Having A Ball With The Wall Of Sound

Last Thursday, I started drum lessons with two old friends. We were instigated by a Groupon and inspired to bang out landmark beats like the intro to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man” and “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)” (maybe I could even learn how to thunder road into “Born To Run”?). But when our slightly bemused, probably exasperated teacher tried to instill a basic three-thump rhythm into our limbs (we’re all athletes, but never have our arms and legs been tasked with coordination that felt so hapless), Zoe and I could only think of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.

Sitting in a soundproofed room no bigger than three by three meters, taking turns at two drum kits that took up most of the space and trying to find that three-thump via no particular logical methodology, brash clashes, thuds going awry and errant pounds bounced like spaceballs off the confines. Whenever I felt like I was on the cusp of getting it, my train of concentration would be broken by an assail of hits from either Zoe or Alvina. And I’d be back to just one hand forlornly producing a single staccato on the snare.

Conceptually, this is how Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound works – multi-layers of overdubbed disconnected musical ideas pulling in instruments and other vessels of sound that should not go together like rama lama lama ka-dinky dinky dong – that do. (Realistically, even the rattiest trash metal band would have rejected our nonsensical and noisy output.) In pop confection terms, Spector’s production technique is Vosges en vogue, conscientiously sourced instrumentation executed so skillfully that in his rich, lavish sonicphonies, which rarely last for more than three minutes, not a single moment is wasted on a tone, groove or flourish that doesn’t enhance the overall audio ecstasy. Which means Katy Perry is a faux Godiva diluted by Autotune so thin you can see through, more vanilla than the blandest white chocolate.

Beyond opening “Dirty Dancing” so fabulously that it’s created a sub-iconic culture of its own vis-à-vis the movie, the thumps that blow open “Be My Baby” aptly capture what the Wall Of Sound is all about within five heartbeats. Ronnie Spector née Bennett’s vocal arches trajects over ringing rattlers and several blaring saxophone lines, and on the break, a violin goes soaringly solo, backed by Darlene Love and Sonny and Cher woah-oh-ohing out.

Out of the sandbox - Brian Wilson and the 'Boys on an ill-advised world reunion tour in 2012. © Desiree Koh

Out of the sandbox – Brian Wilson and the ‘Boys on an ill-advised world reunion tour in 2012. © Desiree Koh

I’ve idolized Brian Wilson since I was 12, and of course, there’s no bigger Spector fan than him, and his greatest tribute to the maestro was to re-create the girl group renditions of  of Wagnerian rock & roll as America’s pre-Summer Of Love summertime band, the Beach Boys. After the first two faddish albums, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, Wilson got down to serious business with “Surfer Girl” – as soon as the first vocal bars of the title track crescendoes into an angelic chorale is the moment you can tell the genius has emerged frmo the boy. It was the turning point of Wilson’s career, and personally, no matter how often I listen to the track (a lot), I can’t help but coo over how lush it is, like the foam on top of a wave. One year later on “Shut Down Vol. 2”, Wilson’s response to “Be My Baby” unfolded in “Don’t Worry Baby”, which also features the same legendary Hal Blaine leading in with a characteristically masterful tempo. Multi-tracking wasn’t confined to just the music production – this plea of insecurity and fear before a drag race took the literacy of teen pop to a new decibel of poignancy, particularly in those days when Wilson’s falsetto preened like a peacock.

I discovered Bruce Springsteen when I was 20, resulting from an animal magnetism to “Born To Run”; in particular, its opening. If you’ve ever wondered why that rhythmic drum boom roaring in never sounds quite as robust live (not due in any way to Max Weinberg’s all-or-nothing syncopation abilities), it’s because that track and its same-titled album were created with – yes, Wall Of Sound techniques. You can’t put a studio and its production gadgets onstage, but you can take a band out of the Jersey Shore bar, send them playing on some of the greatest albums ever made and around the world countless times over for 40 years, and still have them deliver night after night in a way the postman in the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and Elvis’ “Return To Sender” can never do.

The best little house band in the world. © Desiree Koh

The best little house band in the world. © Desiree Koh

One of the greatest pleasures of E Street is their ability to play any song you throw at them at a show (Springsteen “humbly” attributes this to the fact that they remain a house band that has to take requests to fill a tip jar). They might need a minute to figure it out, but you can’t stump ’em. Two weeks after the death of the spiritual leader of every girl group that ever existed, songwriter Ellie Greenwich, the E Street Band tore through a cover of one of her everlasting compositions for the Crystals. Because, ya know, bands like them, baby, they were born to Da Doo Run Run!

My Days Are Numbered

I am so bad at math that when I’m doing a particularly hard run workout or longer long run, I start doing race pace calculations in my head to detonate brain explosions, which hurt way more than any of my muscle fibers tearing or heart rate raising the roof. Sometimes, I have difficulty adding up interval distances and laps, and always end up doing more so as not to short-change my training. Math can kill you.

And although I have always been more comfortable with Roman alphabets than Arabic numerals, I’ll admit that ever since I started training for my first marathon in 2007, some aspects of my life have actually been easier to review Fibonaccially, as opposed to Wordsworthily. At the very least, I now know how to count up to 26.2, sometimes 42.2, an endeavor that takes a little under four hours if I’m lucky. Herewith, the sum of my marathon parts.

It’s hard to believe I once preferred swimming to running.

12,744 Days Ago – My mother is the victim of me constantly running in her womb, my legs striking blips all over her stomach. However, I was not born to run – although I started walking before my first birthday, I absolutely abhorred running for many years, the only sport you had to threaten me with arsenic or else if you wanted me to slouch around a track. When I was a junior in college, I made a calculated decision to start jogging in order to regain the physical fitness higher education had deteriorated. By 2002, I said no to post-work beers and went for a run instead, for the first time in my life.

You are, Bruce – to the tune of one-third of my running playlist. © Desiree Koh

Pytha-go-run Theorem – [(Bruce Springsteen mix tape on Walkman) x (wow, it’s not so bad)] ÷ [(bad knees from softball) x (two doctors who said I would never run more than 10K)] + post-run pancakes + pre-race pizzas + finish line beers + Runner’s World subscription + eating as much key lime π as I like – everything that sucks in life within five minutes on any run = ƒƒƒƒ {this hurts, but I love it}

Last fall, was astounded by the Berlin Wall, hit the marathon wall early at 28K the next day, but still eked out a P.R. Relieved. © Desiree Koh

3:54:26 – After two hometown marathons, I yearned for cooler pastures to race, for renewed motivation and new running landscapes, which led to Melbourne Marathon (2009), Dublin Marathon (2010) and Berlin Marathon (2011), at which I set my current P.R.

Runner’s high at the Gravity Bar in Dublin. © Desiree Koh

40 Pints – the amount of Guinness I drank after Dublin Marathon.

The Great Wall Marathon is one of the most ridiculous and insane things I’ve ever done in my life. I highly recommended it.

5,164 Steps, 4,000 Meters of Elevation – Going from destination to devastation race, I completed my first off-road marathon in May this year at Great Wall Marathon, considered one of the world’s five toughest marathons.

While on assignment last month, I had to put in a long run that took me from France (left) to Germany (right) across the Rhine in a matter of 12 miles. I know, it’s tough. © Desiree Koh

747.93 Kilometers In 108 Days – I’ve spent this long training for Amsterdam Marathon, clocking this distance. The best way to enter a race is to not think about it: signing up is pretty much signing in blood, and your next best bet is to draft your training plan and stick to it 95 percent of the time. If motivation to train is flagging, I recommend committing other vital body fluids to the cause, too – aqueous humor always helps keep the bile down. Beyond dedication to training, there are lots to consider as well, and the sooner your race plans are concrete, the more spring in getting out of bed in each morning to train, and in your step once you’re out on the path or track.

For me, it’s squaring away my travel plans, and this year, I used CheapTickets.sg to suss out the possibility of country-hopping from Amsterdam to Scotland or even Scandinavia, finally letting my Luddite self out of that closet where one is trapped with 20 web sites open trying to make the lowest cost flight connections by oneself, and not a single window to leap out of. I learned that with 15 CheapTickets offices around the world from a base in Singapore, I could mix and max carriers (from low-cost to mainstream) to get the best deal from one portal, especially with multi-stop itineraries. After you’ve plugged destinations and dates in, you get a whole menu of options with varieties in schedules and airlines – it’s like super-sizing your savings while asking for more curry ketchup, fried onions and relish with your hot dog (but no mayo, please). Staying in the same spot, I took care of my hotel reservations – all this was completed quicker than what it took to sign up for the marathon (I lost a lot of time at the T-shirt size selection page, possibly the most challenging part of a race – nobody ever gets their race shirt size right). Meeting close to 20 people in Amsterdam for the race, CheapTicket.sg‘s “My Trip” function told everyone where I would and when in just one click. I can run, but I can’t hide.

The most important item in my kit: my Timex Ironman watch, a Christmas gift from my brother in 2008. I have P.R.’d in every marathon since. © Desiree Koh

10,492 Kilometers – Tonight, I’ll be flying this distance to go the distance at the Amsterdam Marathon on Sunday. This above swag(ger?) will be the most important items in my luggage.

2,954 Calories I’ll be filing this energy expense report to run that marathon.

☑ Why I run. (Post-Great Wall Marathon treat.) © Desiree Koh

Cloud 9 – Is the only way I can describe the feeling of crossing the finish line of a marathon.

∞ – And forever. The number of pannekoekens (Dutch pancakes) I’m consuming after the race.