Overdubs for "Night Owl"

Wednesday, October 18, 1972 • For Carly Simon

Album Songs recorded during this session officially appear on the No Secrets LP.
AIR Studios, London, UK

Some songs from this session appear on:

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Album-wise, Richard and I were coming down the stretch, almost done recording. We decided to make use of our time at AIR Studios, which had become available thanks to its owner, George Martin. We needed to replace some parts, especially background vocals, and a guitar solo on “You’re So Vain.” Right down the hall, Paul and Linda McCartney were cutting tracks and George Martin himself was sitting at an acoustic piano. Richard and I took the chance and just charged into the studio. Richard could get away with it. He knew everybody. Both Paul and Linda were dressed as if they’d come from the country, Linda in clunky boots with wool socks, an oversized sweater, and an unfashionable midlength skirt. She looked so funky and beautiful she stopped my breath. Paul was so himself, I never knew if
he was ever any other way. Bonnie Bramlett and Harry Nilsson were there visiting their friends.

At Richard’s invitation, all of them came down the hall to celebrate the finishing of our album. This made me quite angry, as I knew I wouldn’t be myself with all that company, I wasn’t really sure how things would sound, and we still had overdubs to do. But they crowded into Studio B, where Richard played a few cuts that he was especially proud of. There were sincere compliments sprinkled with questionable ones, with a few obviously fake ones stuck in between sips of vodka. I was almost silent, I was so tense. George Martin was an elegant sod (I’ve never known what that word means exactly), but he was brilliantly handsome and tall and renowned. How could Richard be such a relaxed host? He was and is a comfortable man. He became the life of the party. There was a lot of laughter and wine and vodka. It had the feeling of a very large celebration in a very small place. Toasts were made to all the future albums that were being mixed into shape at this renowned studio.

We had done a hundred takes of the basic track and at least thirty lead vocals for what we called “Ballad of a Vain Man.” I told Richard we had to stop at a hundred, that I refused to be part of a record that went beyond hundred takes. It was too expensively embarrassing for anyone but Liberace. Drummers had been flown halfway round the world, more than once, to play on this song that Richard had believed in right from the start. He had asked me to do the harmony parts while a “circle of friends,” as he called them (l called them highly intimidating musicians), listened. I begged Harry Nilsson to sing with me, and he didn’t hesitate to accept. Harry was a close friend of John Lennon’s and was one of the terrific artists who didn’t promote his work by stage performance. He was handsome and tall, wearing sunglasses, and had tawny hair curling around his unmistakable face. We were comfortable enough with each other, and got in a few takes (which means fewer than twenty-five with Richard at the helm) before I got a call on the studio phone and stepped out to take it in the lounge.

“Hallow, is this Caughly?” I didn’t have to ask who it was.

“How did you know I was here?” Had Mick ever not been able to find anybody?

“What aw you doin’?”

I told him I was putting some vocals on a track with Harry and invited him to come. “You know where AIR Studios are, yes? No?”

Mick was there almost instantly, having probably been in a car right downstairs, sussing out his possibilities for the night. Timing is everything. After some hugs and kisses that looked mimed, Richard invited Mick into the recording studio to join Harry and me on the vocals. Harry was already ensconced. Paul and Linda had disappeared momentarily with the elegant George Martin.

Mick and I said hello in front of Harry in the control booth. We kissed each other on the cheek (one cheek, and then the other). Again, it was a little formal.

“Right to it, man,” Harry said, as he shook Mick’s hand and bear-hugged him.

“It’s pretty easy, Mick,” I said, feeling jittery and trying to be calm. “Just sing the melody if you feel like it, or improvise and do any harmony you think of.”

I remember only that after four or five perfectly acceptable go-rounds, Harry said: “You two do not need me, you sound as though you’re joined at the hip.” He left for the control booth to find his future in a drink.

Mick and I were alone for the first time since the party in Hollywood, just a few months before. Proust says somewhere that “happiness is the absence of fever.” If true, those forty-five minutes in the glass vocal booth with Mick Jagger were an extreme example of unhappiness. As we sang together – Mick was a natural at singing backup – the energy was choreographed by the heavens, an unexpected fever that was certainly heightened by the music. The song that had been waiting to come to life for so long finally exploded. From the first lines in my notebook, the flight to palm Springs, the party in New York, and now with Mick’s just happening to drop by at the studio at the very moment I was recording “Ballad of a Vain Man,” it was all, as if by wizardry, coming together.

It felt like everything in my life had led me to this moment. My earliest musical influences – Odetta, the Southern blues singers, the Delta blues of Mississippi, John Hurt and Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and especially Uncle Peter – fused with my jazz and folk roots. I had it all in those loops in my brain and in the twists and turns of my crooked musical ear, and it ran alongside the nearly impossible blending of Lucy and me and our guitars, Joey and Puccini, the Great American Songbook, and all the musicals of the forties and fifties that I studied and sang. Lordy, my parents were part of my performance in the glass booth – Mommy singing Summertime,” when George and Ira suggested she give it a go, and Daddy’s dedicated long fingers on the keys, his head bent over his Steinway hour after hour.

It was shortly after midnight. Mick and I, we were close together – the same height, same coloring, same lips. I could feel him, eyes wide on me. I felt as if I were trying to stay within a pink gravity that was starting to loosen its silky grip on me. I was thrilled by the proximity, remembering all the times I had spent imitating him in front of my closet mirror. Only now we were both Narcissus, each desiring our reflection in the other; I was moving in step with him. Not trying to, but Richard gave us directions that seemed more football coach than record producer: “Mick, step back just a bit, your voice cuts more than Carly’s. Try doubling your parts and stand a little further away, both of you.”

The farther away we stood, the closer we got. Electricity. That’s what it was. I wanted to touch his neck and he was looking at my lips. The electricity was raw and hardly disguising its power. Having sex would have actually cooled things off.

I started to withdraw, which I thought was the only correct thing to do. It corresponded with Richard’s wanting to listen to a couple of playbacks and then – nobody wanting to miss a chance to see Mick – an opening of the studio door and the appearance of George Martin, Paul and Linda.

Conversation struck up between the Beatle and the Stone and I went to the ladies’ room to play with my hair, mess it up to be like Mick’s – only mine didn’t fall into the perfect shiny piece of glass that his did – put on some natural lip color, and try to dry off a little. I had taken a swig of Harry’s brandy, but it hadn’t relaxed me at all. It had just made me sweat.
When I went back to the studio, it was empty except for Mick sitting at the piano. I joined him and he asked me to play the chords of the song for him.

“How do you know all those chords?”

Carly Simon
From Carly Simon on Trolling Trump With ‘You’re So Vain,’ Lost Mick Jagger Duet (yahoo.com) – Simon with Paul and Linda McCartney Courtesy of Carly Simon/Flatiron Books

Songs recorded


Night Owl

Written by James Taylor


Going further

Paul McCartney: Music Is Ideas. The Stories Behind the Songs (Vol. 1) 1970-1989

With 25 albums of pop music, 5 of classical – a total of around 500 songs – released over the course of more than half a century, Paul McCartney's career, on his own and with Wings, boasts an incredible catalogue that's always striving to free itself from the shadow of The Beatles. The stories behind the songs, demos and studio recordings, unreleased tracks, recording dates, musicians, live performances and tours, covers, events: Music Is Ideas Volume 1 traces McCartney's post-Beatles output from 1970 to 1989 in the form of 346 song sheets, filled with details of the recordings and stories behind the sessions. Accompanied by photos, and drawing on interviews and contemporary reviews, this reference book draws the portrait of a musical craftsman who has elevated popular song to an art-form.

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Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium

We owe a lot to Chip Madinger and Mark Easter for the creation of those session pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details!

Eight Arms To Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium is the ultimate look at the careers of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr beyond the Beatles. Every aspect of their professional careers as solo artists is explored, from recording sessions, record releases and tours, to television, film and music videos, including everything in between. From their early film soundtrack work to the officially released retrospectives, all solo efforts by the four men are exhaustively examined.

As the paperback version is out of print, you can buy a PDF version on the authors' website

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