Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (2004)

by Dan Devine

10 September 2004


Tape Machines

It’s about 50 minutes into Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, and Eric Clapton has just summed up the way most of us feel about recording engineers. “To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t interested in people like that,” he admits. “I didn’t realize there was any importance in tape machines.” Mark Moormann’s documentary makes a case for the importance of “tape machines” and behind-the-scenes work. Listeners don’t typically scour liner notes to find out who engineered the records they buy, or give a damn about someone reinventing a mixing board by replacing three-and-a-quarter-inch knobs with sliding faders. But we will watch compelling people communicating their passions, and Moormann could have found no more compelling or passionate subject than Tom Dowd.

A musical wunderkind who started piano and violin lessons at six, before moving on to tuba and string bass in high school, Dowd recorded his first hit (Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d've Baked a Cake”) in 1949. He worked with every major artist ever associated with the Atlantic recording label, including Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s, the Allman Brothers Band, Clapton, and the late Ray Charles.

cover art

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

Director: Mark Moormann
Cast: Tom Dowd, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Ahmet Ertegun, Phil Ramone, Jerry Wexler

(Palm Pictures)
US theatrical: 13 Aug 2004 (Limited release)

Dowd also excelled at mathematics and physics at an early age, and his advanced abilities afforded him entrance into Columbia University, where he worked on the Manhattan Project, a subject submerged here within the larger story of Dowd’s career in music. A subtle juxtaposition shows the connections in his interest: following Dowd’s explanation of his decision not to complete his degree in physics due to the United States government’s refusal to acknowledge the scientific advancements made by the Project, the film cuts to footage of Dowd in the studio, expressing his love for multi-track recording because “we don’t have to make these decisions instantaneously; as long as we have the information stored, we can take some time to decide how to use it.”

At this and other moments, Moormann’s film allows Dowd to tell his own tale, bringing his past to life through his words, his accomplishments, his infectious laugh, and, most importantly, his music. The result is both an enjoyable biography with a sick soundtrack and a strong argument for the importance—both musically and culturally—of sound engineers, producers, and all the other little people whose faces and names never make it onto the front of the record.

This is not to say that the film seeks to indict celebrity per se. Much of the advance press and critical attention garnered by the film is a function of its impressive roster of celebrity cameos, and at a critical juncture in the film, Dowd asserts that the star is the most important part of the recording process and that all other parties involved are there at the star’s service.

However, the movie inverts that relationship, using performance footage and interviews with Dowd’s collaborators, such as Clapton, Charles, Gregg Allman, and Dickey Betts to emphasize his singular talent for eliciting an artist’s finest performance. They pile platitudes on their former producer: Allman notes Dowd’s “way of being a father figure and psychologist” and Skynyrd keyboardist Bill Powell lauds his ability to “get the best out of you without you ever knowing it.” At the same time, Dowd explains how advancements in recording technology (many of which he himself designed and created) enabled him to get the sounds right; predictably, the musicians focus on his amazing ear and his light, instinctive touch on the boards.

Nowhere is that touch more evident than in the film’s most moving scene, in which Dowd dusts off Clapton’s “Layla” (a Derek and the Dominos hit from 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and one of the most memorable songs in the rock canon) for the first time in 30 years and remixes it on camera. He laughs, says he feels like he’s listening to it for the first time, then trains on the song’s signature guitar duet, highlighting the differences between Clapton’s trademark string-bending and Duane Allman’s bottleneck-slide style. He fades the two guitar parts in and out, marveling at the musicians’ individuality and skill, telling us that those notes “aren’t even in the instrument[s]... they’re only in their fingertips.”

As Dowd continues to mix, Moormann displays an instinctive touch of his own, training his lens for what seems an eternity on Dowd’s hands at the board, capturing aged fingers moving deftly across tracks, interpolating sounds and creating a beautiful new take on a rock classic. After hearing legend after legend praise Dowd’s abilities, actually seeing him work is spellbinding. As Dowd puts it, the one thing that remains constant is music’s role as a form of expression. The Language of Music helps us understand that, without Tom Dowd and his like, some of the greatest cultural voices of the last half-century may never have sounded.

Near film’s end, legendary producer Phil Ramone plays off that idea of music as expression, noting that the greatest lesson he learned from Dowd was to step back. “The microphone is there to capture,” Ramone says. “Not to interfere.” At the end of the day, the engineer Dowd’s job was to set up the mics, let the stars shine, and make sure the message was clear. As a documentarian, Moormann set the same task for himself, and his film’s success is evident in the unfolding of Dowd’s live remix. There’s no fanfare, no schmaltz, just a bird’s eye view of a master at work, and while it might not be enough to make us all start scouring liner notes, it’s at least enough to make us reconsider our attitudes toward tape machines and the people who run them.

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