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LISTEN: Studio Obstacles Fueled Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”

Musicians can get stymied in the studio when they’re unable to make creative decisions, as an audio excerpt from the Beastie Boys’ memoir proves.

We’ve all fallen down an internet rabbit hole from time to time—you start looking for a good place to get a burrito for lunch, and an hour later, you realize you’re breathlessly reading about the lifespan of a waterbug on the other side of the planet during the 1700s…and you’re still starving. The fun part comes, however, when seemingly unlikely topics crash into each other, echoing observations and sentiments, as happened to me this morning.

Trying to find an article I’d read about something else, I stumbled across “The oppressiveness of creativity,” a review of Oli Mould’s book, Against Creativity, by David Beer, a professor of Sociology at the University of York. At one point in the review, Beer recalls some of his own discussions with a recording engineer about how art is created:

There is an energizing boundlessness to [the concept of] removing limits to what is possible in order for creativity to take on less damaging forms and really thrive. But is this the case? Some time ago, back in the mid 2000s, I was working on a small project exploring the impact of digital technologies on music. As part of that project I was speaking to a recording engineer about their practices.

We reflected on the changing technologies of music production, the impact of the infinite number of tracks in recording studios, and the unlimited possibilities of post-production. We discussed whether creativity might actually be hampered by these endless options, since at least in part it is about overcoming limits, and is not always, as Mould suggests, about creating something from nothing. In a much larger follow up project a few years later, we found that the recording engineer actually sees it as their role to find ways to realize the sonic vision of the recording artist even as it clashes against the material constraints of the studio. Here, the constraints are an active part of the way that such artistic creations are made real.

… As the recording engineer suggested to me, we might use the boundaries we face to inspire creative action and help us to imagine alternatives.

Of course, as Beer says at the top of that excerpt, sometimes the boundaries are really the artists themselves, paralyzed into creative indecision thanks to too many options.

That idea fit ironically with the next entry in my Google search: a Spin article recounting a Rolling Stone article recounting an audiobook recounting the Beastie Boys’ new memoir, Beastie Boys Book.

Sharing a Tim Meadows-read excerpt from the audiobook, the article tells how the band’s hit, “Sabotage,” became a faux rant against Mario Caldato, Jr., their pal and recording engineer. While recording the album Ill Communication, Caldato was fed up with the band’s inability to complete its tracks, a problem they readily cop to in the audio excerpt. Meadows intones, “We were totally indecisive about what, when, why and how to complete songs. Mario was getting frustrated. That’s a really calm way of saying that he would blow a fuse and get pissed off at us and scream that we just needed to finish something, anything, a song. He would push awful instrumental tracks we made just to have something moving toward completion.”

Rummaging In Paul’s Boutique

“Sabotage” was originally going to be an instrumental, too, but again, the band couldn’t commit to a final version. True to Beer’s book review observation that “the recording engineer actually sees it as their role to find ways to realize the sonic vision of the recording artist,” Caldato kept heckling the band members about their indecisiveness, ultimately inspiring Adam Horowitz to finish the song by giving it lyrics: “I decided it would be funny to write a song about how Mario was holding us all down, how he was trying to mess it all up, sabotaging our great works of art.”

If Caldato knew “Sabotage” was about him, he’s never let on. In an audiobook excerpt from an entirely different tome, Doctors of Rhythm, the engineer recounts the song’s creation without ever a mention of it:

So, in essence, Caldato saw the Boys’ inability to narrow down their artistic options as the boundary they had to overcome. Ironically, venting his frustration led to the trio seeing him as their greatest obstacle, whether for real or in jest, and that finally inspired them to complete the now legendary track.

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