagine that’s an easy task.

  22. alexmagic

    Rob Coombes from Supergrass probably qualified for Oliver status. Played keyboards, helped write and toured with his younger brother’s band for about ten years until he finally made the official roster in 2002. I suppose there’s a possibility that he may be less an Oliver than a Reverse Chuck Cunningham, technically.

    How about Flo & Eddie, relative to T. Rex?

  23. Mr. Moderator

    GREAT stuff, pberkery! The little bit of dealings I had over e-mail with McOi sure did confirm all the good things I’ve always heard about him. It’s very interesting, especially, what you have to say about the option to remain an Oliver. The comments we’re receiving on this thread, Townspeople, are doing wonders for establishing this term. Future rock critics, you may thank us now.

  24. saturnismine

    doesn’t Sonic Youth have an Oliver now, too? Isn’t Fleming Olivering for them?

  25. Pink Floyd’s Oliver isn’t Fairweather-Low – it’s keyboardist/lap steel player/backing vocalist Jon Carin. In addition to being onstage at every Floyd show since 1987, he also tours with Gilmour’s AND Waters’ solo bands. I doubt any member of Floyd has been onstage without him in this decade.

    Also, how about That Guy Who Plays Drums For The Flaming Lips Live? He’s been with them for several years now, and I think he’s on a couple tracks on the most recent album, but you’ll never see him in the band photos.

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